What a BYU study shows about young adults' understanding of grace and mental health


In this week’s All In podcast, John Hilton III, an author and associate professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, cited research recently conducted by his colleagues at BYU that found “religious young adults experience better or poorer mental health as it connects to their belief in grace or in legalism.” Surveying 566 young adults at BYU, the researchers found that “when these young adults believe more in grace and less in legalism, they experience less anxiety, depression, shame, religious guilt, and perfectionism.”

So what is legalism? Hilton explained on the podcast, “Legalism is this excessive conformity to a religious code, where it's one thing to keep the commandments, but to be legalistic would be to make sure that I'm doing every little tiny thing, and if I make one small mistake, I'm beating myself up for it.”

The researchers pointed out that in the Book of Mormon we read, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” The study expresses, “Young adults may feel that they are to do all that they can in order for God’s grace to be implemented in their lives. However, they may be too focused on doing good things to be saved, instead of Jesus Christ who gives them strength through His grace.”

But the study’s findings also suggest that “there is hope for mental health healing by believing in grace. In fact, young adults don’t have to experience so much anxiety, depression, shame, religious guilt, and perfectionism when they strive to believe in grace. And, they may help others believe in grace.”

Read more about the study here or read a full report on the research here.

Hilton proceeded to talk more about what he has observed after working with Latter-day Saint young adults at BYU. Read more from that conversation below or listen to it in full here. A full transcript can also be read here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity. 

Morgan Jones: You mentioned earlier, John, this study that was done at BYU by some BYU professors— I believe [they are] colleagues of yours—that studied about our understanding of grace, and how that can relate to feelings of worry and that it can affect our mental health as well. Can you tell us a little bit about your understanding of that study, and what we can learn from that?

John Hilton III: Yeah, I think the key is to realize that we're not responsible to do everything on our own. Part of the study focused on this phrase, "we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." And some people feel like, "Okay, that phrase, 'after all we can do,' means I've got to do all this stuff, and then the grace of Jesus Christ is going to kick in." And what the researchers found is that when young adults believe more in grace, they experience less anxiety, depression, shame, religious guilt. And that doesn't mean that we shouldn't repent, [or] do our best to keep the commandments, but when we remember that the grace of Jesus Christ is there to help us all the way, 100 percent that changes our perspective and viewpoint on life.

Morgan Jones: You work, John, with college-aged students. Is that right?

John Hilton III: That's true, yeah.

Morgan Jones: What have you seen in terms of things that cause worry and fear in college students, and how have you witnessed the power of Jesus Christ inviting peace into, specifically, that age demographic's lives?

John Hilton III: I think one of the biggest ones—it's huge for all of us, I think maybe especially college students—is comparison. So I'm a professor at Brigham Young University, and most of the students who come to BYU have been very successful academically. They were the Laurel class president, they were an amazing pianist, they pass three AP tests. And then they come to BYU and find out that all their roommates were the Laurel class president, and one of the roommates passed seven AP tests, and everyone can play the piano. And this sense of "I'm not enough" starts to fill in. And then I'm looking at social media, and I'm seeing what everyone else is doing and have this fear of missing out. And so I think all of these comparisons really can be debilitating in our lives.

So the solution to that, that I've actually witnessed in the lives of many of my college students, is to consciously focus on not comparing ourselves to others, but instead like we were talking about before, focusing on the grace of Jesus Christ. In the Book of Mormon there's this really poignant part in Ether chapter 12, where Moroni is explicitly comparing his writing to the writing of the brother of Jared. And he's talking to the Lord and he says, "the Gentiles are going to mock at my writing, I'm not as good of a writer as the brother of Jared," and he's super discouraged. And it's in this context that Jesus says to Moroni, "My grace is sufficient." And I think that's so powerful that the solution for Moroni, and for us today, of this debilitating trap of comparison, is to remember that Jesus Christ's grace is sufficient. He is Enough.

 Over the past few years, Google searches for "anxiety" have increased by 50 percent and news headlines state that worry, stress, and depression are on the rise. Have you noticed this increase in your life or the lives of those you love? These challenges may be spreading, but they are not new. The scriptures speak of those who were "depressed," "greatly afraid," "worried," and experiencing "great anxiety." The scriptures also tell us that the solution to these struggles is found in Jesus Christ, "the founder of peace" (Mosiah 15:18).

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