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A formidable body of literature suggests that numerous dimensions of religious involvement can facilitate productive coping. One common assumption in this field is that religious worldviews provide overarching frameworks of meaning by which to positively reinterpret stressors. The current study explicitly tests this assumption by examining whether perceived divine control—i.e., the notion that God controls the course and direction of one's life—buffers the adverse effects of recent traumatic life events on one's capacity for positive reappraisal coping. We analyze cross-sectional survey data from Vanderbilt University's Nashville Stress and Health Study (2011–2014), a probability sample of non-Hispanic black and white adults aged 22 to 69 living in Davidson County, Tennessee (n = 1252). Findings from multivariate regression models confirm: (1) there was an inverse association between past-year traumatic life events and positive reappraisals; but (2) perceived divine control significantly attenuated this inverse association. Substantively, our findings suggest that people who believe God controls their life outcomes are better suited for positively reinterpreting traumatic experiences. Implications, limitations, and avenues for future research are discussed.
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religions
Article
Kept in His Care: The Role of Perceived Divine
Control in Positive Reappraisal Coping
Reed T. DeAngelis * and Christopher G. Ellison
College of Liberal and Fine Arts, The University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX 78249, USA;
christopher.ellison@utsa.edu
*Correspondence: reed.deangelis@utsa.edu
Received: 10 June 2017; Accepted: 24 July 2017; Published: 26 July 2017
Abstract:
A formidable body of literature suggests that numerous dimensions of religious involvement
can facilitate productive coping. One common assumption in this field is that religious worldviews
provide overarching frameworks of meaning by which to positively reinterpret stressors. The current
study explicitly tests this assumption by examining whether perceived divine control—i.e., the notion
that God controls the course and direction of one’s life—buffers the adverse effects of recent traumatic
life events on one’s capacity for positive reappraisal coping. We analyze cross-sectional survey data
from Vanderbilt University’s Nashville Stress and Health Study (2011–2014), a probability sample of
non-Hispanic black and white adults aged 22 to 69 living in Davidson County, Tennessee (n= 1252).
Findings from multivariate regression models confirm: (1) there was an inverse association between
past-year traumatic life events and positive reappraisals; but (2) perceived divine control significantly
attenuated this inverse association. Substantively, our findings suggest that people who believe
God controls their life outcomes are better suited for positively reinterpreting traumatic experiences.
Implications, limitations, and avenues for future research are discussed.
Keywords:
trauma; major life events; positive reappraisals; coping; resilience; stress process; religious
involvement; perceived divine control
1. Introduction
Let us greet with a song of hope each day,
Tho’ the moments be cloudy or fair;
Let us trust in our savior always,
Who keepeth everyone in His care.
—Ada Blenkhorn and J. Howard Entwisle, “Keep on the Sunny Side”
A stressor refers to any circumstance that requires a person to fundamentally change their
relationship to their environment—e.g., a major adjustment of lifestyle, behavior, or outlook—thereby
exhausting their capacity for adaptive response (Lazarus and Launier 1978). There are three distinct
types of stressors: (1) acute stressors, or major traumas and life events (e.g., death of a loved one, job
loss); (2) chronic strains (e.g., neighborhood deterioration, disability, financial hardship); and (3) daily
hassles (e.g., rush-hour traffic, speeding ticket) (Turner et al. 1995). Generally speaking, increased stress
exposure tends to erode personal wellbeing. However, different people have proven to be more or less
resilient in the face of stressful conditions (Ryff and Singer 2003). This variation is largely attributable
to the different kinds of coping strategies people use for managing stress (Pearlin and Schooler 1978;
Wheaton 1985;Pearlin 1989).
One common coping strategy is positive reappraisal. Positive reappraisal coping is “the
adaptive process through which stressful events are re-construed as benign, beneficial, and/or
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Religions 2017,8, 133 2 of 15
meaningful” (Garland et al. 2011, p. 60). In the coping literature, this is typically considered a
“secondary” coping strategy (Rothbaum et al. 1982). Secondary coping strategies involve “bringing
oneself in line with the environment” rather than “bringing the environment into line with one’s
wishes” (
Heckhausen and Schulz 1995, p. 285
). Social behavioral scientists have long recognized
the fundamental human need to feel a sense of control over one’s environment (White 1959).
People could hardly function, however, if they relied solely on their capacity for influencing
the external world (i.e., “primary” coping strategies). Human life is often chaotic and replete
with circumstances that occur beyond one’s control. People use secondary control strategies,
such as positive reappraisals, to regulate their emotions in the face of insurmountable hardships
(
Rothbaum et al. 1982
;
Heckhausen and Schulz 1995
). Positive reappraisal coping is an essential
psychological resource that has proven to alleviate much of the damaging effects of stressors on
mental health (
Lazarus and Folkman 1984
). Indeed, positive reappraisal coping is a major catalyst for
posttraumatic growth, or an “experience of significant positive change arising from the struggle with
a major life crisis” (
Calhoun et al. 2000, p. 521
). Thus, one’s capacity to “find the silver lining” can
determine whether traumatic events lead to posttraumatic stress, on the one hand, or socioemotional
growth, on the other (Sears et al. 2003).
Despite making notable strides over the past several decades (Taylor and Stanton 2007), research
on stress and coping has often neglected the role of religion for managing life stressors. Thanks
to the pioneering work of Kenneth Pargament and colleagues, social behavioral scientists are
becoming increasingly aware of religion’s formidable role in the coping process (Pargament 1997;
Ellison and Henderson 2011
;
Koenig et al. 2012
). Studies in this field have shown, for example, that
numerous dimensions of religious involvement can buffer or offset the psychosocial strains of traumatic
life events (Ellison 1991), neighborhood disadvantage (Acevedo et al. 2014;Krause 1998), financial
hardship (Acevedo et al. 2014;Bradshaw and Ellison 2010;Krause 2003), and interpersonal conflicts
such as experiences of discrimination (Bierman 2006;Ellison et al. 2008).
An underlying assumption in this literature, stretching back at least to
Durkheim (Durkheim 2006)
and Berger (1967), is that religion provides people with transcendent frameworks of meaning by which
to positively reinterpret their sufferings (Krause 2011;Galek et al. 2015;Levin 2017). In the words
of Pargament: “Religion generally helps people appreciate what they themselves cannot control.
It highlights the limitations of material goods, personal desires, and individual lives
. . .
[and] offers
a way to come to grips with these limitations through frameworks of belief that go beyond oneself”
(Pargament 1997, p. 8). One common religious belief system centers on God’s role in human affairs,
particularly on notions of divine control—i.e., the perception that “God exerts a commanding authority
over the course and direction of (one’s) life” (Schieman et al. 2006, p. 529). By recent estimates, nearly
83% of U.S. adults are “absolutely” or “fairly” certain God exists (Religious Landscape Study 2014),
and the vast majority of believers tend to view God as an active causal agent who directly affects their
life outcomes (Froese and Bader 2010). Given the prevalence of belief in a providential deity, it is rather
surprising so few studies have examined the role of perceived divine control as a stress-buffering
resource (Schieman and Bierman 2011). Moreover, no study we are aware of has explicitly tested
whether beliefs in divine control could moderate the adverse effects of stressors on one’s capacity for
positive reappraisal coping.
To address these gaps in the literature, our study tests whether perceived divine control moderates
(i.e., buffers) the association between recent traumatic life events and positive reappraisals. In what
follows, we briefly consider how traumatic life events could undermine one’s sense of resilience.
We then discuss why believers in divine control could be more or less adept at positive reappraisal
coping, particularly in the context of overcoming recent traumatic experiences. Following this, we
discuss our data source, methods, and results from multivariate regression models. We close by
considering the implications and limitations of our findings as well as avenues for future research.
Religions 2017,8, 133 3 of 15
2. Background
2.1. Traumatic Life Events, Assumptive Worlds, and Positive Reappraisals
People acquire throughout their lives basic assumptions about the causal nature of the world, and
derive from these assumptions cognitive blueprints or schemas by which to decipher the meaning
of salient events—i.e., “assumptive worlds” (Parkes 1971). Two fundamental assumptions people
hold regard the general benevolence and meaningfulness of the external world (Janoff-Bulman 1989).
Personal experience informs people of the extent to which “the world is a good place and that
misfortune is relatively uncommon” (Janoff-Bulman 1989, p. 118). Most people have a fundamental
need to view the world as just and to believe that people get what they deserve (Lerner 1980). People
are also motivated to view the world as both meaningful and controllable rather than chaotic or
unpredictable. Human beings presumably could not function in an environment where everything
seemed to happen merely by chance (Pearlin and Schooler 1978).
Traumas are devastating because they often strike at the foundations of our worldviews, calling
into question our assumptions about the way the world operates. The events themselves are typically
unexpected and oftentimes unimaginable (Janoff-Bulman 1989). Most people can recall instances
of trauma victims lamenting that they “never imagined such a thing could happen.” People who
have suffered recent traumatic life events should be expected to feel vulnerable in their surroundings.
Any preconceived notions that the world operates in a just and orderly fashion likely have been
contested or even wholly undermined. These persons instead may feel the world is unfair and that
everything is operating beyond their control. Thus, we should expect respondents who report more
recent traumatic life events to feel emotionally disarmed and, consequently, to report a diminished
capacity for positive reappraisals.
2.2. Perceived Divine Control as a Stress-Moderator
Believers in divine control sense that their life has been preordained by God, that both good and
bad life outcomes are part of God’s plan for them, and that they can turn to God for help and guidance
(Schieman et al. 2005,2006;Schieman 2010). Krause (2005,2010) has developed a similar construct
he calls “God-mediated control.” Akin to perceived divine control, Krause’s construct “is based on
the notion that problems can be overcome, and goals in life can be reached by working together with
God” (Krause 2005, p. 137). Perceived divine control constitutes a unique cognitive schema, or set of
religious assumptions regarding the causal nature of the world (McIntosh 1995), that could modulate
experiences of trauma in divergent ways (e.g., (Foley 1988;Pargament et al. 1988)). In what follows,
we will consider both the potential benefits and harms of perceived divine control in the context of
managing traumatic life events.
2.2.1. Potential Benefits: Stress-Buffering Hypothesis
Believers in divine control may be more adept at finding a deeper meaning to traumatic
experiences. For example, believers could reinterpret traumas from an imagined divine perspective
(Wikström 1987) and come to view traumatic events as somehow part of a grand divine narrative
(Pargament and Hahn 1986;Ellison 1991;Schieman and Bierman 2011). They could believe, for
instance, that these events reflect divinely ordained tests or “stumbling blocks” meant to pave the way
for personal growth and spiritual redemption (Foley 1988;Idler 1995). By holding fast to these beliefs,
a person who has experienced recent traumas might be better able to preserve a sense of cosmic order
and justice, and ultimately maintain a positive disposition (Pargament and Hahn 1986). In the coping
literature, this would be considered an interpretive (secondary) control strategy, which has been directly
linked to positive reappraisal coping (Rothbaum et al. 1982, pp. 24–27).
Believers in divine control may also gain vicarious emotional strength through their association
with a perceived omnipotent deity. Indeed, associating with God could have an effect similar to
associating with any other influential concrete social other, such as a supportive family member or
Religions 2017,8, 133 4 of 15
role model (Pollner 1989). In the coping literature, this is considered a vicarious secondary control
strategy, which refers to identifying and aligning oneself with powerful others to “share in their
victories and in their accomplishments—in short, in their control” (Rothbaum et al. 1982, p. 20).
Bandura (2003)
coined the term “partnered divine proxy agency” to conceptualize vicarious secondary
control within a religious/spiritual context. Bandura suggested that divine proxy agency can serve
as “an enabling belief that strengthens a sense of personal efficacy, buffers stress and despondency in
times of difficulties, and buttresses resiliency to adversity” (Bandura 2003, pp. 172–73).
Despite scant empirical findings, a few recent studies support the notion that perceived divine
control could contribute to positive reappraisals and serve as a stress-buffering resource (see also
(Schieman and Bierman 2011;DeAngelis 2017)). A contemporary study by Vishkin et al. (2016)
confirmed that persons who scored high on measures of religiosity (e.g., attendance, religious
salience) reported greater frequencies of using positive reappraisals in survey interviews, and also
proved to be more efficient at positive reappraisal coping in experimental settings. Another recent
clinical study among women diagnosed with breast cancer showed that the women who believed in
divine control displayed greater efficiency at positive reappraisal coping, as well as less behavioral
disengagement (i.e., “giving up trying to deal with” their disease) (Umezawa et al. 2012). On a related
note, a longitudinal study by Krause (2009) found that belief in God-mediated control predicted greater
feelings of gratitude, and that feelings of gratitude buffered against the long-term effects of chronic
financial strain on depressive symptoms.
2.2.2. Potential Harms: Stress-Exacerbating Hypothesis
Recent evidence suggests that the stress-moderating effects of perceived divine control are likely
contingent on one’s ideas about the nature of God (Froese and Bader 2010;Stroope et al. 2013). Indeed,
people who view God as harsh or judgmental tend to report greater depression and anxiety, especially
when confronting stressful life events (Bradshaw et al. 2008,
2010
). Some believers might interpret
traumatic life events as God punishing them for sins (Ellis 1960), which may cause them to grow
hopeless and to feel that their only recourse is to resign to “God’s Will” (Pargament et al. 1988;
Foley 1988
). Believers also might find it difficult to reconcile the coexistence of an all-knowing and
all-loving deity with their own sufferings, and grow resentful toward God for allowing or even causing
such terrible events to happen to them (Exline 2002;Pargament 2002). In either case, believers might
become more cynical and disillusioned after confronting trauma. They could feel that the world,
though under divine control, is unjust and that their life ultimately is in the hands of a capricious deity.
Viewed from this perspective, beliefs in divine control may exacerbate the adverse effects of recent
traumatic life events on one’s capacity for positive reappraisal coping (e.g., (Krause and Wulff 2004;
Ellison and Lee 2010)).
3. Summary of Hypotheses
Our research hypotheses can be framed within a stress-process conceptual scheme (Pearlin 1989;
Ellison and Henderson 2011). Accordingly, traumatic life events are acute stressors that fragment one’s
fundamental assumptions about the benevolence and meaningfulness of the external world. This in
turn should weaken one’s capacity for positive reappraisal coping. Perceived divine control should
then serve as a psychosocial resource that either attenuates (i.e., stress-buffering hypothesis) or amplifies
(i.e., stress-exacerbating hypothesis) the damaging effects of traumatic life events on one’s capacity for
positive reappraisal coping (see Figure 1below).
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Religions 2017, 8, 133 5 of 15
Figure 1. Stress-moderating conceptual model.
4. Methods
4.1. Data
Data originate from Vanderbilt University’s Nashville Stress and Health Study (NSAHS), a
probability sample of non-Hispanic black and white women and men aged 22 to 69 living in
Davidson County, Tennessee (http://www.vanderbilt.edu/stressandhealthstudy). The primary
research objective of the NSAHS was to investigate health differentials rooted in racial and
socioeconomic disparities. The NSAHS survey included items measuring family background,
psychosocial stressors, physical and mental health outcomes, and religious engagement, to name a
few. The NSAHS surveyed 1252 adults living in a random sample of 199 block groups stratified by
the percentage of African Americans assumed to live therein according to 2010 Census data. The
sampling frame consisted of 2400 randomly sampled households, and 2065 eventually were
contacted to participate in the study. Nearly 61% of the 2065 contacted households participated in
the study. The interviews were computer-assisted and typically lasted three hours. Interviews were
conducted either in the respondent’s home or on Vanderbilt University campus. Trained interviewers
conducted the interviews and were matched to respondents based on race. Respondents were offered
$50 to participate in the survey interview. Data were collected between 2011 and 2014.
4.2. Measures
4.2.1. Positive Reappraisals
Our measure of positive reappraisals originates from the positive reappraisal subscale of the
Measurement Instrument for Primary and Secondary Control Strategies (Wrosch et al. 2000).
Respondents answered how much they believed the following statements described them as a
person: (1) “I find I usually learn something meaningful from a difficult situation”; (2) “When I am
faced with a bad situation, it helps to find a different way of looking at things”; (3) “Even when
everything seems to be going wrong, I can usually find a bright side to the situation”; and (4) “I can
find something positive, even in the worst situations”. Response categories ranged from 1 = “not at
all” to 4 = “a lot”. We averaged the items to create a mean index of positive reappraisals (α = 0.74).
1
1
Some scholars have chosen to distinguish between frequency versus efficacy of using positive reappraisal
coping (e.g., (McRae 2013)). To clarify, our measure gauges one’s capacity or efficacy of using positive
reappraisal coping, rather than the frequency at which one uses positive reappraisal coping. This distinction
is important because we might reasonably expect respondents who have experienced more recent traumatic
life events to report a greater frequency of using positive reappraisal coping. Our stress process conceptual
model basically assumes that traumatic life events should undermine one’s positive reappraisal coping skills,
or ability to effectively use positive reappraisal coping for regulating negative emotions.
Figure 1. Stress-moderating conceptual model.
4. Methods
4.1. Data
Data originate from Vanderbilt University’s Nashville Stress and Health Study (NSAHS),
a probability sample of non-Hispanic black and white women and men aged 22 to 69 living in Davidson
County, Tennessee (http://www.vanderbilt.edu/stressandhealthstudy). The primary research
objective of the NSAHS was to investigate health differentials rooted in racial and socioeconomic
disparities. The NSAHS survey included items measuring family background, psychosocial stressors,
physical and mental health outcomes, and religious engagement, to name a few. The NSAHS surveyed
1252 adults living in a random sample of 199 block groups stratified by the percentage of African
Americans assumed to live therein according to 2010 Census data. The sampling frame consisted
of 2400 randomly sampled households, and 2065 eventually were contacted to participate in the
study. Nearly 61% of the 2065 contacted households participated in the study. The interviews
were computer-assisted and typically lasted three hours. Interviews were conducted either in the
respondent’s home or on Vanderbilt University campus. Trained interviewers conducted the interviews
and were matched to respondents based on race. Respondents were offered $50 to participate in the
survey interview. Data were collected between 2011 and 2014.
4.2. Measures
4.2.1. Positive Reappraisals
Our measure of positive reappraisals originates from the positive reappraisal subscale of
the Measurement Instrument for Primary and Secondary Control Strategies (Wrosch et al. 2000).
Respondents answered how much they believed the following statements described them as a person:
(1) “I find I usually learn something meaningful from a difficult situation”; (2) “When I am faced with
a bad situation, it helps to find a different way of looking at things”; (3) “Even when everything seems
to be going wrong, I can usually find a bright side to the situation”; and (4) “I can find something
positive, even in the worst situations”. Response categories ranged from 1 = “not at all” to 4 = “a lot”.
We averaged the items to create a mean index of positive reappraisals (α= 0.74).1
1
Some scholars have chosen to distinguish between frequency versus efficacy of using positive reappraisal coping
(e.g., (
McRae 2013
)). To clarify, our measure gauges one’s capacity or efficacy of using positive reappraisal coping, rather
than the frequency at which one uses positive reappraisal coping. This distinction is important because we might reasonably
expect respondents who have experienced more recent traumatic life events to report a greater frequency of using positive
reappraisal coping. Our stress process conceptual model basically assumes that traumatic life events should undermine one’s
positive reappraisal coping skills, or ability to effectively use positive reappraisal coping for regulating negative emotions.
Religions 2017,8, 133 6 of 15
4.2.2. Past-Year Traumatic Life Events
Respondents were given a list of thirty-two traumatic events that could have happened to them
in the past year. These events included a serious illness, bereavement, trouble with the law, marital
separation or divorce, physical assault, major financial crisis, robbery or break-in, and unwanted
pregnancy, among other events. We added together yes/no responses to create a checklist inventory of
past-year traumatic life events. Only 4% of respondents reported more than six events, so we collapsed
these respondents together into a category of “six or more” events.
4.2.3. Perceived Divine Control
We measured perceived divine control with the following four survey items (Schieman et al. 2005,
2006): (1) “I decide what to do without relying on God” (reverse-coded); (2) “When good or bad
things happen, I see it as part of God’s plan for me”; (3) “God has decided what my life shall be”;
and (4) “I depend on God for help and guidance”. Response categories ranged from 1 = “strongly
disagree” to 4 = “strongly agree”. I averaged the items to create a mean index of perceived divine
control (α= 0.83).
4.2.4. Religious Covariates
Religious involvement is a multidimensional phenomenon that can be gauged with a number
of distinct survey measures (Idler et al. 2003). To better isolate the unique contribution of perceived
divine control, our models also controlled for single-item measures of religious attendance, prayer,
religious/spiritual coping, and religious social support. Religious attendance was measured by
asking respondents, “Which of the following best describes how often you attend services at a
church/temple/synagogue/mosque?”. Response categories ranged from 0 = “never” to 6 = “weekly
or more”. Frequency of prayer was measured by asking respondents, “About how often do you
pray?”. Response categories ranged from 1 = “never” to 6 = “several times a day”. Our measure of
religious/spiritual coping asked respondents, “How often do you turn to your religion or your spiritual
beliefs to help you deal with your daily problems?”. Response categories ranged from 1 = “never” to
5 = “always”. Finally, we measured religious social support with a single item that asked, “How often do
people in your church (place of worship) help you out?”. Response categories ranged from 1 = “never”
to 4 = “very often”.
4.2.5. Social Resources
Another concern is whether one’s perceived relations with God are uniquely religious or instead
merely reflect concrete relations with significant social others (e.g., (Spilka et al. 1975;Pollner 1989;
Acevedo et al. 2014)). To rule out this possibility, we also controlled for indexes of family cohesion
and friend support. Family cohesion was measured with the following six items: (1) “Family members
respect one another”; (2) “You share similar values and beliefs as a family”; (3) “You and your family
really do trust and confide in each other”; (4) “Family members feel loyal to the family”; (5) “You are
proud of your family”; and (6) “You can express your feelings with your family”. Response categories
ranged from 1 = “strongly disagree” to 4 = “strongly agree”. We averaged the items to create a mean
index of family cohesion (
α
= 0.90). Our index of friend support consisted of eight items measuring the
extent to which respondents felt close with their friends and could anticipate their friends providing
socioemotional support when needed (α= 0.95).
4.2.6. Socio-Demographics
Models controlled for age (in years), gender (female = 1, male = 0), race/ethnicity (black = 1,
non-Hispanic white = 0), marital status (1 = married, 0 = not married), education (years corresponding
with highest degree earned), employment status (1 = employed full-time, 0 = unemployed/employed
Religions 2017,8, 133 7 of 15
part-time), and household income (ordinal, 0 = under $5000 or less...15 = $135,000 and above). Weighted
descriptive statistics of study variables are displayed below in Table 1.
Table 1. Weighted descriptive statistics (NSAHS, 2011–2014).
Range Mean (%) SD α
Focal Variables
Positive reappraisals 1–3 2.03 0.78 0.74
Past-year traumatic life events 0–6 2.07 1.78
Perceived divine control 1–4 2.92 0.80 0.83
Religious Covariates
Religious attendance 0–6 3.03 2.24
Prayer 1–6 4.39 1.65
Religious/spiritual coping 1–5 3.69 1.29
Religious social support 1–4 1.80 0.99
Social Resources
Family cohesion 1–4 3.18 0.67 0.90
Friend support 1–4 3.33 0.74 0.95
Socio-demographics
Age 22–69 44.32 11.72
Female 0–1 (52)
Male (reference) 0–1 (48)
Black 0–1 (28)
Non-Hispanic white (reference) 0–1 (72)
Married 0–1 (57)
Not married (reference) 0–1 (43)
Education (in years) 0–28 14.49 3.02
Employed full-time 0–1 (63)
Unemployed/employed part-time (reference) 0–1 (37)
Household income 0–15 8.88 3.97
Note: NSAHS = Nashville Stress and Health Study (n= 1252).
4.3. Analytic Strategy
We used Stata 13 for all statistical analyses. Our positive reappraisals index was negatively
skewed and leptokurtic, with 23% of respondents scoring the maximum value (=4), and violated
assumptions of ordinary least squares (OLS) regression (i.e., homoscedasticity and normality of
residuals). We attempted several different types of transformations in accordance with Tukey’s ladder
of powers test (Stata’s “ladder” command), but neither of these transformations corrected the issue.
We decided to collapse the index into three ordered categories—representing “low,” “medium”, and
“high” levels of positive reappraisals—and estimated ordered logistic regression models. We confirmed
our ordered logit models did not violate the proportional odds assumption (Stata’s “brant” test).
To allow generalizability to Davidson County’s population of non-Hispanic black and white
adults, we adjusted all models for probability weighting and cluster sampling by block group (Stata’s
“cluster” command). To test our stress-moderating hypotheses, we created a two-way interaction
term between past-year traumatic life events and perceived divine control. We mean-centered both
variables before creating the interaction term to help reduce multicollinearity between the interaction
term and lower-order coefficients (Aiken et al. 1991). We also visually depicted our interaction term as
a predicted probability graph (Figure 2). This figure displays the probability of respondents scoring in
the top two categories of positive reappraisals (y-axis) as a function of past-year traumatic life events
(x-axis) and perceived divine control. Finally, the following variables had missing values: religious
attendance (n= 1), prayer (n= 2), religious social support (n= 1), friend support (n= 4), and household
income (n= 31). For all analyses, we replaced these missing values with five iterations of multiple
imputation by chained equation (White et al. 2011).
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5. Results
Table 2reports logit coefficients from ordered logistic regression models estimating increased
positive reappraisals. Model 1 of Table 2shows net associations between the independent variables
and positive reappraisals. First, past-year traumatic life events were inversely associated with positive
reappraisals, net of all control variables (p< 0.01). In more detail, the odds of respondents reporting
increased positive reappraisals diminished by a factor of 0.94 or 6% for each additional traumatic life
event reported (odds ratio (OR) = e
(0.062)
= 0.94). This finding supports our hypothesis that traumatic
experiences would erode one’s ability to find meaning and purpose in adversity.
Model 2 of Table 2tested an interaction term between traumatic life events and perceived divine
control. This interaction coefficient was both positive and statistically significant (p< 0.05), indicating
that perceived divine control attenuated the inverse association between past-year traumatic life events
and positive reappraisals. In other words, respondents who experienced recent traumatic life events
reported greater odds of increased positive reappraisals as a function of belief in divine control.
Moreover, this moderating pattern remained statistically significant even after controlling for religious
covariates and social resources in Models 3 and 4.
Table 2.
Logit coefficients from ordered logistic regression models estimating increased positive
reappraisals (n= 1252).
(1) (2) (3) (4)
Focal Associations
Past-year traumatic life events 0.062 ** 0.052 ** 0.062 ** 0.054 **
Perceived divine control 0.461 ** 0.467 ** 0.203 0.203
Life events ×Divine control 0.104 * 0.098 * 0.087 *
Religious Covariates
Religious attendance 0.086 0.089
Prayer 0.071 0.058
Religious/spiritual coping 0.256 *** 0.294 ***
Religious social support 0.056 0.010
Social Resources
Family cohesion 0.163 *
Friend support 0.454 ***
Socio-demographics
Age 0.006 0.007 0.010 0.009
Female 0.068 0.058 0.019 0.129
Black 0.012 0.006 0.012 0.028
Married 0.220 0.219 0.245 * 0.236 **
Education 0.001 0.001 0.007 0.019
Employed full-time 0.041 0.041 0.030 0.020
Household income 0.073 * 0.073 * 0.086 ** 0.070 *
Note: Models adjust for probability weighting and cluster sampling by block group. * p< 0.05; ** p< 0.01; *** p< 0.001
(two-tailed).
Figure 2provides a clearer interpretation of this moderating pattern. Those who reported average
or below average levels of perceived divine control reported a diminished capacity for positive
reappraisal coping as a function of recent traumas. On the other hand, respondents who scored one
standard deviation above the mean on perceived divine control did not waver in their aptitude for
positive reappraisal coping, regardless of the number of traumatic life events reported. These findings
suggest that perceived divine control served for respondents as a significant source of resilience over
and above other dimensions of religious involvement, and regardless of salutary relations with friends
and family.
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Religions 2017, 8, 133 9 of 15
Figure 2. Traumatic life events × divine control on positive reappraisal coping.
Some direct associations are worth briefly considering. For one, our single-item measure of
religious/spiritual coping was associated with increased positive reappraisals (p < 0.001).
Unfortunately, we lack a clear understanding of this association since our measure did not delineate
between different kinds of religious/spiritual beliefs and coping styles (e.g., (Pargament et al. 1988,
1998)). This finding nevertheless corroborates Pargament and colleagues’ (Pargament et al. 1998)
aforementioned study, which showed that participants were more likely to apply their
religious/spiritual beliefs toward positive (rather than negative) reappraisals of stressors. Perceived
divine control, on the other hand, did not directly associate with positive reappraisals after we
accounted for religious/spiritual coping in Model 3. This suggests that perceptions of divine control
are particularly helpful for managing traumas that challenge one’s fundamental understanding of
the world. We develop this line of reasoning in more detail below.
6. Discussion and Conclusions
The current study contributes to a substantial body of literature on stress and coping by
highlighting an overlooked psychological resource: positive reappraisals. Although a number of
previous studies have investigated the mediating and moderating effects of positive reappraisal
coping on other dimensions of mental health (e.g., (Garnefski et al. 2002, 2004)), less attention has
been paid to positive reappraisals as an outcome of stress. Our study also contributes to religion-health
literature by being one of few studies to test the stress-buffering effects of perceived divine control
(Schieman and Bierman 2011; DeAngelis 2017). Findings from multivariate regression models
confirmed: (1) there was a significant inverse association between past-year traumatic life events and
positive reappraisals; but (2) perceived divine control attenuated this inverse association.
Substantively, our findings show that respondents who believed God controlled their life outcomes
were better suited for positively reinterpreting traumatic experiences.
Philosophers and theologians have long noted the primary role of religion in dealing with
“matters of ultimate concern” (Tillich 1957). Religious traditions are unique in their claim to provide
answers to perennial questions of human origin and purpose (Pargament 1997; Krause 2011). Among
the various concerns that religious traditions grapple with is the question of why human life is
plagued with seemingly gratuitous suffering (Frances 2013). Within the major monotheistic faiths
like Christianity and Islam, a common rationalization for human suffering is that God allows (or even
causes) pain and suffering for a transcendent purpose. For example, some have argued that human
suffering facilitates the exercise and development of human free will (Plantinga 1974), and even
purifies the human soul in preparation for eternal salvation (Frances 2013, pp. 124–27). In addition to
providing a justification for suffering, notions of divine control project an eternal moral order over
Figure 2. Traumatic life events ×divine control on positive reappraisal coping.
Some direct associations are worth briefly considering. For one, our single-item measure of
religious/spiritual coping was associated with increased positive reappraisals (p< 0.001). Unfortunately,
we lack a clear understanding of this association since our measure did not delineate between different
kinds of religious/spiritual beliefs and coping styles (e.g., (
Pargament et al. 1988,1998
)). This finding
nevertheless corroborates Pargament and colleagues’ (Pargament et al. 1998) aforementioned study,
which showed that participants were more likely to apply their religious/spiritual beliefs toward
positive (rather than negative) reappraisals of stressors. Perceived divine control, on the other hand,
did not directly associate with positive reappraisals after we accounted for religious/spiritual coping in
Model 3. This suggests that perceptions of divine control are particularly helpful for managing traumas
that challenge one’s fundamental understanding of the world. We develop this line of reasoning in
more detail below.
6. Discussion and Conclusions
The current study contributes to a substantial body of literature on stress and coping by
highlighting an overlooked psychological resource: positive reappraisals. Although a number of
previous studies have investigated the mediating and moderating effects of positive reappraisal
coping on other dimensions of mental health (e.g., (Garnefski et al. 2002,2004)), less attention
has been paid to positive reappraisals as an outcome of stress. Our study also contributes to
religion-health literature by being one of few studies to test the stress-buffering effects of perceived
divine control (
Schieman and Bierman 2011
;DeAngelis 2017). Findings from multivariate regression
models confirmed: (1) there was a significant inverse association between past-year traumatic life
events and positive reappraisals; but (2) perceived divine control attenuated this inverse association.
Substantively, our findings show that respondents who believed God controlled their life outcomes
were better suited for positively reinterpreting traumatic experiences.
Philosophers and theologians have long noted the primary role of religion in dealing with “matters
of ultimate concern” (Tillich 1957). Religious traditions are unique in their claim to provide answers to
perennial questions of human origin and purpose (Pargament 1997;Krause 2011). Among the various
concerns that religious traditions grapple with is the question of why human life is plagued with
seemingly gratuitous suffering (Frances 2013). Within the major monotheistic faiths like Christianity
and Islam, a common rationalization for human suffering is that God allows (or even causes) pain and
suffering for a transcendent purpose. For example, some have argued that human suffering facilitates
Religions 2017,8, 133 10 of 15
the exercise and development of human free will (Plantinga 1974), and even purifies the human soul
in preparation for eternal salvation (Frances 2013, pp. 124–27). In addition to providing a justification
for suffering, notions of divine control project an eternal moral order over and above empirical reality
(Berger 1967). Hebrews 4:13 reminds the faithful that “nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s
sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
Under the watchful eye of providence, every worldly event is imbued with transcendent meaning and
purpose, and most every human act has eternal ramifications (Norenzayan 2013).
Earlier, we gave reasons for why we should have expected beliefs in divine control to buffer
against traumatic life experiences. As previously discussed, traumatic life events are taxing to the
extent that they violate our fundamental assumptions of reality and leave us emotionally vulnerable
(Janoff-Bulman 1989). We suggested perceptions of divine control would facilitate both interpretive and
vicarious secondary control (e.g., (Rothbaum et al. 1982)), which would enable positive reappraisals
of traumatic events; but more can still be said about the fundamental nature of perceived divine
control, and why these perceptions are particularly beneficial for coping with trauma. Indeed, ancillary
analyses confirmed that none of our measures of social and economic resources—e.g., family cohesion,
friend support, being married, household income—buffered against recent traumatic life experiences
(data available upon request). How might we explain this?
Proponents of terror management theory argue that “an especially important function of
religious beliefs is to quell the potentially overwhelming terror that results from human awareness
of death” (
Vail et al. 2010, p. 85
). A handful of experimental studies have demonstrated that
turning to one’s religious beliefs can help mitigate the psychological strains of mortality awareness
(
Jonas and Fischer 2006
;Vail et al. 2010). We obviously have no way of knowing whether recent
traumatic experiences made respondents in our study more aware of their own deaths. At the very least,
however, we can reasonably assume that these respondents felt increasingly vulnerable and unable to
comprehend what had happened to them. In this regard, experiences of trauma may have provoked
an equally terrifying feeling of anomia, or sense of normative incoherence and meaninglessness
(Brashears 2010). Thus, God could have served as a much-needed secure attachment figure and source
of existential security (Granqvist et al. 2010).
Moreover, recent developments in experimental psychology suggest that attributing unthinkable
circumstances to an imagined divine agent can considerably reduce the cognitive load required
for adaptive coping (Gray and Wegner 2010;Kay et al. 2008,2010). For one, consider that your
average quotidian hassle usually has distinct parameters that leave little room for interpretation—or
reinterpretation, for that matter. You are driving during rush-hour and another driver cuts you off
at an intersection. In this scenario, there is a clear-cut dyadic relationship: you are the victim and
the other driver is the responsible agent. If you are a religious person then you might recall certain
saintly virtues, like patience or compassion for the plight of others, which may help you cope with this
fleeting nuisance. What is less clear is how attributions to divine agency would help you positively
reinterpret the stress of rush-hour traffic.
Instead, attributions to divine agency appear to be most adaptive for coping with distressing
circumstances that lack a discernible causal agent (Kay et al. 2010). Put another way, God seems
to serve for most believers as a “god of the moral gaps”, or a perceived supernatural agent to
whom one can attribute responsibility for stressful events lacking apparent naturalistic causes
(
Gray and Wegner 2010
). Imagine someone close to you, maybe a spouse or child, who unexpectedly
dies of an aneurysm despite otherwise perfect health. If you were a believer in divine control, you
could attribute the aneurysm to the “Will of God” and somehow convince yourself the death was not
in vain, but rather an instance of “God working in mysterious ways”. Even though your loved one
would still be gone, you could rest assured he or she is now in a better place with God. Your basic
assumptions of the benevolence and meaningfulness of the universe, though challenged, remain intact
(e.g., (Pargament and Hahn 1986)). This might help explain why believers in our sample were more
adept at positive reappraisal coping despite confronting a number of recent traumatic experiences.
Religions 2017,8, 133 11 of 15
Perceptions of divine control likely helped these respondents imbue seemingly gratuitous traumas, or
what sociologist Berger (1967) referred to as “boundary experiences”, with a semblance of meaning
and order.
We should at this point acknowledge some limitations of the current study. First, the NSAHS data
are cross-sectional and do not provide temporal ordering between our independent and dependent
variables. Although it seems unlikely that respondents with a diminished capacity for positive
reappraisal coping would somehow retrospectively overestimate recent traumatic experiences, future
work may benefit from using panel data. The NSAHS sample was also limited to non-Hispanic blacks
and whites living in Nashville, so we cannot generalize beyond this population. Future work should
test the stress-buffering role of perceived divine control using national and cross-national data, or
other community samples representing different racial/ethnic groups. Our data was also limited
to self-reports, which is a typical limitation of most any survey study. This could be considered
a limitation for at least two reasons. First, firm believers in divine control may be more likely to
want to manage positive impressions for interviewers. Second, believers might also be more inclined
to want to convince themselves they are the types of people who “always look on the bright side”
(
Swann and Buhrmester 2012
). Admitting to themselves and interviewers—or, most importantly,
God—that adverse life events undermined their ability to stay positive could have led to feelings
of guilt or shame. Future studies could bypass this potential bias by using experimental methods
(e.g., (
Vishkin et al. 2016
)), or by measuring relevant biomarker outcomes (e.g. blood pressure, cortisol,
epinephrine, norepinephrine) instead of self-reported mental states (e.g., (Hill et al. 2014,2016,2017)).
To extend the current line of work, researchers could investigate subgroup variations
of the stress-buffering effects of perceived divine control. For example, there is reason to
assume beliefs in divine control will provide greater psychosocial benefits among minority ethnic
groups (
Schieman et al. 2006
;
Krause and Bastida 2011
) and for undereducated persons (
Pollner 1989
;
Ellison 1991
;
Schieman 2008
;
Ellison et al. 2014
). Another promising avenue of research could be
to investigate how specific beliefs about the nature of God and the afterlife buffer against trauma
(e.g., (Ellison et al. 2001;Ellison et al. 2009)). As mentioned earlier, we might expect persons who
believe God is compassionate and forgiving to be more resilient in the face of trauma compared to those
who view God as harsh or judgmental (Bradshaw et al. 2008). We might also expect that people who
fear hell or any other form of divine punishment will interpret stressful life events as significantly more
ominous and suffer even greater distress as a result (Foley 1988;Exline et al. 2000;Flannelly 2017).
Despite some limitations, our study has contributed to literature on religion and coping in a
number of ways. For one, the current study is among only a few studies that have examined positive
reappraisals as an outcome of stress. This study is also one of few studies to test the stress-buffering
role of perceived divine control, particularly as a means to reinterpret trauma. Toward this end, our
study provides further theoretical and empirical rationale for including measures of perceived divine
control in stress process research. We hope this study stimulates future research into the diverse ways
people use their religious or spiritual beliefs to cope with uncontrollable life circumstances.
Author Contributions:
Reed T. DeAngelis initially conceptualized the study, conducted the statistical data
analyses, and wrote a first draft of the manuscript. Christopher G. Ellison helped with the conceptualization of
the study and made revisions to earlier drafts of the manuscript.
Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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... Beberapa bentuk VOS yang berdasarkan kepercayaan bahwa Tuhan yang memegang kendali dan memiliki rencana dalam kehidupan manusia akan lebih bermanfaat bagi individu ketika diperhadapkan dengan sumber tekanan yang tidak dapat distribusikan pada pihak tertentu. Ketika manusia dihadapkan dengan situasi yang tidak dapat dijelaskan secara rasional atau karena pihak tertentu (contoh: kematian yang mendadak) keyakinan bahwa kejadian tersebut merupakan rencana Tuhan dapat memberikan ketenangan dan pemaknaan yang lebih positif terhadap situasi tersebut (DeAngelis & Ellison, 2017). Namun, sumber tekanan yang dihadapi dalam pekerjaan pemuka agama seperti pekerjaan yang menumpuk, waktu, rekan kerja, keadaan finansial, tanggung jawab atas keputusan pribadi, dan lingkungan kerja mungkin dapat dijelaskan secara rasional. ...
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Pekerjaan sebagai seorang pemuka agama dapat menimbulkan stres kerja (occupational stress) secara negatif (occupational distress) atau positif (occupational eustress). Jenis stres yang dialami oleh pemuka agama bergantung pada pemaknaan pemuka agama terhadap stressor yang dihadapi. Views of suffering (VOS) dapat menjadi salah satu aspek yang digunakan untuk memaknai stressor pekerjaan yang dihadapinya. Penelitian ini bertujuan untuk melihat hubungan antara VOS dengan occupational stress. Views of Suffering Scale (VOSS) dan Valencia Eustress-Distress Appraisal Scale (VEDAS) diadministrasikan kepada 108 pemuka agama dari enam agama resmi di Indonesia. Data dianalisa dengan menggunakan korelasi Pearson. Hasil penelitian ini menunjukkan adanya hubungan positif signifikan antara VOS overcoming dengan occupational distress. Bentuk VOS unorthodox dan limited knowledge memiliki hubungan positif signifikan dengan occupational eustress. Sedangkan bentuk VOS divine responsibility, random, encounter, retribution, suffering God, soul building, dan providence tidak memiliki hubungan signifikan dengan occupational distress maupun eustress. Hasil ini menandakan pandangan yang memposisikan individu berperan aktif dan memiliki kontrol dalam kesulitan cenderung mendorong stres kerja yang bermanfaat bagi pemuka agama
... Partners might be entrusting their problems to God but are simultaneously neglecting their partner and the problems in their relationship. Spirituality can serve as an individual coping strategy (DeAngelis and Ellison 2017;Howell et al. 2018;Manning et al. 2019) that allows one partner to better manage their own stress. Religious women, who hold the conviction that marriage is indissoluble and that there is a sense of obligation to remain in it, may paradoxically aim less to express their emotions and needs and to solve problems together with their partners; instead, they try more to deal with emerging difficulties on their own as they see this as their duty. ...
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... Besides, PR and acceptance are associated with the highest levels of coping with cancer [4,11,12]. Factors such as religious coping and spirituality, meaning-based tasks, and social support have also had a positive and direct effect on PR [13][14][15][16]. Challenging core beliefs, social support, and active coping styles also directly affect PTG, and behavioral disengagement, denial, and self-blame have been directly and negatively associated with PTG [4,11,17]. ...
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... I also consider two coping behaviors that could moderate the health effects of childrearing stressors: private prayer and smoking. Perceived relations with God have been shown to promote emotional catharsis and a vicarious sense of agency (Krause, 2005;Sharp, 2010), especially within the context of coping with chronic psychosocial stressors (DeAngelis 2018;DeAngelis & Ellison, 2017, 2018. Similar studies have also shown that engaging in regular contemplative practices, such as mindfulness meditation, can slow rates of cellular aging (Epel et al., 2009). ...
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The past three decades have seen remarkable growth in the study of religion and psychological well-being in the general population and especially among older adults (Koenig, McCullough, and Larson 2001). For the most part, the literature reports salutary associations, suggesting that facets of religious involvement promote mental health (George, Ellison, and Larson 2002; Schieman, Bierman, and Ellison, 2012; Smith, McCullough, and Poll 2003). Much of this research has focused on the role of organizational religious involvement (service attendance, congregational activities), nonorganizational practices (prayer, meditation), and religious motivations (intrinsic vs. extrinsic; Hill and Pargament 2003). Recent work has moved decisively past these generic measures of religiousness by examining religious coping styles (Pargament 1997), congregational support (Krause 2008), and personal experiences with God (sense of divine control, closeness to God; Bradshaw, Ellison, and Marcum 2010; Schieman et al. 2006). At the same time, some observers have noted the detrimental effects of spiritual struggles, such as troubled relationships with God and religious doubts (Ellison and Lee 2010; Pargament 2002). Although most of this work has examined the direct effects of religiousness on mental health, investigators have also explored subgroup variations. Religion appears to be particularly beneficial for certain segments of the population, including (a) persons experiencing chronic or acute stress (Smith et al. 2003), (b) men (McFarland 2010), and (c) African Americans (Black 1999; Krause 2008). Especially important for the current research is the consistent finding that religion is related to health and well-being among older adults (Koenig 1994a; Dillon and Wink 2007).