Motivated by grace

Emma Nicholls 06 Jan 20

What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning? When you’re the last one left in the library on a Friday night, battling through a problem sheet that you just can’t get to grips with, what is it that keeps you going?

Studying science is hard work. Long hours in lectures, experiments that never seem to work like they’re meant to, and late nights spent memorizing formulae aren’t easy. My own degree (Biochemistry, if you’re wondering) was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Some days I’d get back from a day of three lectures, a five-hour lab and another four hours in the library writing an essay to find that my friends studying History and English Lit had rolled out of bed at noon and done maybe one or two hours’ work before settling down to watch Netflix for the rest of the day. At least I knew my £9000-a-year tuition fees weren’t being wasted…

Careers in science are tough too. A PhD student or postdoc needs to be able to persevere through failed experiments, funding difficulties, paper deadlines and receiving critical reviews. Working evenings and weekends is part of the normal routine of many early-career scientists. Keeping going under these conditions requires a pretty major source of motivation.

So what is it that motivates people who study and work in science? Skim through any science applicant’s personal statement and you’ll find an anecdote along these lines: ‘when I was 10 years old/studying for my GCSEs/knee-high to a grasshopper, I learned about the structure of DNA/the vast size of the universe/quantum mechanics for the first time. I was captivated/intrigued/awestruck by the beauty and complexity of our world and the amazing opportunity we have to study it through science’. The first line of my personal statement read rather a lot like this.

Many established scientists would also identify that spark of wonder at the natural world as the reason that they’re pursuing their chosen career. Few things compare to the sense of wonder as you stare down the microscope at cells that have miraculously multiplied overnight, or realise that as you view a distant star you’re observing events that occurred millions of years before you were born.

But these moments don’t occur every day. More often, motivation actually comes from the nagging of a supervisor, or the pressure of a deadline, or the desire for respect and admiration from colleagues. As a student, what often drove me to keep going was the desire not to let my supervisors down, or to look like I was working hard compared to everyone else, or to prove that I deserved my place at uni.

These kind of motivations are fine when it comes to meeting the next essay deadline, but they don’t really work in the long term. Constantly striving to achieve and to impress others becomes a huge burden, leaving us stressed and disillusioned. And it seems that being motivated this way isn’t working: a 2018 study showed that half of people starting out in academic science leave within 5 years (in the 1960s, it took 35 years for half of people to move careers). Most people who start out in science careers aren’t sticking it out for the long term.

So is there a better motivation for studying and working in science, one that is powerful enough to keep you going through a challenging degree and career, and without losing the joy and wonder that all of us feel when we start out in science?

I think there is, and it’s very simple. Be motivated by grace.

There was a children’s song we used to sing in church when I was growing up to help kids understand the meaning of grace. There were basically only two lines:

‘Grace is when God gives us the things we don’t deserve.
He does it because He loves us.’

Repeat, ad infinitum. We sang it enough that those words became pretty thoroughly stamped on my brain.
Most of our motivations for working hard in science come from a desire to deserve something. We want to prove that we deserve our place at university. We work to impress our lecturers and supervisors so that we’ll deserve their praise. We feel utterly devastated if we’ve worked really hard for an exam but questions come up on the one part of the syllabus we didn’t revise – we feel we deserved a good grade and feel cheated when we only scrape a pass.

But grace makes it clear that we don’t deserve anything. Or rather, we do deserve something:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.’ (Eph 2:1-3)

What we deserve from God is wrath. The fair response to our sin and rejection of God is his righteous anger and retribution. But in God’s grace, that is not what we receive. Paul goes on:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.’ (Eph 2:4-5)

By grace we have been given life when we deserved death. Every spiritual blessing that we have in Christ is a free gift of unmerited grace.

And it’s not only our salvation that is an undeserved gift. Paul reminds the Corinthians: ‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ (1 Cor 4:7). James writes that ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights’ (James 1:17). This is what’s called common grace: all good things that we have in this life are gifts from a loving Father. He gives freely and generously to all people, but how much more so to us who are his children, adopted into his family when we trust in Christ?

What are the implications of this for our work? Well, believe it or not, your work is also an act of grace, a good gift to you from your Heavenly Father. Science is an incredible gift from God to humanity: it’s a means by which we can fight the consequences of sin on our fallen world, and get to know our Creator better as we wonder at the vast scope and intricate detail of His creation. Studying it is an immense privilege.

So that essay, which seems like such a burden, is actually God’s gift to you. He wants you to enjoy it, to know Him better through it, to make it part of your worship. He’s given you your work to do because He’s a generous Father and He loves you!

A friend’s mum used to send her a text before each exam. The texts read something like this:

‘Good luck for today – enjoy telling Him about His creation.’

Wouldn’t that totally revolutionise your attitude to that exam? To think that as you write about protein function, or draw out reaction mechanisms, or solve differential equations, you’re in a conversation with your Creator about the world that he’s made? Yes, you’re also working to pass your degree, to get a job, to please your supervisor – but your primary goal is simply to enjoy a good gift from your Father. When this is your primary motivation, lasting joy in your work is genuinely possible. Stress and burnout are not inevitable.

The realisation that I could be motivated by grace totally changed my attitude to my degree. How will it change yours?