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  • Writer's pictureAdam O'Neill

What to do about loneliness.

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

In a previous article, I wrote about the epidemic of disconnectedness felt by our nation. It impacts every age and does not discriminate based on gender, wealth, or social status. I suggested that friendship, at least the kind we find in scripture, could mitigate the impact of the disconnectedness we feel. What I want to suggest in this article is that friendship, however important to our health, wellbeing, and spiritual condition—is not the answer to loneliness.

In the earlier article, I advocate for deep mutual friendship, the kind which encourages a sense of connectedness and is a shadow of the connection we will experience in the New Jerusalem. By this I mean it is of the same type but paling in intensity to what is experienced in heaven. But while authentic connection is vital to experiencing God’s love, friendship is not the answer to loneliness. To expand my view, marriage is not the answer to loneliness either. To summarize these statements, human relationships do not, in themselves, have the power to eradicate loneliness. There are several practical and theoretical arguments for why this is the case.

Human relationships do not, in themselves, have the power to eradicate loneliness.

If earthly relationships were the answer to loneliness, we would need to look only to those who have many friends and see if they feel lonely. Certainly not the greatest example, but celebrities never lack friends, therefore they wouldn’t be lonely, yet they are. Someone may protest, perhaps their relationships are too shallow or based on materialistic things? Then let us consider pastors or other clergy members, who although not celebrities are certainly well known and respected by their congregation. By nature of their vocation they must connect with congregants and fellow pastors to do their work. It is part of their job to seek out and grow those lifegiving friendships I described in the previous article. Yet what we find is they too, are lonely. Perhaps it is the invisible but very real wall that exists between pastor and congregation? This is possible. The greatest practical argument I have that earthly relationships do not eliminate the possibility for loneliness is that each of us despite who or how many people we are surrounded by has been lonely.

Marriage similarly. If marriage was the answer to loneliness then married couples shouldn’t be lonely, yet they are. Perhaps only those who have marital difficulty? But this isn’t the case either; even strong marriages can be plagued by loneliness. In fact, I have too often heard from patients that they became married to eliminate the possibility or presence of loneliness yet now experience it to a greater degree than before. It often seems that those who know (or should know) us most completely have the greatest capacity for making us feel isolated and alone.

Loneliness is not a lack of companionship or community, but as I define it, a spiritual state of feeling unknown and unloved, or loved conditionally. There are no earthy relationships that can rectify this state. Every earthy attempt to satisfy loneliness is plagued by the same innate knowledge: that our commitment to one another is conditional, and if one only “knew the truth” so to speak, the love and sense of being known would vanish. This spiritual state can be rectified by only one relationship and it is the same relationship that was fractured in the Garden of Eden. Only our Heavenly Father can heal a lonely heart. O how this world attempts to rectify a spiritual state with physical conditions of power and pleasure. We have all observed reckless behavior in the hurting, attempts to self-soothe include drugs, copious alcohol, risky sexual behaviors, violence, possessions, and cheap social interaction to name a few. These all fail to resolve the loneliness problem. They are like placing a layer of grass over a sinkhole; outwardly it appears as if nothing is wrong, but inwardly is a deadly pull toward greater and greater levels of isolation.

It may appear as if I am suggesting that loneliness is a sign of lack of salvation. By no means! There are countless examples of great women and men of God experiencing profound loneliness. While we are justified to God through faith, our relationship to Him, our walk into one degree of glory to another, is a process. Though God knows and loves us fully, our ability to internalize it, to take that truth and sink it deep into our bruised spirit, takes time.

Though God knows and loves us fully, our ability to internalize it, to take that truth and sink it deep into our bruised spirit, takes time.

Take Paul in the New Testament for example. Recently a former Biblical Theology professor of mine posted a picture of the prison where he was confined in Rome. It was dark, cold, and uncomfortable—tall walls and floor made of solid stone with a bench made of rock worn by the number of prisoners who sat on it. It is clear to me from Paul’s writings, he was lonely. So he writes to his friend Timothy, yes so that he would come to visit him in prison, but more importantly so he would bring to him the “scrolls, especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). These papers were the inspired Word of God, written by his pen, which would minister to him in his loneliness.

Take our Savior. Jesus faced loneliness, and this points to the same: that experiencing the love of God is a process the is an essential part of the human experience and one that takes intentional focus on time spent in communion with Him. Was Jesus ever unloved or unknown to the Father? No. Thus, His ability to internalize this fact required purposeful pursuit of the Father. Jesus takes His loneliness to its only true source of healing, His Heavenly Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he begins to experience the weight of the sin about to be placed on Him and he anticipates His Father's wrath. His spirit is troubled (John 12:27). He asks his friends to stay awake (showing the importance of community for the lonely) but he returns to His Father to say, “not my will but yours be done”.

But what of Psalm 68 which says, “God sets the lonely in families” (v.6). Is family the answer to loneliness? I believe the answer is more complex. In family we have the closest relationship akin to our familial relationship to God as his adopted sons and daughters. Try as you might, you cannot remove the blood relation you share with your earthly family. You are your families and they are yours. Yet families do not solve loneliness because even these relationships aren’t by nature the source of unconditional love. It is possible, and often is the case, that our family does not truly love or know us. They too, are human as we are and in their fallen nature feel hurt and hurt others in return. In fact, I believe the focus of the Psalm is not the family, but God who does the work of placing us in families. The focus is that God has given a gift to the lonely, not so the gift solves their loneliness, but so that they are pointed back into relationship with Him. The family, like the friendship and the marriage, is meant to point back to Him.

The family, like the friendship and the marriage, is meant to point back to Him.

This is profoundly good news for the lonely. When the grasping and striving for a fix is replaced by the instruction to rest and abide in the love of God there is a sense that washes over; it is freedom. No longer must you strive and struggle to be known and accepted by another, instead your desire to be known and loved unconditionally is only added to, never subtracted by the actions of another. This is freeing for the relationship as well. Interactions with friends and spouses are no longer about what they might fulfill in us but about what we might love in them. This is the soil on which fruitful earthly relationships thrive.

Interactions with friends and spouses are no longer about what they might fulfill in us but about what we might love in them.

Loneliness requires a spiritual response. It requires that we feel unconditionally loved and fully known. There is only one true source of that kind of love, your Heavenly Father. He has shown his unconditional love for you in the death of his Son, Jesus. He also knows you, fully and completely, and He reminds you by placing his Holy Spirit in you. I know of no greater way to be known than to be fully indwelt by the Spirit of Him who loves us. This work is a process, one that requires purposeful time spent in prayer and praise, reading God’s Word and meditating on it. We must get to know more deeply the lover of our souls until he is the deepest desire and delight of our heart, as John Piper regularly says, “He is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him”. If we are diligent, when loneliness calls, it is God who answers on our behalf.

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