The Science of Doing Good

by Kelsey Knobloch

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ… So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.  So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all. (Galatians 6:2, 9-10a)

My wife and I started dating in high school, and in every conversation about the future we’ve always known that I would follow her around. You can study English anywhere after all, but you’ve got to be near water for marine science. After receiving her doctorate, she got her job in Maryland with the PEARL (that’s the Patuxent Environmental and Aquatic Research Lab). I’m incredibly proud of her, and love that she’s found a job that she enjoys and can make a difference in the world by doing it. And as much as I love Texas, I love my wife more, so here we are in Southern Maryland.

But living in Maryland isn’t the only thing Amanda has brought into my life: I’ve become more science-literate since marrying her. I’ve always had a soft spot for physics, and space is super cool, but the math involved in most science fields scared me away. With time, however, I’ve found ways to share the love of science through means that don’t involve math. I run a “Tuesday Science Facts” Instagram account sporadically, and I listen to a science podcast and read articles (mostly about space) all the time. She keeps me up to date on marine science, and sometimes we can discuss the finer points of the newest scientific discoveries.

But this is an article for the church’s Connections email. Why am I going on and on about my wife and science? Because science (though maybe not marine science specifically) has as much to do with faith as anything else. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, God should be a part of every aspect of our life, and that includes science and the workings of the world He created. God’s fingerprint is on everything. Jesus saved us from sin, but He also saved the entirety of creation, which science studies. In Martin Luther’s explanation of the Apostle’s Creed, he writes that “God has made me and all creatures…and still takes care of them.” God sustains the earth, and studying how He does it is the work of science.

A paper from the scientific publication Nature came out in March of this year that makes this connection very real. The scientific paper itself is, like most papers, very dense and hard to understand. It’s full of big ‘science-y’ words and some math. But the headlines it spawned caught my eye. The science website Futurism posted this headline on March 3rd of this year: “Scientists Say Ancient Earth Was Completely Covered In Water.” Cool, right? But this comes as no surprise to us, really. We already knew that. We’ve known it for thousands of years.

In Genesis 1, we read that “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters….And God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry ground ‘land,’ and the gathered waters he called ‘seas.’ And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:2, 9-10). God told us the Earth was covered in water. He made it that way. It’s in the first book of the Bible. 

Summer seems to have started off in Maryland, and with that comes a lot of volunteer opportunities (you didn’t really think you’d get through a Connections article from me without a call to action, did you?). While we want to do our best to protect ourselves and others from the pandemic, there’s still plenty of safe ways to volunteer, especially outdoors. In fact, there’s an opportunity coming up this very Saturday to help a local school out if you signed up for it (you did sign up, right? If not, reach out to me! There’s still time!). 

With all these opportunities, I’ve been thinking more and more about the phrase “God’s Work, Our Hands.” God wants us to do His work. We’re commanded to serve others, to give to the poor, to feed the hungry and help the needy. But you know what’s really cool? God put a reward system in place for us! I’m not talking about some points accrual; we can look to science to see how doing what God wants us to actually helps us out. 

There’s an abstract (kind of like the “Cliff’s Notes” of scientific papers) in the journal Annual Review of Psychology that describes how empathy drives altruism. They write “perception of the emotional state of another automatically activates shared representations causing a matching emotional state in the observer.” Said another way, seeing your brother or sister in Christ hurting makes you feel hurt too. Seeing them in pain causes you pain. Seeing their distress puts you in distress. Paul says it this way: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers…Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:13, 15) God has wired us to care for each other. It’s in our DNA.

Another abstract, this time from the journal Science, says that when “people pay taxes and make charitable contributions to provide public goods…[it elicits] neural activity in areas linked to reward processing.” Or, in layman’s terms, giving to others makes us feel good. After all, in “the words of the Lord Jesus…‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35) Or, if you prefer, Jesus says in Matthew, “You received without payment; give without payment.” (Matthew 10:8b) Later in the same chapter, He continues: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42). 

The Bible has already told us to give to others, but scientists have found that doing so is helpful to us. It activates the parts of our brain that are connected to rewards. So while we don’t give to others so that we might receive a reward, we get one anyway! God has so well designed us that we get pleasure from doing His will. Even if it’s sweating it out while pulling weeds in the July sun, God has you covered: the journal Sports Medicine tells us that exercise and sweating gives us a rush of endorphins!

So next time you see an opportunity to volunteer or donate, give it a shot. And when you get that little rush, that good feeling, thank God that He’s wired us in such a way that making Him happy makes us happy.