When scientific research verifies or validates something people of faith have long known, we applaud the findings. However, we must still do with scrutiny. A recent case in point is the publication of findings by a University of Michigan research team into the effect of faith in God on those who “lack friends.”
One Christian news outlet led their reporting with this:
“Religious people who lack friends and purpose in life turn to God to fill those voids, according to new University of Michigan research.”
Does that ring true to you? Do you see the disconnect?
People who are in a living relationship with God understand that our primary relationship is with God. In Him, we discover not only whose we are, but who we are. We discover our identity, belonging and purpose – not as a substitute for human relationships, but as the orienting point of life itself.
I am not doubting the research, but I do question the conclusions drawn. The University of Michigan researchers conclude,
“For the socially disconnected, God may serve as a substitute relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide.”
What human relationships would there be without the reality of a personal God who created us in and for a relationship with Himself? The notion that a relationship with God is a substitute for relationships that give people a sense of purpose gets it completely backwards.
Again, look at the words used by researchers in the conclusions drawn:
“People mostly benefit from leveraging religion and turning to God as a friend only when they lack supportive social connections.”
This makes a functional idol of God. Are we only interested in God for what we can get from Him? For the relative benefit? Are we leveraging religion for the what we perceive to be a temporal gain? What kind of friend is a friend who is just using you? No friend I want and I suspect, no friend God wants.
Then there’s this from the co-author Oscar Ybarra, professor of psychology and faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research:
“These results certainly do not suggest that people can or should rely on God over people for purpose. Quality human connections still remain a primary and enduring source of purpose in life.”
This is inside-out and upside-down. While human relationships matter, without a relationship with God, we know not ourselves nor are we genuinely good for others.
So, are you God’s friend?
For those who sing the faith, the power of “What a friend we have in Jesus” stands the test of time. We know from God’s revelation in the Bible that God created human beings for one primary relationship: with God Himself.
Only secondarily are we also in relationship with one another. What this research gets right is that those who are in a relationship with God are not lonely, even when they are alone in terms of human relationships.
What the research gets backwards is the order of those relationships. A relationship with God is not a way of compensating for the lack of human relationships. The relationship with God is actually the primary relationship. Not that we loved God, but that He loves us – not that we call Jesus a friend, but that Jesus calls us friends. Apart from Him, nothing. With Him, everything. That’s a faith which sings with joy, even if as a lone voice crying out in a wilderness full of other people.