[Facing Your Feelings 17] Lessons in Loneliness
Kate rolled over at the sound of the alarm, glanced at the clock, and wondered if she wanted to get up. Why bother? The house was silent. All three of her children had left for college over the past two days, and their absence hung heavily in the air. To make matters worse, the family dog had died a month ago, and even his friendly little wagging form had been removed from her life.
She wandered into the kitchen where her husband Hank was reading the sports page. "Hi, honey," she murmured. "Hmmm . . ."
Hank's eyes never left the paper. She poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down at the window, staring at the September garden.
Hank stretched and groaned, got up and headed for the closet. Grabbing his suit coat, he walked toward the front door. "See you . . ." The door slammed, and Kate listened as the car started and backed out of the driveway, its sound fading into the cool morning air.
How would she fill another empty day? Kate dialed a couple of friends' phone numbers, but reached only their answering machines. She turned on the TV, made her way around the channels, then flipped it off in frustration. "I'll go to the mall," she decided aloud, smiling grimly at the bumper-sticker reality: "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping."
The mall was crowded. Kate was caught in a tide of last-minute back-to-school shoppers, yet the crowds made her feel lonelier than ever. She sat at Starbuck's sipping a latte, watching the people chattering, laughing, and smiling at each other. 'Tears stung her eyes—she felt like the oldest shopper in the mall and the only one shopping alone. She fought off the idea that the world had somehow passed her by.
When she got home, Kate began to look forward to Hank's return from work. She decided to fight off her depression by making his favorite meal, which she did. The sound of his car pulling into the driveway gave her a surge of hope. Her solitary confinement was over!
Unfortunately, although Hank seemed to enjoy the dinner, he did so without comment. "How was your day, honey?" she inquired sweetly.
"Fine. Where's the TV Guide?"
She handed it to him, and he studied it during dessert. While she cleaned up the kitchen, Hank turned on the first in the series of sitcoms he would watch for the next three hours. Kate had a choice. She could sit at his side and watch with him. Or she could go into the den and spend the evening reading the new book she'd bought during her mall excursion. Either way, she would find no relief from the loneliness that seemed to follow her everywhere, dogging her steps like an unwelcome companion.
Lonely, But Not Alone
Loneliness. Even the word sounds sad, doesn't it?
What does it mean? Is being with people a solution? Is being married a remedy? Is having lots of friends a sure cure? Is being alone the same as being lonely?
According to Les Carter, "Loneliness is a feeling of separation, isolation, or distance in human relations. Loneliness implies emotional pain, an empty feeling, and a yearning to feel understood and accepted by someone."23
Here's another interesting observation from Tim Hansel: "Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Loneliness is feeling alone . . . no matter how many people are around you. It is a feeling of being disconnected, unplugged, left out, isolated."24
This means that we can be in a crowded room and feel isolated, locked in a bubble of our own. Like Kate, we can be married and lonely, yearning to be accepted as we are. This is one of the saddest kinds of loneliness there is. We can be at family gatherings and feel at a distance from other relatives. Loneliness is a feeling, not a circumstance. And all of us have felt it at some time because I don't think it's possible to find anyone who feels completely understood and fully satisfied all the time.
A Man Called to Loneliness
As we consider loneliness, we're going to revisit a man we met a few chapters ago. God called the prophet Jeremiah to live a very lonely life, and his loneliness came as a result of his commitment and obedience to God. In fact, that might be the very reason why some of us feel isolated and distanced from members of our families and some of our friends today.
As we read in Jeremiah 1 and 2, God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, a spokesman for God. He was to give God's words to a nation of idolatrous, wicked people. His messages were to be warnings of impending disaster, a judgment upon their rebellion against God and their worship of the pagan idols around them. We know Jeremiah was not courageous by nature; in fact he was timid and insecure. But God promised to make him strong and able to stand alone against the whole nation.
It was clear from the beginning that Jeremiah would never be a popular preacher who told people nice things about themselves. His message didn't exactly build their self-esteem. He gave them God's Word—and they hated it! Nobody ordered tapes of his messages. He didn't make many friends. Instead, he made very powerful enemies. TO make matters worse, the Lord gave Jeremiah some very hard orders. We find them in chapter 15 of the book of Jeremiah:
"Then the word of the LORD came to me: 'You must not marry and have sons or daughters in this place' For this is what the LORD says. . . . 'They will die of deadly diseases. They will not be mourned or buried but will be like refuse on the ground.' . . . 'Do not enter a house where there is a funeral meal; do not go to mourn or show sympathy, because I have withdrawn my blessing, my love and my pity from this people.' . . .
"'And do not enter a house where there is feasting and sit down to eat and drink. . . . Before your eyes and in your days I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in this place" (Jer. 16:1-5, 8-9).
Jeremiah would never know the intimacy, comfort, and joys of marriage and family. He couldn't even enjoy a normal social life, sharing the joys and sorrows of his community. God wanted his lonely life to be an object lesson for what would soon happen to the whole nation. Talk about isolation and loneliness! There was no safe place, humanly speaking, for Jeremiah to be loved, encouraged, and accepted.
God gave His prophet a very tough assignment, and it lasted more than forty years, growing progressively worse. It's a real comfort to me to observe that Jeremiah wasn't always on top of things. He had deep feelings. There were times when he mourned for his people and times when he bitterly complained about his lot in life, including his relationship with God. Here are just a few of his grievances:
"Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people? Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people" (Jer. 8:21-9:1).
"Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends! I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me! . . .
"I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long" (Jer. 15:10 and 20:7-8).
Wouldn't you agree that Jeremiah was a very lonely man? He was angry, frustrated, fearful, uncertain, and depressed. He knew his enemies wanted to get rid of him. He couldn't trust his friends. He felt sometimes that even God had deceived him. His life was so painful he wished he had never been born.
The interesting thing is that he expressed his feelings. He told God what he was thinking. Some of his complaints were a mixture of good and bad. He'd complain, then he'd remember God's promises, then he'd complain again. The reason Jeremiah was able to fulfill his mission for all those years was that he always came back to the Lord and remembered his promises to him. He said, "Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you" (Jer. 32:17).
In the same way that Jeremiah was distressed because he believed God's promises of disaster and exile, he was encouraged and enabled to endure because he believed God's promises of a future restoration of Israel to the land that would be permanent. In the generations to follow, there would be no rebellion because God would bring His people under a new covenant that would be written on their hearts, not on tables of stone (see Jer. 31:31-34).
The Strength to Go On
Jeremiah could bear the hatred, the treachery, the plots against him, the imprisonment, the loneliness, even being stuck in the mud in the bottom of a cistern till he almost starved to death—he endured it all for the Lord's sake. He endured it because he knew he was doing what God told him to do, and he could see the big picture. He believed God would bring His people back to the land and to Himself. And even though Jeremiah wouldn't live to see it, he found comfort in its certainty.
Some of us experience isolation and distance from husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, just because we are believers and are living in obedience to God. Perhaps you aren't invited to family gatherings. Maybe your husband is angry because you won't do some of the things he wants to do. Or it could be that some of your friends have dropped you since you've begun to be serious about living according to Scripture. Jesus knew this would happen to those who trusted Him. He invited us to take an eternal perspective on what happens to us here for His sake, saying, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matt. 5:11-12).
Just as Jeremiah demonstrated for his people what was in their future, Jesus modeled for us what we can expect when we choose the narrow road of faith and obedience.
Imagine growing up with Jesus as a big brother—He must have been easy to live with, because He never sinned at all. Yet in spite of that fact, when he embarked on His ministry, His own brothers didn't believe in Him and thought He was crazy (see John 7:5 and Mark 3:21). He often felt isolation and lack of intimacy with His disciples in the three years He was training them. They were selfish, ambitious, unspiritual, and often unbelieving. Even when He needed them most as He prayed in the garden before His agony, they kept falling asleep, unable or unwilling to share that terrifying, heartbreaking time with Him.
Jesus certainly knew what it was to have His closest friends betray, deny, disappoint, and abandon Him. And the worst part about His substitutionary death for us was enduring, in the hours He hung on the cross, a seeming eternity of separation from God—the penalty for sin.
There was ultimate loneliness in Jesus' heart-rending cry: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:45). He endured separation from God, which is spiritual death, so we would never have to know it. He died to spare us the agony He experienced. And He lives today, willing to help us solve the problem of our lonely feelings.
The Causes of Loneliness
There are three basic causes for feelings of loneliness or alienation: separation from God, from others, and from ourselves. Let's examine each of these causes and consider ways to ease the pain of loneliness.
Separation front God
God created us to live in fellowship with Him, but sin broke that fellowship. As human beings, we are born with a capacity to know God; but we are also born without the knowledge of God and without a relationship with Him. God loved His fallen race so much that He sent His Son, the Lord Jesus, to die for our sins so that we might be restored to fellowship with God through faith in Christ.
Even those of us who have trusted Him and have been given new life experience times when we feel alienated from our heavenly Father. Fortunately, we're always the ones who have moved away—sin breaks our fellowship with God. That's why He has provided a way for us to be continually cleansed and forgiven when we confess our sins to Him. He doesn't want us to be lonely for Him.
We may be lonely for people, for friends, for a mate, but if we have trusted the Lord Jesus Christ, we never have to be lonely for God again. We have His constant assurance that He is always with us and in us. Augustine rightly said, "Our hearts are restless, O God, until they find their rest in Thee." In order to grow closer to Him, we need to cultivate our fellowship with God. There are some practical ways we can do that:
Quiet Time. Take just fifteen minutes at the start of your day to read some Scripture and pray.
Memorize Scripture. During the day, when you have to wait in a doctor's office or even at a traffic light, work on memorizing a verse you have in your purse or taped to your dashboard. Have verses available in your office desk so you can work on them at lunch or during your breaks. You'll be surprised at how many lost minutes you can recapture in a day.
Practice the Presence of God. Send up "arrow prayers" all day. Keep the spiritual "phone lines" open. This will cause you to be more responsive to the nudging of His Spirit. You will be more sensitive to sin. You will be more obedient to His Word. And you'll find that your close fellowship with your heavenly Father will ease the loneliness, which is the worst of all, that sense of separation from God.
Separation from People
God also created us to have relationships with other people. When He first created Adam, He said, "It is not good for man to be alone." But every relationship has its times of stress and disappointment. We all want to be perfectly free to be ourselves and to be accepted as we are, but that never works 100 percent of the time. There are times, for various reasons, when close friendships are disturbed. Occasionally, we even feel a distance from those we love the most.
It's very lonely to know a lot of people who are just acquaintances. We all put on happy faces when we meet. But how do we establish the kind of friendships in which we can be ourselves? How do we connect at a meaningful level? There are some steps we can take.
Reach Out to Others. Instead of waiting for the phone to ring, take the initiative. Many times the friend you want to know better is waiting for someone to call her. Suggest lunch or a casual dinner at your place. Plan an outing together, if you are both interested and compatible.
Share a Common Interest or Service. Another way to make friends is within church groups. Women get better acquainted when they share studies or serve in an outreach together. As we work side by side, share our needs, and pray together, we find other women who are drawn to us, and vice versa. Women need each other. We accomplish more as a team than we could ever accomplish alone.
Accept Others As They Are. Don't make friends to reform them. This doesn't mean that friends can't help each other overcome bad attitudes and flaws. But it can't be done within the context of condemnation. Love is the great motivator. When I know that I am loved and appreciated, it's not as painful to hear someone advise me that I should try a different approach to a situation.
Share Your Thoughts As Your Confidence Grows. Friendships deepen when we realize we can trust another person. Once trust is established, we are able to open our hearts to each other, drop our masks, and be real. Many times we struggle with loneliness because we keep our problems and real feelings all bottled up inside. But when we begin to talk about them, they are whittled down to size. Even if a friend has no solution, just talking about a difficulty helps. Knowing that someone else cares and is praying for us often eases our sense of isolation. We need to recognize that pride is often what keeps us from being honest and real, adding to our sense of isolation.
Sometimes our feelings of loneliness indicate a sense of alienation from ourselves. When we are completely honest, we'll admit there are things in our personalities we don't like. There are times when everything seems to be going wrong and we are frustrated and discouraged. When we dwell on our failures and shortcomings, we generate our own loneliness. And this usually leads to more problems.
There are some positive efforts we can make to change our sense of self-alienation:
Respond to God's Love. Choose to believe that God loves you, and receive His love. You are His unique creation. He will give your life significance. When you and I accept God's evaluation of us, we won't be controlled by our own feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. We will have confidence in His ability to make us the person He wants us to be. We will be free to be ourselves, controlled by His Holy Spirit. When you know you are loved, it changes the way you feel about yourself.
Jeremiah's isolation and loneliness were eased when he remembered who God is and when he believed His promises. Jesus experienced the worst separation in time and eternity so that we could have the love, fellowship, presence, and guidance of God forever. The psalmist said it well:
Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever . . .
As for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds. (Ps. 73:23-26, 28)
The psalmist's words are as true today as they were then. We may be alone, but we don't have to be lonely all the time.
Knowing God loves us and has control of our lives should give us an assurance that He will meet our needs. He may not give us all we want, but He will give us what we need. If you have been living with a feeling of loneliness and you've put your life on hold until things change, stop it today! Tell the Lord that knowing Him is more important than any other relationship. Tell Him you want to get out of the spiritual playpen and grow to maturity. Emotional immaturity will hinder your spiritual maturity. Your feelings aren't the most important part of you.
Act with Your Will. God gave you a will so you can make choices, and He intends for you to act with your will. He wants you . . .
- To choose to obey Him.
- To choose to be satisfied with the life He's given you.
- To choose to be thankful for the way He has made you.
- To choose to accept the love, forgiveness, peace, joy, and fellowship He offers you in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Every blessing of God is wrapped up in Jesus. When we act with our will to receive Him for our salvation, He comes to live within us, bringing with Him all the promises of God. We don't have to look anywhere else to find joy, peace, acceptance, security, and significance. We must simply act with our wills to receive whatever we need from Him. Provision for our every need is offered to us without cost, through the mercy and grace of God. But it isn't really ours until we take it for ourselves—by faith.
23 Carter, Mind Over Emotions, 121.
24 Tim Hansel, Through the Wilderness of Loneliness (Elgin, Ill.: David C. Cook, 1991), 59-60.
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