I went for a walk the other night and was again struck by how silent and empty my neighbourhood has become. We can hear the school bells ringing for recess but there’s no children laughing on the yard. We’ve been told not to visit our parents or grandparents. Our church communities that are a refuge for so many are no longer able to gather for Sunday worship.
An Epidemic of Loneliness
The isolation that is causing so much suffering during this time of physical distancing and shutdowns is very real. We were already struggling with an “epidemic of loneliness” before the Covid-19 pandemic began. In Caigna’s most recent survey (January 2020), three in five adults (61%) in the U.S. said they were lonely – a 71% increase in survey results from 2018. It’s not just affecting our seniors who sometimes find themselves with an empty house and less opportunity to get out for social events. A recent poll by YouGov reports that Millennials might be the ‘loneliest’ generation of all with 3 in 10 young adults saying they always or often feel lonely. Loneliness is not just about spending time by yourself. You can feel lonely in a crowd, at work, or disconnected in a relationship.
Unfortunately, the emergency measures that have been necessary to help stop the spread of coronovirus makes this experience even more challenging. Those who live alone suddenly find themselves separated from family and friends. We’re feeling stressed, anxious, uncertain and we really don’t know when it will all end. While we can meet virtually and my children try to adjust to online playdates – it’s not the same.
We are made for community
Mother Teresa once said, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” Loneliness is not just an emotion. More and more studies show how it can affect both our health and mental well-being. Social isolation has been linked to heart problems, lower immunity, depression, cognitive decline, and may even shorten our lifespan.
I think it can be difficult for Christians to talk about loneliness.
We know in faith that God is always with us and we are never truly alone. God is constantly inviting us into a deeper relationship with Him. But He also created us to be in relationship with each other. Author Lydia Brownback writes in her book Finding God in my Loneliness:
We don’t have to be ashamed of that deep yearning in our heart to connect with people – God designed us to want that.
Lydia Brownback, Finding God in my Loneliness
God made us for community! We were formed as social beings who grow and thrive through our togetherness. How do we know? Because God created us in His own image (Genesis 1:26) who is in Himself an eternally self-giving relationship between three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
At the beginning of Genesis, God declares “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18 NIV) And so He decided to make Adam a companion, Eve. God wants to have community with us and he wants us to be in community with one another. We live through God’s gracious and loving action, and deep down each of us has an innate desire and call to share this love (John 13:34-35).
What does the Bible say about Loneliness? God’s loving response
1. God knows our loneliness.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46 (NIV)
Sometimes when we’re struggling through a tough situation, it’s comforting to know that someone understands what we’re going through. There’s a kind of peace in realizing that we’re not the only ones.
Jesus knows what it feels like to be isolated and he understands when we suffer our own loneliness. He was often unappreciated, put down, and rejected. When he needed the support of his friends the most, they left him.
His cry from the cross in Mark 15:34/Matt. 27:46 is heartbreaking. Jesus didn’t just feel forsaken by God, he was completely cut off from the Father. He took on our sin and all its consequences. This must have been especially painful for Jesus. Before this time he was sinless and had never known what it was like to be separated from his Father.
That Jesus could be abandoned by God is frightening. But if we let ourselves be drawn into the mystery of the cross we see a love that is limitless and all-pervading. We see that there’s nothing God’s not willing to do for us. There’s no suffering that Christ has not already endured and transformed for us.
Jesus went to the place of greatest isolation, alienated from the world and God so that we will never be alone. There’s no where we can go that God hasn’t gone before us and filled with his loving presence. What ever we experience, Christ is already there waiting for us with open arms.
2. God’s Spirit filled gift of presence
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of Truth. The world cannot accept him because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
John 14:15-17 (NIV)
I can only imagine how alone and helpless the disciples must have felt the night before Jesus’ death. They had given up all their other connections and communities to follow him with profound love and obedience. And now the moment they had been dreading was coming and Jesus tells them that it is almost time for him to go.
But Jesus does not leave them to struggle alone. He promises to send them another – an Advocate to help them. The Greek word used here is the word paraklētos. Depending on the bible you have, this may also be translated as Helper or Comforter. NT Scholar William Barclay explains the Greeks used this word in different ways, but it always means “someone who is called in to help” when we are in trouble or need. It’s a person who advises, stands up for us, guides us when we are lost, gives us hope when things seem dark, and gives us courage when we need to be brave.
Jesus was filled with the Spirit descending on him like a dove (Matt. 3:16) in his baptism. The Gospels show us that everything Jesus did in his earthly ministry was enriched and led by the Holy Spirit. This is the same Spirit that Jesus promises to send his followers after he is gone. Although he could not be with them physically, he gave them the presence of his Spirit to live with and in them always. This is the Spirit we see manifested in the disciples on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). And it is this same life-giving Spirit that God continues to send forth to comfort and indwell each of our own hearts today.
We sometimes make the mistake of thinking of the Holy Spirit as an ‘energy’ that we can get ‘plugged into’. But the Spirit is so much greater than a ‘power’ or a ‘force’. The Spirit is someone who not only walks among us but abides within us. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes,
Where the Holy Spirit is, God is present in a special way, and we experience God through our life, which becomes fully alive from within outwards. We experience full, entire, healed and redeemed life with all our sense. We feel and taste, we touch and see our life in God, and God in our life.”
The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of God’s own loving presence – not somewhere far away – but right here – living in and through us -in each moment.
3. United together in the body of the church
So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
romans 12:5 (niv)
Over the years I’ve had the joy of participating in many different church communities. I believe that one of God’s most gracious gifts is the support of His Church. Many people find comfort and meaning as they gather for worship, share their experiences, and teach each other about their faith. But the church is also infinitely more.
Those who believe in Jesus are intimately connected to each other through Christ as “one body” (Ephesians 4:4-5). Being brought together as God’s family (Ephesians 1:5) and joined to Jesus is what it means to be church. John Stott writes:
To be ‘in Christ’ is to be personally and vitally united to Christ . . . and thereby also to Christ’s people. For it is impossible to be part of the Body without being related to both the Head and the members.
John Stott, Ephesians, 22
We’re empowered and linked together through the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:22-23). And we share a common bond with each other, regardless of race, background and denomination. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes: “13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” (1 Corinthians 12:13-14 NIV)
It’s not just about finding fellowship in our church groups, missions, and on Sunday. While this is certainly very important! As we’ve seen, God answers our loneliness not only by tying us into the life and love love shared within His Holy Trinity – but also to each other.
Looking at John 17:20-21, Ms. Brownback points out that Jesus wanted us to know our oneness with him most fully through our life together with other believers. Jesus prays, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21 NIV) She explains:
By God’s design, we belong to one another. For the reason, not only our gifts but also our joys and our sufferings are meant to be lived out in fellowship with other believers …. God promises to comfort us when suffering comes, and a primary way he does this is through the love and support of those in our faith community. This in turn equips us to turn around and help others going through similar trials.
Lydia Brownback, Finding God in my Loneliness
Prayer for Peace
May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received,
and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance,
praise and love. It is there for each and everyone of us.
St. Thérèse de Lisieux
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May the peace of God be in your heart,
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Barclay, William. (1975). The Gospel of John Volume 2, Revised Edition. The Westminister Press, Philadelphia.
Brownback, Lydia. (2017). Finding God in my Loneliness. Crossway.
Moltmann, Jürgen. (1997) Come, Creator Spirit, and Renew Life: A Theological Meditation on the “Life-Giving Spirit”. Louvain Studies 22, 3-14.
Stott, John. (2008). Ephesians. IVP Connect.