Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good."
-Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
Spending quality time with God appears to make benevolent love possible for many Americans, new research indicates.
We may be biologically hard-wired to worship at the altars of consumerism this holiday season, buying gifts with expectations of what we will receive in return, but those people who say they regularly experience the love of God are much more likely to reach out beyond family and friends to serve humanity, according to a national survey of more than 1,200 adults.
The Godly Love National Survey, led by researchers at the University of Akron and the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, found people who most often reported feeling God's love were more than twice as likely as the average American to give time to those in need more than once a week.
Would-be Grinches beware. Heeding Advent pleas to take time out for spiritual reflection also were associated with a better outlook on life. Individuals who reported experiencing God's love more than once a day were far more likely to say they have a strong meaning and purpose in life and to both find "great joy" in helping others and to recognize the "great kindness" other people have shown to them.
Justice Holmes appears to have gotten it wrong in associating heavenly conversation with earthly neglect, according to sociologist Matthew Lee of the University of Akron, a study leader.
"Spending time with a loving God will refresh a person and make them more effective in dealing with the challenges they face, and the challenges of helping other people," he said.
Roots of compassion
Not everyone is going to be a Mother Teresa or a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lee, Margaret Poloma and Stephen G. Post say in their new book, "The Heart of Religion." The book shares the findings of the 2009 Godly Love National Survey, along with related research including interviews with more than 100 people of faith they considered exemplars of service to others.
But a lot of people are trying hard to find the spiritual strength to serve others, the authors said. Their research, funded by The John Templeton Foundation, showed that there are tens of millions of Americans who say they experience God's love regularly, and for many that experiences leads to acts of compassion and service.
More than four in five respondents said they experience God's love at least "once in a while;" a similar number said they felt God's love increasing their compassion for others.
The more frequently individuals said they experienced God's love, the more they appeared to embrace the need to give to others beyond their immediate circle of friends and family.
Consider these findings:
• Three-quarters of respondents said they gave their time to help others. That percentage rose to 93 percent among people who said they experienced God's love more than once a day, but fell to 62 percent among people who said they did not directly experience God's love. Those with high experiences of divine love were also the most faithful volunteers, with 41 percent giving time more than once a week, compared with 20 percent of others in the survey.
• Eighty-four percent of the people who most frequently experienced God's love reported giving money to help others, compared with 58 percent of those who did not have such experiences. Overall, 73 percent reported giving money.
• When asked whether all people share an unbreakable bond of humanity, a strong predictor of benevolence, a third of people who experience God's love often strongly agreed, compared with 17 percent of the total sample and 14 percent of those who did not experience such love.
Heart of Religion
Talking to God is not always easy.
One of the exemplars in "The Heart of Religion" was a man named Alex, who, following the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, took a drug addict into his home. The addict raped his 4-year-old daughter, who suffered from night terrors so severe her screaming woke the family every night for a year.
The long dialogues with God that followed, Alex said, gave him a sense that a divine power was beside he and his daughter in their time of suffering. As he prayed for understanding, Alex also said he perceived God asking him in turn, "Will you still love the poor?"
The divine love survey found that the 30 percent of respondents who said they felt anger toward God at least occasionally were also among those most likely to report frequently experiencing the love of God.
Yet it is this deeper experience of God's love -- in a prayer life that enables participants to engage in an intimate conversation that permits anger and questioning -- that seems to enable many people to cope not only with their own suffering, but to be sensitized to the need to alleviate the pain of others, according to Lee, Poloma and Post.
"As you come to know the depths of God's love, it's easier to give that love away," Poloma said the research revealed. "It's certainly true of human love, but divine love seems to be able to transcend even the deficiencies of human love."
Unconditional love does not appear to come naturally to human beings, Lee, Poloma and Post state. We take care of ourselves and those who are personally important to our lives; 99 percent of respondents to the Godly love survey said they do all they can to help their loved ones.
But when it comes to caring for all of humanity, or even struggling to understand events such as the senseless murders of children and teachers in an elementary school in Connecticut, something more is needed.
Developing spiritual practices that foster intimate experiences of divine love appears to be for many the gift that keeps on giving.