Reading Time: 10 minutes

Making loneliness your friend

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: 2 Timothy 1:13-18

A man who felt constantly dominated by his wife went to see a psychologist, who gave him a book on assertiveness. He read it and then drove home, pointed his finger at his wife, and said, “I want you to know that from now on, I’m in charge around here. First you’re going to cook me a delicious dinner. Then you’re going to make me a sumptuous dessert. Then you’ll draw my bath so I can relax. Then, guess who’s going to lay out my clothes and comb my hair?” She replied, “The mortician?” The man then needed our topic today.

This morning, I want to talk with you about loneliness.

Less than 4% of US mail is personal cards and letters.

James Lynch, a medical researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, is convinced that loneliness is the number one killer in America, the primary factor in deaths due to heart attacks and cancer. We look self-sufficient and happy, all the while being stung to death by loneliness.

This epidemic is only getting worse. Glenn Cartwright, a researcher with McGill University, warns that the Internet makes it possible for us to develop our own parallel identity. We can choose a body, gender, and role through chat rooms, Instant Messaging, and games which are amazingly real. He concludes: “The twenty-first century may well be the century of technologically induced disaffection, characterized by an increased sense of loneliness, alienation, [and] powerlessness.”

I read through several books on our subject this week. The best definition of “loneliness” I found was this: loneliness is “the feeling of not being meaningfully related.” It’s not the same thing as being alone—you can feel lonely in a crowd, sometimes more so. It’s feeling that you’re not “meaningfully related” to people, to enough people, to the right people.

It’s a feeling we all face. Every one of us, more than we know. Let’s try to understand the problem, then find ways to live with it in hope.

Understand loneliness

Erich Fromm, the eminent counselor, once wrote: “The deepest need of man …is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness…. Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions…. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome…. Man overcomes his conscious despair by the routine of amusement, the passive consumption of sounds and sights offered by the amusement industry; furthermore by the satisfaction of buying ever new things, and soon exchanging them for others.”

Fromm wrote those words in 1967, before the Vietnam War came to its bitter end; before Watergate; before September 11. Today sociologists describe our society as “cocooned,” withdrawn into ourselves more than ever before in human history. Gone is the front porch—no one even builds them on houses anymore. Gone is the evening stroll with the neighbors. Gone are extended families—most are scattered across the country and beyond. In their place, 25% of the populace experiences acute loneliness at any given time, and nearly all of us face it with regularity.

Why?

Loneliness starts early: as infants we feel unwanted, even though we are. Every time we are left alone when we want to be picked up from the crib, or the babysitter, we become afraid. Afraid of being alone.

By adolescence, our greatest fear is that others will not like us. That’s why we dress to conform, act to conform, and are more concerned with who “likes” who than anything else in our lives. We fear being unpopular above all else, and learn not to risk loving people or seeking their love. We’d rather be lonely.

As adults, we learn that we are what others think of us—of our performance, appearance, possessions. We learn to fear their rejection above all else. We are afraid to love and seek love, because we may be rejected. Then our children grow up and move away, and we feel less needed. We grow still older, and it seems that the world knows us or needs us even less. And our loneliness grows.

At the root of it all, we believe that we are not worthy of love. Not really. People may like us, appreciate us, need us, use us, but we don’t deserve to be loved. And so we make ourselves lonely as a result.

People turn to technology and the Internet to find companionship. Or to pornography to fantasize that they are wanted. Or to drugs or alcohol to dull the pain and find people who share our problem. Or clubs, social groups, sports teams, hobbies, churches to avoid loneliness. But we can be lonely in a crowd—some of you are this morning.

What do we do? Our text offers us steps which are so simple, every one of us can take them today.

See yourself as God sees you (vs. 13-14)

First, we seek our worth in God. One of our Father’s names in Hebrew is “Jehovah-Shammah,” which means “the God who is there.” He is.

What you have heard from Paul, and from the rest of the biblical revelation, keep as the pattern of sound teaching (v. 13). Believe that it is true. Believe that Jesus died on the cross to pay for your sins and failures. Believe that nothing can separate you from his love. Believe that he loves you without condition, that he has forgiven every sin you’ve confessed to him, that he’s on your side. Have “faith and love in Christ Jesus.”

Then “guard” this “good deposit that was entrusted to you” (v. 14a). “Guard” means to protect it, to preserve it from all thieves and attack. See yourself as God sees you, his created child, one died for by his Son. No matter what the world says you are.

Do this “with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (v. 14b). When you are tempted to believe the lies of your world, that you are what you do, how you look, what people think of you, that you are not worthy of loving and being loved, go to the Holy Spirit. Ask God for his help and power. Seek his strength, and it is yours.

Find your identity not in your reputation, or popularity, or circumstances. Not in how you feel about yourself, or think others feel about you. Find it in the rock-solid, unchanging fact that you are the loved child of the God of the universe.

Transform loneliness into solitude (v. 15)

Next, choose to transform loneliness into solitude. You can expect to feel lonely at times of grief, sickness, or failure. You can expect to face rejection, as Paul did (v. 15; 4:9-11a). Moses spent 40 years away from home in the wilderness; David wandered the Judean hills alone; Paul spent three years by himself after his Damascus Road experience. Jesus often prayed alone, and he died alone. Expect to be alone at times, and to feel lonely.

Then choose to redeem your loneliness, to turn it into the spiritual joy of solitude.

Thomas Merton, in Thoughts on Solitude: “The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness…comes to know the invisible companionship of God.”

Henri Nouwen adds: “To live a spiritual life, we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into the garden of solitude.”

Paul Tillich was right: “Loneliness can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude.”

How do we transform loneliness into solitude?

We use the time alone to be with God. To listen to his Spirit and his Scriptures, to “keep” and “guard” them with the help of the Holy Spirit.

We make time to meditate with our Father. Get alone with God in his creation if you can. Ask him to speak to you through nature, through some event in your life or the world.

Pick a verse and experience it; imagine yourself in it; feel it and live through it. Imagine yourself, for instance, as Paul in the Mamartime dungeon. Feel the cold, clammy walls, the rough floor, the handcuffs chafing your wrists as you write this letter. Taste the gruel you’re given for food. Smell what it must have been like. And know that if God could give a prisoner in such a place a book of his Holy Scriptures, he can speak to you.

So listen. Worship. Pray. Be still and know that he is God. His word urges us: “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8). Choose to make your loneliness into solitude with your Father. And his presence will comfort your lonely heart.

Be the presence of Christ (vs. 16-18)

Now, what if you’re not in the prison of loneliness with Paul? You know someone who is. Be the presence of Christ to that person.

“Onesiphorus” meant “profitable.” Here is a man who took his life into his own hands, identifying with a prisoner on death row, following the same faith which would lead to Paul’s death. And his grace meant the world to the greatest apostle in Christian history.

Every one of us is either Paul or we are Onesiphorus. Either you need someone in your loneliness, or you know someone who needs you. Ironically, the more we offer others our presence, the more we find comfort in our loneliness as well. As we love, we are loved. As we offer grace, we find it. As we serve, we are served.

Conclusion

Mother Teresa believed that loneliness is the greatest epidemic in America. If it has found you, choose to see yourself as God sees you—worthy of loving and being loved. Turn your loneliness with solitude, and find in your Father his love for your hurting soul. And be his presence, his hand, his grace to the Paul you know.

A nurse writes: “It was a busy morning when an elderly gentleman arrived to have stitches removed from his thumb. He told me he was in a hurry, as he had an appointment at 9 a.m.. While taking care of his wound, I asked him if he had a doctor’s appointment this morning, as he was in such a hurry. He told me no, that he needed to go to the nursing home to eat breakfast with his wife.

“I then asked about her health. He told me that she had been there for a while, and was an Alzheimer’s patient. As I finished dressing his wound, I asked if she would be worried if he was a bit late. He replied that she had not recognized him in five years.

“I was surprised and said, ‘And you still go every morning, even though she doesn’t know who you are?’ He smiled, patted my hand, and said, ‘She doesn’t know me, but I still know who she is.’ I had to hold back tears as he left and I thought, ‘That is the kind of love I want in my life.'”

You have that love in your life. His hand is nail-scarred. Take it today. Give it tomorrow. And you’ll make loneliness your friend.