Monday, November 21, 2022

For All the Lonely People

"…he himself has said, 'I will never leave you or abandon you.' Therefore, we may boldly say, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"
‭‭Hebrews‬ ‭13‬:‭5‬-‭6‬ ‭CSB‬‬, quoting Deuteronomy 31:6 and Psalm 118:6

Flame-hued sunset after a stormy afternoon

Are you lonely, friend?

If news headlines and my circle of acquaintances are representative, there's a good chance you are, and I am so sorry. Loneliness causes such heartache in the best of times, and during the holidays it tends to cause even more pain. My heart goes out to you, truly. If you aren't lonely as you read this, it is likely you have been recently or we'll be soon. As Elisabeth Elliot says, we are lonely because we are human. Loneliness entered human life in the garden of Eden, when spiritual death resulting from sin separated Adam and Eve from their first and truest friend, the Lord God who created them.

Chronic illness (and really, any kind of suffering) tend to isolate sufferers and their families.  Holidays may intensify any preexisting loneliness, whether we can't be with our loved ones or feel lonely because of differences or tensions alienating us from the people around us to some degree. We all want someone who truly sees us, knows us, and loves us anyway. Any diminishment or lack of that soothing security can feel lonely, whether we are literally alone or surrounded by people. No human can satisfy that longing fully; hence, loneliness is part of the human experience of walking around with a God-shaped vacuum inside us, an emptiness that can never completely be filled in this life.

How is the Christian to respond to loneliness when it assails us? With heartfelt prayers for your encouragement, I offer four suggestions:

  • Lament the losses.
  • Let go of my rights, expectations, and any sin in my response.  
  • Love the communion of the saints.
  • Lean into the fellowship of the Triune God.

First, we may lament the losses that have brought us to this place of isolation and loneliness. Whether loss of health, friends, church, spouse, or job, whether empty nest or prodigal loved ones, whether estrangement and misunderstanding or some combination of all these fuels our loneliness, we can and should lament them.  We grieve because we love. We grieve because it mattered. We grieve our own sins and the sins committed against us that have fractured relationships. Lament is an act of faith that turns toward God in our grief; pours out our complaint honestly to Him who knows it all; asks Him to intervene and heal the brokenness causing us pain; and trusts Him to hear and answer, even if His answer isn't what we want. He loves us and wants us to come to Him in our need. He is not repelled by sorrow and tears and even anger, but catches our tears in His bottle like treasure.

Second, we may let go. We may let go of our right to retaliate at anyone whose sin has contributed to our loneliness. We may need to let go by forgiving others. We may need to let go of our rights and expectations regarding relationships, holidays, and others' treatment of us.  And we may need to let go of our own sinful responses to our loneliness: self-pity, resentment, bitterness, for example. We may need to let go of those things that will only infect our soul's wound and prevent it from healing well and fully.

Third, we may find solace in loving the communion of the saints mentioned in the ancient creed. Have you ever given much thought to that doctrine, beyond your local church fellowship? Prolonged periods of isolation have deepened my understanding of it. God, through the apostle Paul, says, "There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call--one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6, ESV). Again, in a different letter, God through Paul says, "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13, ESV). The one body of Christ, then, comprises all  who belong to the Lord through faith, all in whom the Spirit dwells, all who can rightly call God Father. This is not constrained to one location at one point in time. All the children of God through faith in Christ, throughout all the world, throughout all of time, are united in one body, as we will fully realize in the coming eternal kingdom and must take by faith now. The same spiritual blood and breath unite us, and in that regard we are always in spiritual communion with our brother and sister saints, however alone we may be in body.

So very many heroes of the faith have endured times of isolation and loneliness: Joseph the patriarch in Egypt (Genesis), Daniel in Babylon once he and his three friends were apparently separated (Daniel), David at many times in his life (Psalms), Elijah the prophet (1 Kings), Peter and Paul in their imprisonments (Acts, letters), John the Baptist in his imprisonment, Jesus and Moses in the wilderness (Exodus, Matthew), Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and His trials, when all his disciples forsook Him and fled (gospels), John the apostle on the isle of Patmos, exiled for his faith and ministry (Revelation), the woman with the hemorrhage who had been unclean and therefore ostracized from temple worship for 12 years before Jesus healed her, and many others. Jesus knew loneliness best of all men, telling His disciples, " will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave Me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with Me" (John 16:32, ESV). Similarly, Paul in his last days wrote to Timothy, "At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me" (2 Timothy 4:16-17a, ESV).

Outside of the Scriptures, William Tyndale was imprisoned in solitary confinement for translating the Scriptures into English. Many of the church fathers and mothers lived in isolation in desert caves; Julian of Norwich lived in isolation except for a few who came to speak with her and seek her counsel through a small opening in her cell. In the 17th century, John Bunyan and Samuel Rutherford were imprisoned for the gospel. Modern heroes, too, have been held captive for their faith: Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, Darlene Deibler Rose, Eric Liddell, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the 20th century; Dayna Curry, Heather Mercer, and Martin and Gracia Burnham in the 21st century. Our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church today often experience loneliness and imprisonment, and in some places Christians can only worship alone in their rooms, either because of the severity of persecution or the scarcity of Christian faith where they are. Elisabeth Elliot twice experienced the loneliness of widowhood, once when her husband was killed by the tribe they sought to reach and once from cancer. During her first widowhood, she and her daughter went to live among the jungle tribe who had murdered her husband, and she endured the loneliness of foreignness and culture shock in addition to the loneliness of widowhood. Susanna Spurgeon was not imprisoned by hostile powers, but she was held prisoner by her infirm body and could not see or hear her husband preach for much of his ministry. Amy Carmichael also spent decades bedbound in a small room from which she ministered to her Dohnavur family and to succeeding generations through her writings. Many, many saints have served the body of Christ in invisible solitude through their prayers and words. In glory we will see the fruit of their lives. Their experiences of loneliness, isolation, and limitation can help me through mine, and in reading their stories I find real community through the Spirit who unites us. Many of them did not have access to such ink-and-paper fellowship to sustain them in their isolation or alienation; we do. May we not neglect it.

Finally and most importantly, the best medicine for loneliness is to lean into the fellowship of the Triune God. We have fellowship with the Spirit our Helper, who lives in us, as Jesus promised: "And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you" (John 14:16-17, ESV, capital divine pronouns mine). Jesus and the Father also promise to make their home with us: "Jesus answered him, 'If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him" (John 14:21, ESV). Again, in Jesus' high priestly prayer (John 17), He refers to our unity with God: "I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me.... I made known to them Your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them" (John 17: 23, 26, ESV). 

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), who endured his own suffering due to chronic illness, depression, and the particular loneliness of a pastor, writes this: "If we should get so old that we cannot serve the church of God, if we should become so sick that we are only a burden to those of our house who have to nurse us, yet the eternal love of Jehovah will not diminish. However low our condition, however weak we are, his strength shall be revealed in the everlasting arms that will not permit us to sink into disaster, or our soul into hell. Others may forsake us for different reasons, but he will never. If the Lord stands at our right hand, we can well afford to see the backs of all our friends, for we shall find friends enough in the triune God whom we delight to serve."

Even in the Old Testament this union and communion with God is predicted, especially in the New Covenant passages in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. Jeremiah (another splendid example of a lonely hero of faith)  received this message from the Lord: 
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD. I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31: 33-34, ESV). 

The word of the LORD through Ezekiel promised: "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules" (Ezekiel 36: 26-27, ESV).

That is the same New Covenant Jesus spoke of to His disciples at the Last Supper, and we are living in the blessing of it now. Jesus said that eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:3). Paul said that all the blessings of life are garbage compared to knowing Christ in the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. For the first years of my Christian life, I preferred to stop that verse after the power of His resurrection. Who wants the suffering part? Then I endured the first profound breaking period of my life, and I discovered that the Lord is never more precious than when most of what we value has been taken away. We are most likely to feel He is all we want when He is all we have. One way we know Christ is in the fellowship of His sufferings and His fellowship in ours (Philippians 3:10). Even the suffering of loneliness. The children of God have an opportunity to enjoy His fellowship in a unique and visceral way when much or all human fellowship is stripped from us. Many saints past and present have testified to the sweetness of His presence in their most intense suffering.

Scottish Puritan Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600-1661) wrote many beautiful letters of encouragement. One of them applies especially to the discussion at hand. Writing to a Lady Kenmure in June 1630, apparently during a time when illness had long kept her from the services of the church, Rutherford writes,

I perceive your case in this world savoureth of worship and communion with the Son of God, in his sufferings.... Madam, when you are come to the other side of the water, and have set down your foot on the shore of glorious eternity, and look back again to the waters and to your wearisome journey, and shall see in that clear glass of endless glory nearer to the bottom of God's wisdom, you shall then be forced to say, 'If God had done otherwise with me than he hath done, I had never come to the enjoying of this crown of glory'. It is your part now to believe, and suffer, and hope, and wait on....

Worthy and dear lady, in the strength of Christ, fight and overcome. You are now alone, but you may have, for the seeking, three always in your company, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I trust they are near you. You are now deprived of the comfort of a lively ministry; so were Israel in their captivity; yet hear God's promise to them: 'Therefore say, Thus saith the Lord God, although I have cast them far off among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come' [Ezek 11:16]. Behold a sanctuary! for a sanctuary, God himself, in the place and room of the temple of Jerusalem: I trust in God, that carrying this temple about with you, you shall see Jehovah's beauty in his house" (Letters of Samuel Rutherford, Banner of Truth, pp. 18-19).

"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:16–18, ESV).

If this finds you lonely, dear Crumble, I pray that the Lord would encourage and help you through these four thoughts:

  • Lament the losses.
  • Let go of my rights, expectations, and any sin in my response.  
  • Love the communion of the saints.
  • Lean into the fellowship of the Triune God.
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the the Holy Spirit
be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14, ESV).
Amen. Thanks be to God.

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Thank you for sharing your day with me! Your presence here is a gift. *You* are a gift. Right now I am unable to reply to every comment, but please know I read and pray for each and every commenter. Grace and peace to you in Christ.