Raise your hand if you hated AP Chemistry in high school.
How about Organic Chem in college? Raise your hand if that course nearly derailed your chosen major or served as a weed-out course at your school. (Confession: I actually didn’t have to take Organic Chem. I got college credit from my AP exam, and only had to take Science for Elementary School Teachers [not the actual course title] once I got to college. My husband majored in Bio and minored in Chem because he was pre-med, and the way he tells it Organic Chemistry was the class that made people decide how badly they reallllly wanted to pursue a career in medicine.)
So look: I don’t know much about chemistry. But I do know a couple of things about this little guy right here:
Serotonin. This neurotransmitter* keeps our brains happy and healthy. It plays a role in our sleep cycles, moods, social impulses, memory, appetite, and even libido.
One of the things I do remember vividly from my (single, solitary, high school) chemistry class is the visual image of how neurotransmitters work. It’s like a lock in a key: our bodies release the key –the substance (in this case, serotonin) that is designed to fit precisely into receptor cells—the lock. When you’re deficient in serotonin, you have a bunch of empty locks, and a certain set of symptoms develops that is your body’s way of warning you: “We need more serotonin.”
You can boost your serotonin in natural ways, like changing your diet & exercise routines, light exposure or talk therapy, or by taking certain medications, if your body isn’t producing enough on its own.
Now unfortunately, what happens sometimes is that people turn to other substances to fill those empty locks. Some drugs work by mimicking our natural brain chemistry, and when we are talking about medications under a doctor’s supervision that can be a good thing. But if we abuse substances that mimic serotonin (for example, LSD or the THC in cannabis) then we are filling those locks with a synthetic “key” that may do way more harm than good.
Our bodies can get the message, “we don’t need to make anymore serotonin, we have enough.” So by putting the wrong thing in the lock, we create a fault in the system — then we have too much of the real neurotransmitter in our bloodstream with no lock to attach to, or we have not enough because we’ve turned off the production. (That’s a really rough explanation of how illegal drugs work. Get a much more robust explanation here.)
Key to My Heart
I don’t know much about chemistry. But I do know just a little about the way God wired me, and I know there’s a lot in the natural world that can paint good pictures of spiritual truths.
I have a hunch that our souls were designed with similar lock-and-key mechanisms. The receptor, the hole, the empty place deep inside us is meant to drive us to God. The symptoms we feel when that place is empty are supposed to sound a warning: “we need a Savior.”
Furthermore, I think that when we fill up our locks with knockoff keys – when we use counterfeit substances to soothe the ache and take away the emptiness—we deaden our sensitivity to our real need.
To put a finer point on it: I think one empty space we feel is our need for community. We use counterfeit keys: obsessive love, toxic friendships, smothering familial bonds. When we operate in our own power, we ruin relationships with selfishness and pride. The problem isn’t the need, though. The need for community is real. That hole is there because we are each imago Dei, made in the image of God, who exists in perfect fellowship within the Trinity. We have a need for unity, for wholeness with another, because God perfectly embodies unity and wholeness as He has always been in relationship as Father, Son, and Spirit.
Or maybe the aching cavern you feel is for justice. That, too, I believe is a created need within every human soul. It’s not that we shouldn’t care about justice! It’s that, this far from Eden, the way we go about seeking justice usually misses the mark. We veer too heavily into one ditch or the other, and we rarely feel satisfied that the person or cause we are fighting for will achieve pure justice. We have a lock that yearns for justice because God, our Creator, is perfectly just. His key fits the lock and assures us of the already-not yet tension that in Christ’s kingdom, justice is here but it is also still coming—to be consummated perfectly upon His return.
Whatever gap you feel in your soul, examine what fills it. Where we are using temporal, finite, quick & easy numbing agents—anything that feels good in the moment — are we willing to admit what we really require is the eternal, unchanging, fully-satisfying presence of God?
*some scientists say serotonin is really a hormone, not a neurotransmitter. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus within the medical community at this point.