For many people, the word “indebted” may carry a negative connotation, conveying a sense of burdensome obligation or repayment. But according to BYU psychology doctorate student Jenae Nelson, indebtedness shouldn’t be viewed as a detriment — especially when considered in the context of a relationship with God.
In a yearlong study conducted at BYU, Nelson and her mentors, psychology professors Dr. Sam Hardy and Dr. Dianne Tice, found that recognizing what God has done for you and feeling an indebtedness toward Him doesn’t create feelings of obligation but rather leads to increased overall happiness and well-being.
“We’re finding that when someone acknowledges everything God has done for them, it makes them feel closer to Him and helps them want to do better and to be better,” said Nelson.
The research, recently published in the academic journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, consisted of an analysis of over 1,000 survey responses from BYU students to learn more about the impact that gratitude and indebtedness to God can have. They found that beyond increasing overall happiness and well-being, indebtedness to God was also related to increased religious involvement, spirituality, attachment to God and pro-social behavior, or how much service and kindness people show to others.
Nelson says it’s important to note that this study focused on transcendent indebtedness — the principle of recognizing that all good things come from God. This type of indebtedness motivates someone to become a better person. Conversely, hopeless or negative indebtedness — which wasn’t the focus of this study — is when someone feels as if they have to earn their own salvation or forgiveness, sometimes resulting in feelings of hopelessness.
“When talking about indebtedness it is important to understand that God doesn’t expect us to ever get even with him,” Nelson said. “We are certainly not promoting that type of hopeless indebtedness but instead encouraging the idea of paying it forward, instead of paying it off.”
This idea of transcendent indebtedness is found across a variety of religious and cultural traditions and is highlighted in stories throughout different books of scripture, such as the Book of Mormon and Bible. Stories such as the ones about the woman in Luke 7 and King Benjamin’s sermons in the Book of Mormon served as large motivators for Nelson to begin her study of indebtedness, gratitude and conversion.
Nelson’s largest motivators, however, were her children. A nontraditional student, Nelson is 41 years old and a mother to four kids ages 12, 15, 17 and 19.
“I wanted to learn more about how I can raise my kids to be more grateful in an era of entitlement,” Nelson said. “I was really happy to see indebtedness to God acting like a counter-agent to entitlement and ingratitude.”
Nelson explained how acknowledging her own personal gratitude and indebtedness to God has helped to shift her family’s mindset. She emphasized her consistent efforts to talk openly with her children and explain to them that each of them is indebted to God, to good teachers, to parents and to those who have helped them get to where they are today.
“We try to model transcendent indebtedness by expressing our gratitude and indebtedness to God during family prayer, in our conversations and during scripture study time,” Nelson said. “In our house, we don't just practice the feeling of gratitude; we practice acknowledging our indebtedness and expressing our gratitude through service.”