Dealing with Loneliness

While writing this, the world has been in quarantine for more than a month now – at least it has been more than a month where I am. We are all dealing with quite a lot of loneliness. We cannot see our loved ones as much as we normally do. In a time or crisis, our natural instinct would be to gravitate towards our loved ones for comfort and strength, and yet in many instances that is precisely what we now cannot do. Especially if our loved ones are older or have other health issues that would increase risk with this horrible virus.

The overarching goal of slowing this virus down is more important (in most cases) than spending time with friends and family. And yet, even the most introverted of us need some human interaction to stay sane. And so we have an interesting dilemma. How do we strike this balance? Loneliness is bad, and this kind of pervasive and extreme loneliness and isolation will increase the rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, and many other ills. And yet to counter the loneliness would be to increase the risk of inadvertently spreading a pandemic virus. Increased social isolation will decrease the evils of death from a virus, but increase traumas caused by mental health, poverty, and other things. And the only way to decrease this list of psychological and social traumas would be to increase social exposure, and thus increase the rate of spread of this virus.

There are lots of arguments about how to “come back to normalcy” over time – and understandably so. There isn’t really an obvious answer to this, because social distancing and shutting down global economies causes horrible things just as viruses do. It is not entirely clear how to balance this. Nor do I claim to know how. But since loneliness is on the public mind and since it has been on my mind nearly every day for years now, I thought it would be worthwhile to record some of what I have been thinking about on this topic over the past few years. A lot of this is Biblically based, because I have yet to find any message that more powerfully portrays the topic. I won’t be able to cover everything, but I’ll try to give some of the ideas that have been more prominent in my thinking.

Loneliness is Not Good

I begin with a quotation out of the Bible, specifically Genesis 2:18-20. For context, this is towards the end of the period of the narrative in which the created order is introduced. The first man (Adam) is on the scene by now, but we haven’t heard anything about any women yet. God had placed man in the garden, and told man to work the garden and care for it – which in the narrative is viewed as a great positive. At this point, God is not creating anything “new” anymore – the heavens are there, the creatures of the earth and sky and sea are there, and Adam is there. The world has absolutely beautiful (as nature still is today) and God was quite happy with things. And yet, we have this narrative followed with the following three verses.

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” (Genesis 2:18-20 ESV)

Put aside anything you believe about Genesis for now – none of that matters. No matter what you think of Genesis, the real message here is quite clear. At this point in Genesis, there is not yet any sin in the world. To put this in words that are clearer to people both inside and outside of the church – everything existed in the way that it was supposed to be. I think we all know in our heart that things are not now like that – there are so many broken things that I don’t want to list them, because no matter how long your list, it would be woefully inadequate. But right now, leading up to this verse, all of the evils you might think of that exist today did not yet exist. Things were beautiful.

Yet God was not satisfied. Something was missing. In verse 18, we see God Himself saying “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” God went on to create Eve, and Adam was immensely joyful seeing Eve. In verse 25, we see that “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” I find this profoundly interesting. At this point, there is no such thing as evil yet in the world. And yet, before Eve was created, the world was profoundly incomplete. This one verse gives rise to so many profound discussions – for instance, it seems to me that this passage implies that there is a real, substantial difference between men and women, but that each if of inestimable value and that there is even greater value in the interaction between the two. Quite an interesting discussion, but that is for another time.

What I want to point out here is that the very, very beginning of the Bible makes a profound statement on the value of community. Isolation is a really bad thing. Think about this – Adam had the God of the entire universe as a companion, and yet the very same God of the universe knew that this was not optimal. He knew that Adam would only truly thrive in community with both Himself and with other humans like him. So, he made Eve for Adam to have community with. And this was now truly good. God then commanded Adam and Eve to populate the entire earth – and one important reason for this is the goodness of community and society. The God of the Bible, then clearly indicates from the very beginning of the Bible that loneliness is a real problem.

Jesus Was Lonely Too!

As profound as it is that God created Eve specifically because He knew that loneliness was not the ideal for humanity, this is not for me the most profound message of the Bible about loneliness. Far, far more profound to me is the truth that God Himself voluntarily became profoundly lonely in order to reach into our broken world and help us. This was done in the person of Jesus Christ. In an article on the topic of loneliness from Desiring God, a ministry I enjoy and which does a great job of providing insight on the Bible, has the following paragraph in its opening describing loneliness.

“Loneliness is what we feel when we’re isolated from others. Loneliness often has less to do with others’ physical absence and more to do with feeling disconnected or alienated from them. Or misunderstood by them. In fact, these are far more painful species than mere absence, because we feel the isolation of being despised and rejected.” [1] (italics mine)

Part of the radical message of Christianity is the incarnation of Christ. This deserves a bit of explanation, because it is often misunderstood. In Christianity, we believe God has taught us through our Scriptures that He exists eternally as a Trinity – as ‘three minds’ or ‘three persons’ unified in one being (A very, very rough analogy to what is meant by this would be ‘Siamese twins’ that are the one hand only one physical body but on the other hand two conscious persons. I have to emphasize that this is a simplification, but for someone who has not spent time studying Christianity this is a helpful analogy to start with).

The idea of the incarnation is that one of the persons within the Trinity – usually denoted as the second person of the Trinity (though the numerical ordering is not all that important) – decided of His own free will to live a life as a human being. We now usually refer to this person as Jesus Christ, and I will do so for the rest of this discussion. Just remember – Jesus Christ had been in heaven in glory for all eternity. Jesus was part of creating the universe out of nothing. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all the rest.

And yet… He came down to us. God Almighty lived about 33 years on this earth – 30 of which were in total anonymity as a blue-collar laborer. The Creator of the Universe lived as an infant, then a toddler, then an adolescent, then a professional carpenter – which was a very low class of society at the time. He suffered the loneliness of being mocked for supposedly being an illegitimate child (due to the miracle of the virginal conception). He worked hard and bleed with his hands for years and years as a carpenter. He did not come from a ‘good part of town’ either – the Bible even records some people insulting Jesus because of his place of birth (John 1:46). Jesus was, in the end, betrayed by everyone who followed him and suffered crucifixion – quite probably the most humiliating and excruciating method of execution every devised by humanity. As the Prophet Isaiah spoke beforehand, “As many were astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance” (Isaiah 52:14).

Not only did God live a pretty ‘low-brow’ life while He was on earth – it cannot be understated what it means for God to live a human life at all. In and of itself, that requires giving up a lot that He rightly deserves to have – heaven, worship, glory, et cetera. Christ gave up the level of intimacy that He enjoyed within the Trinity from eternity for a time to live a life as a human being. There is a lot of subtlety here on a theological and philosophical level, but nonetheless it should be intuitively clear that this was a great sacrifice on God’s part – and would involve a great deal of loneliness.

Why All This Matters

Why does this matter? What ought to be said first and foremost is that thousands and probably millions or billions of people have been lifted out of emotional torment and despair by the message of the Bible, in particular the message of Jesus Christ and his followers like the apostles Peter and Paul. For instance, you can read Paul’s experience of suffering in 2 Corinthians 11:21-33, and his spiritual and emotional perspective on his suffering in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. In summary, the amount that Paul suffered defies comprehension, and yet Paul reports profound satisfaction and peace in life. How can this be so?

I can report something similar, although much less extreme. There was a long period of my life in which I felt deeply lonely – in fact so much so that I thought it was impossible that I would ever cease to feel lonely and abandoned. I was dealing with PTSD, depression, and ADHD – all of which prevented me from behaving and thinking in a normal way in day to day life (and ADHD still does, the other two had predominantly non-biological causes). Sometimes, I’m surprised that I am even alive today. And yet, I am. The primary reason, and in some ways the only reason, that I escaped the intense loneliness that I experienced after years of profound loneliness and self-hatred was the even more profound actions of God coming down into this world in order to empathize with us and help us to understand how deeply He loves us.

What then is the moral of all of this? There are many, I cannot list them all. Nor can I list all of the relevant Scripture – there are far too many passages that speak about loneliness and suffering. Having read the entire Bible and taken notes as I read, I would estimate many hundreds if not thousands of verses that are directly relevant to this topic in one way or another.

I’d say that you are not alone. This is among the most beautiful parts of the Christian message. We are not alone. God Himself lives within us through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we are never literally totally alone – we always have God Himself with us. Nonetheless, we still experience feelings of loneliness and abandonment. And reasonably so – after all, I have already mentioned that the Bible affirms the importance of human relationships. Feeling lonely is a legitimate emotion – we are not designed to be alone but in intimate, personal relationship with one another. It is absolutely okay that you feel alone – these emotions make sense in the fallen world in which we live. Equally important, God has through his Word showed us that He understands our loneliness, understands our aches and pains, and walks alongside us in all of these.

We are loved. Because of my faith in the Lord Jesus, I know that I am loved. Were it not for this, to be totally honest, all of the psychological torment of my earlier life would probably consume me. At best, I would be barely functional in society – at worst, I would be dead or in a mental hospital. I don’t know which, because I was saved from this utter isolation. All I do know is that I could never have recovered from this alone. Yet God sent amazing, loving friends into my life – so loving in fact that I am very nearly crying as I write this sentence. No matter who you are – you are loved beyond your wildest dreams by the Lord Himself – and it would be the greatest honor of my life to share that amazing love with any one of you.

References

[1] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/jesus-understands-your-loneliness

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