Oxytocin is the love molecule, the chemical behind social and familial bonding. It reduces stress and increases our happiness quotient. Interestingly, it has also been called the moral molecule because our oxytocin levels increase when we treat others well. And as it happens, oxytocin can be very helpful in developing a close relationship with Jesus.
So many of the activities that scientists recommend for increasing oxytocin levels correspond directly to many worship practices, both individual and corporate. And our imagination can go a long way towards helping us develop an emotionally intimate relationship with Jesus as well. In fact, regular prayer and interaction with fellow believers can add significantly to stress reduction and a sense of well-being. Many mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder are accompanied by low oxytocin levels. The spirit of love, power, and a sound mind come hand in hand with a release of oxytocin, it seems.
So how do we specifically bond with Jesus, turning our religion into an actual relationship? Well, we do many of the same things we do with those we love. Developing the ability to experience God’s love takes some time and intention. And everyone’s road to Jerusalem is a little different. Here are some suggestions that will increase your joy, mute the stress, and help you feel closer to your Creator.
Hold Jesus’ hand.
Physical touch is very important in the release of oxytocin. We release it during sexual intimacy and when we hold our babies, or even just hug each other. Notice that each of God’s metaphors for who He is to us use a relationship that engages us physically. We are the bride of Christ, the children of God, the friend of Jesus.
I realize that you cannot hold Jesus’ hand externally, but it turns out that imagining holding His hand releases oxytocin, too. Sometimes I hold His hand, hug Him, dance with Him, or look into His eyes. All of these bring me a sense of real peace. And because He lives in me, I get to know Him in new ways as I simply spend my time practicing His presence.
Singing releases oxytocin. Mothers have known this for millennia, humming lullabies to fretful infants to quiet them. Music moves us but when we sing to God, it is a vulnerable expression of love and releases that oxytocin. And you know, God sings over us as well. So many people turn to music for stress relief. But using the power of music redemptively to bring us closer to Jesus can help us bond to Him.
Notice the faces of people in a good worship service. Two components are at work in that scenario. Being in a group engaged in a cooperative effort releases oxytocin, as well as singing. A worship service can be a double whammy of oxytocin release, bonding you with both your Maker and the body of Christ.
Eating with others is an oxytocin releasing exercise. For the Jews, it signaled a covenantal relationship which is why they did not eat with Gentiles. Jesus offended the delicate sensibilities of a lot of people when He says Eat of my flesh and drink of my blood. His audience got caught up in the logistics when He was offering a spiritual experience.
Food, and even wine when consumed occasionally increases oxytocin levels. Jesus wasn’t trying to turn us into cannibals. In the Upper Room, He gave the disciples one last dose of oxytocin before His crucifixion. Even the name, Communion, is about coming into a relationship, covenant, with Jesus. Taking Communion is a powerful act of bonding.
Gratitude is a tremendous oxytocin booster. Studies show that regularly practicing gratitude actually changes the structures in the brain. The Bible is filled with instructions of giving thanks, not because God demands His due, but for our well-being. The act of gratitude is an intentional focus on the many good things in our lives. When we give thanks, we receive God’s gifts to us, which brings us to the next oxytocin release.
Give and receive.
When we give out of love, we release oxytocin. When we receive gifts, we release oxytocin. Studies show that people who regularly donate money have higher levels of oxytocin than those who do not. Why? Because of what I said before about the moral molecule. When we do good things, we feel better about ourselves and others. A cheerful giver has discovered one of the secrets of bonding with God. He is the Giver of all good things and when we emulate Him, we feel good.
Oxytocin gets released in conversations in which we feel heard and in which we are able to listen deeply. Prayer and meditating on God can go a long way towards getting that warm oxytocin rush. Not to discount those little bullet prayers that we all do on occasion, but the essence of prayer is more than a one-sided conversation. When we take the time to unburden ourselves before the Lord and then to listen to Him, our oxytocin levels increase noticeably. You know that relaxed feeling you get after you tell him about your woes? Yep, that’s oxytocin.
Lastly, trust is an oxytocin powerhouse.
When we come to that place of faith where we are able to really trust God with our lives, then the oxytocin flows. Interestingly, oxytocin does not get released when we try to fake trust. However, trust is not an either/or proposition. Our trust or our faith in God grows as we develop our relationship with Him. The deeper our relationships go, with God or with the people in our lives, the more oxytocin is released.
This means that bonding with God is a win/win. Our capacity to have faith, to trust in Him when the chips are down, increases over time as our bonding with Him deepens. That means that a believer who had taken the time to really get to know God has a deep well of peace from which to draw. Our capacity to bond grows with maturity. That means that for all of us, the best is yet to come. There is always further up and further in as C.S. Lewis said.
The parallels between those spiritual disciplines to which believers are called and the chemicals released in the brain serve as confirmation to me that God has indeed designed us to be in a relationship with Him. Seek out those avenues that yield the easiest fruit first. If praise works for you, start there. If talking to God is your best go to, begin there. But as you grow as a Christian, expand your repertoire of relationship with God and let that river of life flow out of you into your sphere of influence.