Does experiencing God’s love make you want to give? Some current social scientific research suggests it might. University of Akron sociologist Matthew T. Lee says, “Millions of Americans frequently experience divine love and for them this sense of God’s love not only enhances existential well-being, but underlies a sense of personal meaning and purpose and enlivens compassion for others.”
Godly Love National Survey
Lee and his colleagues Margaret M. Poloma (a sociologist) and Stephen G. Post (a theologian) interpreted the results of the Godly Love National Survey (GLNS), a “representative random survey of 1,200 people – both religious and nonreligious – from across the United States.” Their Flame of Love Project studies how spiritual experience relates to benevolence.
The project’s ambitious goals include “establishing a new field of interdisciplinary scientific study” and seeking “to transform social science by taking God seriously as a perceived actor in human events….”
Sigmund Freud, call your office. When the father of psychoanalysis branded faith in God as “an illusion,” did he ever imagine this? Of course, the GLNS studies perceived influence of godly love – individuals reported their own thoughts, feelings and experiences. No one is claiming to have a machine that sees God or definitively confirms divine existence.
Numbers and Stories
But the GLNS results – numbers and stories – are impressive, and certainly merit consideration in a discussion about divine influence. Among the numbers: People who claim to feel God’s love more than once daily are over twice as likely as other Americans to help others, and to donate over $5,000 annually for the needy. Experiencing divine love most consistently predicted six kinds of benevolent behavior the researchers studied. Among the stories: The researchers – funded by the John Templeton Foundation – interviewed at length 120 people and included five stories of “exemplars of godly love” in their book, The Heart of Religion. One of the five is Anne Beiler, whom you may recognize as the pretzel lady.
Darkness, Light, and Pretzels
It’s hard to walk through a major US airport or shopping mall without seeing Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. She and her husband parlayed her successful business into funding for their hometown Family Center to promote mental, physical, and spiritual health. But life was not always pretty. Jonas and Anne Beiler’s lives plunged into darkness when a farm tractor struck and killed their young daughter, Angie.
Anne’s pastor, whom she approached for assistance, sexually abused her during her first counseling session. The abuse continued; her marriage deteriorated. Eventually, the pastor was dismissed from the church and the Beilers began repairing their relationship. As he saw wise counsel benefit his own marriage, Jonas wanted to help others by offering free counseling services.
Anne’s work to support Jonas’ dream morphed into what became “the world’s largest hand-rolled soft pretzel franchise.” Accolades for her entrepreneurship recognized her efforts to inspire, serve and give. Today, The Family Center partners with community organizations to offer counseling, healthcare options, education, and more.
A Hiding Place
Anne credits God with sustaining her, quoting David, an ancient Israeli king: “For you [God] are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory.”
“We all need that hiding place,” she affirms. “The reason I never wanted to tell anyone about the secrets in my life was that I was ashamed, and afraid, and scared that people would no longer love me. So I tried to hide my ‘stuff’ from everyone. But this kind of hiding only made it worse. … Confession allows us to hide in God and be surrounded with songs of victory and not floodwaters of judgment.” So … can experiencing godly love prompt benevolence? Certainly worth considering.
By Rusty Wright