Loneliness, Christ and the Church

“Actually…I’m really not doing that well at all. The truth is that I am very lonely. I lost so much more than I ever thought possible.”

“More in the way of relationships, you mean? Other than the loss of your marriage? Friends? Extended family?”

“Yeah, that’s right. I knew that I was going to lose my spouse, obviously…I just didn’t realize that I would lose so many others along the way. So now what do I do?”

It never fails to catch my attention when someone deliberately breaks the unspoken rules governing the casual hallway greeting, “Hi, how are you doing?” Whenever someone does not respond with the customary, “Great, how about you?” it’s a very clear sign that they are in pain and probably approaching some level of desperation. When someone is willing to be honest with me at that level – especially in settings where they know full well what the anticipated response is – I have found that the only sensible response is to quickly abandon whatever I thought I was going to be doing for the next 15-20 minutes, slow down and take heed to whatever comes next.

Maybe this sort of thing happens to me more often than most because a number of people know that my wife and I have been facilitating DivorceCare at The Crossing for over three years now. Even more so, I think, it’s because the people who have previously taken the DivorceCare class are well aware that both my wife and I lived through years of soul-crushing loneliness in the wake of our own failed first marriages. There is a very specific type of emotional pain that comes when you have been accustomed to walking through life with another person – even in the context of a bad marriage, oddly enough – that makes being on your own that much tougher than it would be for someone who has never been married. As the other person was trying to convey to me, the loss of relationships is far more devastating than anyone might have reasonably anticipated.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that loneliness causes many people – not just myself – to stumble badly, to make decisions that are wildly ill-informed, to put their hope and faith into people and situations that clearly cannot bear the load, and to court the very real danger of winding up worse off than they might have been had they just lived faithfully within the context of loneliness. Oftentimes this is because when we are deeply lonely, we want a quick fix…and living faithfully following the loss of multiple relationships rarely provides the kind of “quick fix” we’re looking for.

As someone who has dealt with a deep sense of loneliness for about seven years after the break-up of my first marriage, I have at least some credibility with other people dealing with this problem. So when I say something as blunt as, “Loneliness makes us do stupid things,” they know full well that I am not reading out of a textbook; instead I am reading to them out of my own life and struggles as a new believer. With that in mind, my conversations with other people facing loneliness typically end up with some or all of the following battle plan tactics:

  • Get involved at church. Right now. No, don’t wait to go through the membership classes. Start by attending services every single week, come hell or high water. (No pun intended.) Volunteer to help out at work days, kid’s ministries, whatever floats your boat. Pick something that you enjoy doing, and do it for someone else, i.e. not yourself. Get at least some of your focus off your own life and put it onto helping someone else. (You will be amazed at the “therapeutic value” this will have!)
  • Read the Bible. Stop messing around with this. Abandon all half-hearted approaches. Find a plan that “works” for you, that clicks with your interests, and then go for it. It took me years to find a Bible-reading plan that worked, and along the way I have had to abandon several strategies that just weren’t doing it for me. If you need help finding something that suits your personality, schedule and so forth, then ask.
  • Pray. And don’t pray for a new spouse or for new friendships, necessarily. Pray for God’s will to be revealed to you in this lonely phase of your life. More than likely, He is working in your life to draw you to Him. And that’s a good thing. Don’t fail to hear God calling you into deeper relationship with Him because you are wasting all your time trolling through online dating sites. Use this time to go deep with God. Odds are good that one day you will remarry, and the “lonely” time you have on your hands now – this prime opportunity to go deep with the Lord – will vanish.
  • Cultivate appropriate, same-gender friendships. There is a lot to unpack here, but suffice to say that most people find they have a ton of work to figure out what “appropriate,” God-honoring friendships look like in the wake of a separation and/or divorce. But just for starters, the friends who seem to spend all their time trying to hook you up with another relationship might mean well, but you’ll need to politely sidestep these offers (and perhaps seek some new friends).
  • Through God’s enabling grace, live out a lifestyle that honors Him. No, I am not prescribing a “legalistic” approach to handling loneliness, instead I am strongly suggesting that a willingness to be faithful to God in the way you live your life now will be the strongest possible means you have for worshipping Him. Worship God with the way you live your life. If certain friendships tend to draw out the worst in you – gossip, drunkenness, sexual immorality – you may need to abandon those relationships, too, at least for a season, until you get your bearings and are able to approach those relationships in strength (as opposed to courting more temptation).

We are all made of flesh, and vulnerable as such. Thank God He meets us in our weakness (Psalm 103:14).

When loneliness threatens to overwhelm, we are all tempted to “fix it” as fast as humanly possible. It’s worth remembering, I think, that Jesus often withdrew from His disciples and spent time alone with God. Jesus had to do this! Most of us, on the other hand, tend to fill up our lives with so many “soothing” distractions – dating sites, television, alcohol, movies, events, etc. – that we don’t have the time and mental space to draw close to God. And yet in doing so, we run the very big risk of making the same mistakes. Just imagine how bad it will be if you fail to learn from this tough season in life, and end up going through this pain and loneliness all over again.

Instead, I am very simply suggesting that we “cooperate” with whatever God is doing by bringing us to a place where we have more time on our hands than we would wish. Rather than trek over to yet another Internet dating site, why not at least try to implement some of the bulleted points above, praying as you do that God would bless your efforts?

James 4:7-8 (ESV)
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

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