I am lonely. Any echo in your own heart, or is it just me? Those who know me casually might be surprised to see such a confession. After all, I am a pastor leading a bustling church, and my life is a swirl of people and relationships. On any given night, there are hundreds of homes I could call or stop by for a warm welcome. I am living proof that you can be lonely in a crowd.
Deep levels of friendship can be more difficult as a pastor. Recently I was talking to one gregarious senior pastor who spent years as a youth pastor and made friends very easily. Now as a senior pastor he is befuddled at how challenging friendships are. He feels lonely, too.
Perhaps I am lonely because I am single. We singles live with the hope that a spouse will eliminate the lonely ache. For those of us who would like to be married, one of our favorite verses is Genesis 2:18, "It is not good that man be alone." While the church provides wonderful relational blessings, the absence of daily companionship is a difficult trial for singles. We may think a spouse is what is missing. Is it?
Our emotions can help if we hear them properly. In this way, loneliness is not an enemy or a scourge but a friend and a kind of helpful companion. When I feel lonely, I am feeling powerful theological truth in my soul. Why?
Made for Deep Intimacy with My God
Loneliness has an edge to it. Its sting comes from the reality of God's image stamped on us. As Genesis 1:27 makes clear, from the inception of our being and design, we were made by God and for God. This provides us with a spiritual and relational capacity to relate to God that only God can fill and satisfy. As Augustine famously said, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee." We tend to wrongly interpret why we feel as we do. We think we need ______________(fill in the blank) for the ache to go away, but all of these _____________ (s) are shadows of the reality. Friends and other companions may be a wonderful blessing, but they are neither ultimate nor adequate for a heart made for God. Loneliness acts like a divine sticky note that says, "Don't forget for whom you were made."
For those of us who struggle more intensely with loneliness, what I am about to say may seem delusional. However I share this out of my own struggle to overcome and make sense of this powerful emotion.
Embrace Loneliness as a Guide and Friend
We look at loneliness as an enemy to be avoided at all costs. But this side of redemption's consummation, our lives will never be free from loneliness. God uses it to get our attention. So when a wave of loneliness hits, I try to consciously think, Why do I feel this way? I feel this way because I was made for God. Following the counsel of Elisabeth Elliot, I turn my loneliness into solitude and my solitude into prayer.
In this way, loneliness ceases to be a devil to us. Actually, it becomes a guide and a friend. But this is only true when we respond to it in the way that God intends. If we go on a shopping spree or eat chocolates or sit and stew over the person who left us, we stunt loneliness' profound ability to deepen our walk with God.
Battle 'Aloneness' with the Power of Community
There is a difference between "aloneness" and loneliness. God didn't intend man to be alone. This is why he created Eve and marriage. This is why he instituted the family. This is why the church is called a body. God doesn't want anyone to be alone. Solitary confinement is for prisons, not the church.
The church is designed by God to be a place of belonging (Rom. 12:5). We are the family of God. But we will be a lonely family as long as we come expecting everybody else to meet our needs. We overcome loneliness when we forget ourselves and become concerned with other people and their needs, especially people we don't perceive as able to meet our needs.
Singles ministries are famous for missing this. I remember years ago visiting a singles ministry with the terrifying feeling only a single knows from walking into a room filled with people you don't know. You might as well wear a sign that says, "Hi, I'm needy." As the door closed behind me, everybody stopped talking. The whole room paused, looked me up and down, and then went back to their conversations. What happened in that moment? I think the group looked me over to see if I might be someone to meet their needs. Based on their response, apparently not. This is seen throughout the body of Christ when God's people involve themselves in the life of the church in order to get their needs met. It doesn't work, and this is why so many of us are extremely lonely. We are looking for mere mortals to satisfy the ache for God we feel.
The power of Christian community is this: when we invert our natural desire to be loved and choose to love and serve others, the love of God through us mitigates the loneliness in us. As Jesus said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). Love has a byproduct of blessing to it. Self-giving love doesn't merely bless others—it is the life of God through the Spirit experienced within me. Try it and see what happens with your loneliness.
Do I Really Believe God Is Enough?
Loneliness has an ugly twin sister named fear. When I am lonely, I fear that life will always be this way. Am I unlovable? Is there something wrong with me? Here loneliness can lead us to a most wonderful truth: God didn't love us because we are loveable but simply because he is love. Remember: "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8), and, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Rom. 8:32). We find that God's love is not something you dress up for or qualify yourself by being loveable. We simply receive it as the gracious, free gift he offers. This love is the love for which my loneliness longs. To have Christ is to know this love.
I may not have a wife, but I have Christ. You may not have a husband, but you have Christ. You may be separated from family, but you have Christ. You may be a widow, but you have Christ. You may be rejected by your spouse, but you have Christ. And since you and I are made for him, to have him is to have his Spirit as a guarantee that someday I won't ever feel lonely again. Therefore, we cannot invest our ultimate hope in a new relationship, friendship, or romance. Our hope as a Christian must be in the full realization of who we already have. In our moments of inward desolation, the Lord is there and with him there is a path through the valley of loneliness
In my worst moments of relational despair and unfulfilled longings, I look at the possibility of a life alone, and my loneliness guides me down a secret passageway to divine assurances. When I allow it to lead me there, I find the God-sized ache softened with his presence and promise. "Aloneness" doesn't have to mean loneliness; it can actually be the path God uses for my soul to find its rest in him.