"Serving Others"

If you have ever tried to recruit volunteers to serve, there is a good chance you said something like “You will feel good when you do it.” You said that because it’s true. We do in fact feel good when we serve. As a pastor, I often told my congregation there is a special joy that comes from serving, and pretty much everyone who heard that understood it.

But why? Why do we feel good when we serve? Is it simply a warm feeling somewhere deep inside that is hard to describe but we know it when we feel it? Is it knowledge we are doing the right thing (I call it the Wilford Brimley effect from his old commercials for Quaker Oats)? Is it because we believe our standing with our peers is enhanced by our serving?


It turns out we are hard wired to serve. There are biological reasons for why we feel good when we serve. Medical science has long known that volunteering contributes to better health. The most recent contribution to this knowledge is Marta Zaraska’s Growing Young: How Friendship, Kindness, and Optimism Can Help You Live to 100. Zaraska has replaced the conventional thinking of diet and exercise as keys to a healthier life with convincing arguments and ample evidence that social engagement, kindness, and/or serving do more for longevity. That’s counterintuitive for most of us.

And it was for Marta Zaraska, too… until she took a closer look at what actually works. After years of research, she concluded that “diet and exercise [are] not the most important things… to encourage my family’s longevity. Instead of shopping for organic goji berries, I should concentrate on our social lives and [emotional] makeup. I should look for a purpose in life, not the best fitness tracker.”

Each of us has what Zaraska calls a caregiving system—biological processes or parts of our brain that encourages us to care for others. She confirms that this system is in place to help us care for our young (human babies are the most vulnerable of all animals) and it contributes to better, stronger communities which in itself aids survival. Actually, there are 2 aspects of this system: one is reward-inducing and the other is stress-reducing.

The book is a fascinating read and I commend it, but I have only the space here to focus on the benefits of serving. Zaraska discusses the medical and emotional benefits. I will add a third—spiritual benefits.


It’s a fact: serving reduces mortality by 22% – 44%. People who volunteer have 29% lower risk of high blood pressure, 17% lower risk of inflammation levels, and spend 38% fewer nights in the hospital.

How many times have you heard how bad stress is for your health? But how do we reduce our stress? Serving others does that. Our brains have a part called the amygdala which is the fight-or-flight center. When we are stressed, the amygdala is triggered so that either we feel threatened and angry or we try to escape what we perceive as a threat. Serving actually calms the amygdala. As Zaraska puts it, “helping others calms us down.”

The vagus (the long snake of a nerve bundle that connects the brain, heart, and gut) helps us relax after stress. Zaraska refers to the vagus as the nerve of compassion and caring. “When people engage in activities that make them experience compassion, the activity of their vagus goes up,” says Zaraska. At one high school in Canada, students were divided into 2 groups. The first group was to volunteer at a nearby elementary school helping kids in after-school programs. The second group was wait-listed. When blood samples from all the teens were compared, a clear image emerged: those who volunteered had significantly lower levers of an inflammatory marker called interleukin 6. Increased levels of interleukin 6 can double the risk of dying within the next 5 years. There is much more to the medical benefits of serving, but perhaps this is enough to show we are hard wired to serve.


Zaraska conducted her own personal (unscientific) experiment to see if serving others does in fact enhance our mood. Over 7 days she alternated between going about her normal activities on some days and focusing on showing others kindness on others. For example, on one of her “kindness days,” she left a smiley face sticky note on a neighbor’s car. She bought and delivered chocolates for a lady at the library. In the evening she left five-star ratings for her favorite restaurants. The results: “I don’t know whether my telomeres got longer and whether my cortisol response was more healthy, but I certainly felt better, happier. Broccoli has never given me this feeling, that’s for sure.”

She included in her experiment the measurement of certain markers indicating stress levels. What she found was on her days of kindness to others her body had lower levels of stress. The testing even showed that her stress levels came down as she was engaged in helping others. She adds: “A pleasant mood is not the only benefit we may derive from [serving] others. The gains can be as varied as better sleep, better hearing, stronger muscles, and lower blood pressure.”


If you are a church leader, what I have said above may be interesting, even intriguing, but something doesn’t feel right. Are we supposed to ask believers to serve because it will make them live longer, happier lives? Are we to appeal to their drive to survive? Even if all this about medial and emotional benefits of serving is true, what about God’s commands to care for the poor and oppressed (Deuteronomy 15:11)? Is it not self-serving to help others because of the benefits that we derive from it?

If we are indeed hard wired to serve, is that not so because God made us that way? Perhaps medical science is only now discovering the physical and emotional benefits of serving, but they have been there all along. Now we can say it with more conviction than ever: God made us to serve (Matthew 20:28)

Excerpts written by DAVID CROCKER, Founder of Operation Inasmuch. 


Related Scripture

Deuteronomy 15:11 ESV

11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, "You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land."


Matthew 20:28 NKJV

28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”



Related Prayer

Father God,

We pray and pledge that we will walk with love. May we be of service, through your church and through our outreach efforts,  to as many people as we can in our lives, as You called us to be, as is Your will.

Lord Jesus, may Your life of love and service be our guide to love and serve the underprivileged, the abandoned and the needy amongst us.

Help us, Lord, to love beyond measure, without expectations and limitations, those who need our love. Those in prison, rehabilitation centers, and the homeless-shelters. The old folks who are disowned and lonely and look forward to seeing someone visiting them and extending love and words of comfort and the veterans returning home from the misery of war... and even the church members and visitors who need our loving support and Christian friendship as they attend services.

May we gather our time and resources to visit them periodically and extend our love, support, understanding, empathy and blessings.

May we, in all our ability, not forget to visit the homeless and street-dwellers. Help us to have a heart, to make time and gather as much help and resources as we can to offer them our love offerings. That we may be a blessing to them, through Your love, grace and mercy, as You (Father God) have been to us.

Lord Jesus, we love You Lord with all our heart, mind and soul. We heed Your call to feed Your sheep. We heed Your call to look after Your people who are scattered in darkness, abandoned, lonely and shunned by the world. We heed Your call to spread Your gospel in an effort to give others the opportunity of Salvation, in You.

Help us Father God, as we prepare ourselves in Your service, to endure all things. May we give our time, effort, resources and most of all... our love.

In Jesus' Holy Name,