Wisdomfest 2019: Loneliness in Marriage/Singleness
Good morning, friends. Is it well with you? Is it well with you right now sitting in this sea of red chairs, or does loneliness threaten you? I think loneliness loiters at the door of every apartment, condo, and house represented here in this congregation. He waits for you to arrive at home hoping that you’ll leave the door ajar just enough for him to come into your house. Loneliness isn’t dressed in black clothes, black hat, with an evil mustache. Loneliness is way more subtle than that. Loneliness is a little bit more like that neighbor you hear about on the news — the quiet neighbor who says nothing and has done nothing wrong until you discover their capacity for sheer destruction. Loneliness steps into the home and begins spreading lies. I believe loneliness is a liar. Loneliness lies with skill and ease. Loneliness takes good expectations, a good life, a good marriage, friends, community, a good church, and exaggerates them and creates really bad experiences. And therefore I think the lies of loneliness deceive us all in one way or another.
Loneliness declares these lies: you’re isolated, you’re excluded, you’re minimized, unknown, discounted, disconnected, lost, or invisible. Now I just didn’t make those words up so that I could give you a really long list on PowerPoint. All of those words came from interviews I’ve done with people at this campus and at the Northwest campus. Those are, in a sense, your words of loneliness. Loneliness would love for us to believe that its only appearance is that of a sad loner with their head in their hands looking really terribly, sadly lonely. If loneliness is only an expression of sadness, then many in this room can say that they’ve never been lonely.
But what if loneliness can look like that self-isolating anger I described in the video? What if loneliness can take on a whole lot more disguises and emotional reactions than just looking sad? What if loneliness resides in each of us each time we are rejected, or we reject any type of relational interaction? The expression of loneliness, the emotion of loneliness, can be sadness, but it can also be rage and resignation. The experience of loneliness is deeper than sadness.
Loneliness, for my definition this week, loneliness is the experience of real or perceived relational distance. The experience of real or perceived relational distance. Loneliness, I think, is first an experience before it’s an emotion. When you get done riding a roller coaster, and you’ve got that really kind of excited, pulse moving, both happy and afraid all at the same time vibe going on in you, and you’re wrestling with, “Do I do that again or do I leave?” Those emotions result from the experience of the ride. Loneliness is like a roller coaster. As you experience loneliness the emotional expression of it can vary from person to person.
We feel the experience of loneliness. Loneliness is very real. You can literally be rejected or minimized by someone in your relational network. But loneliness can also be a perception. It can be self-induced. It’s both real and perceived.
Loneliness is always relational. It longs for a particular someone, or at times a particular anyone, to step in and help me feel a sense of closeness to somebody. Loneliness, in a sense, is distance from anything that would create non-loneliness. The lies of loneliness, all of those words that I was given, the lies of loneliness don’t affect only the victim of loneliness. Rather, the effect ends up being much broader.
The lies of loneliness confuse relational status. The lies of loneliness confuse relational status. Now it’s not a modern thing to classify people by their relational status. Particularly, we do this with marriage and singleness. It’s two realities that create categories, and so that’s how we end up defining people. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The Bible speaks to both of those groups of people. However, as we approach this idea of loneliness, the problem is when we think it’s that simple. When we think it’s only two things going on.
So let me tell you what’s been going through my brain. What makes this a difficult topic — loneliness, marriage, and singleness. Today, when it comes to people being married, I’m speaking to people in this room who are committed to their marriage whether they’ve been married a year or 50 years. They’re in it. But I’m also speaking to people in this room who do not even like their spouse and would love to bolt from this room and from their marriage. I’ve also discovered that when it comes to people being lonely and married there are categories of people we don’t even think about — that as they age and experience the curse of sickness and disease, begin to feel very alone even within a committed marriage.
Consider the words of my mom, Judy Ferguson, 72 years old, who wrote to me to help me with my sermon.
“Ryan, the loneliness I feel now is deep and profound. I’m watching your dad slowly slip away from me, both in body and mind, because of the Parkinson’s. Nothing prepares a person for this. As his ability to socialize diminishes, it requires changes on both our sides. This will sound so selfish, but now at this stage only family matters. There are people here who would be more than happy to help us, but whether it’s pride or stubbornness or idiocy, neither of us wants to reach out. Some days the loneliness is heavy enough to be felt, other days not so much. I wish I could say that I have found the answer and give you chapter and verse for your sermon, but alas I have not. I try not to live with scenarios. I have great memories that help alleviate the loneliness. I have my children and grandchildren and ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”
Have you ever thought how you can be lonely in a marriage because your partner has Parkinson’s? That’s who I’m talking to.
On the other side, I’m speaking to unmarried people who are unmarried by choice and are living in faith and enjoying their life. That’s where they want to be. There are unmarried people here who desperately desire marriage. But I’m also speaking to unmarried people who are widowers and widows and divorced.
And when you talk to them, guess what. They feel married and in a lot of cases don’t really want you to call them single. So how would you talk to all of those people about loneliness? Because when it comes to loneliness, he doesn’t care if you’re married or unmarried. He doesn’t care even where you are within either of those categories. All he wants for you is to believe the lies he speaks because then confusion sets in and we hear things like: Why am I alone? What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t someone want me? Why did God take my spouse before me? Why doesn’t my husband know me? Why does my wife discount me? Why am I disconnected? Why did my spouse leave me? Why is this church so uncaring and such a failure to me? Why is everyone else on Instagram and Facebook happy, healthy, and connected? And once loneliness sets in and gets you to ask those questions, he’s so close to his ultimate goal which sounds like this: Why doesn’t God care? Why doesn’t he help me? Why doesn’t God give me what I long for? Why do I feel alone from the very God who says he loves me?
So why is it important to know the lies of loneliness? We have to know them so that we can speak truth back at them. Every word loneliness whispers in your ear is half- truth, misdirection, and lies. We have to become skilled at deciphering these lies that are coming at us so we can speak the truth. Further, as we speak that truth collectively together — single, married, in every category, but we’re doing it together — we’re united. And there’s one of our keys. We’re united together no matter our relational status to fight loneliness. Loneliness doesn’t want you to know the truth, specifically the truth about marriage and singleness. He hopes that remains a secret. Even biblical truth, he doesn’t want you to know about marriage and singleness. What do you think threatens him?
First, both are hard. In that we are united. Genesis 1 describes Adam before the fall with words so striking, they ring out like a cymbal at 3:00 a.m. in a convent. I mean it is so striking when you read Genesis 1 and God says, “It is not good that man should be alone.” All of the refrains in the poetry of Genesis 1 up to this point has been, “It’s good” … “it’s good”… everything is good. And now pre-sin, pre-fall, we have a not good thing. We have a hard thing. Man by himself is not a good thing. Singleness is hard.
Loneliness would love married people to believe that singleness is the easier gig. In the church there is a subtle or not-so-subtle belief that single people have more time, more money, more freedom, and more fun. What if that isn’t true? What if the person who is unmarried works 40 to 60 hours just like you married people and then when they go home, they have to take care of everything by themselves? Every chore, every major decision of life falls squarely on their shoulders.
What if when a married mom says to her unmarried friend, “Man I wish I had your life. You get to travel, eat out, and have so much fun.” What if we realize that words like that pierce the heart of the unmarried friend because they would gladly trade a trip to Europe to hold their own child? Singleness is hard. Loneliness wins when married people covet the single life. Loneliness loses when married people recognize the single life is hard.
On the other hand, many church members are familiar with Paul’s words in this little letter that he wrote to a church in Ephesus. We call that letter Ephesians, and in there Paul describes marriage, and it is beautiful. It’s this one man, one woman coming together to be married and in their faithful, loyal love they paint a portrait to everyone who sees of the loyal love that Jesus has for the church. It is extraordinary.
But Paul also writes about marriage in a different letter called Corinthians. And he writes some different things about marriage. We may never have really grabbed onto these pictures of marriage. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul says, “those who marry will have worldly troubles.” He says, “I want you to be free from anxieties,” and he is specifically referring to anxiety as a result of being in a marriage. Married men and women are “anxious about the things of the world,” and specifically Paul is referring to their relationship with their spouse. A married man or woman lives in the state that their “interests are divided.”
When I married Rebecca, I became a man with divided interests — not bad division, but division, nonetheless. I have to care and do all that God has called me to do for my family and all that God has called me to do for the kingdom. Paul describes marriage as an anxiety-filled kingdom distraction that is disordered and primarily aware of today’s relationships rather than tomorrow’s kingdom opportunities. You ever heard that in a marriage retreat? Guess what, everybody, marriage is hard.
Loneliness would love unmarried people to believe that marriage is the easier gig. If they were married, then they wouldn’t struggle with loneliness because they would be with their soulmate. They would have someone who would understand them, get them, and always be able to say the right thing at the right time, and partner together in everything at every moment in just a perfect way. What if being married is just a different context for the same loneliness with added anxiety?
Loneliness sets a trap. The trap is one that leads to an unrealistic view of marriage as a source of happiness and contentment and perpetual togetherness. What if the church has gone too far with its desire to honor marriage? When we say things like, “Well marriage is the primary place where God’s going to sanctify your heart,” what does that do to everybody who’s unmarried? Do they now lack the ability to be sanctified the way God wants them to be? Loneliness wins when unmarried people covet the life of married people. Loneliness loses when unmarried people recognize that marriage is hard. We’re united.
Loneliness doesn’t want us to know that marriage and singleness are both gifts. We’re united in that. No matter who you are, we have a gift. In church world, it’s kind of become this thing for married people to say to single people that perhaps they have the “gift of singleness.” Somehow the gift of singleness has become a label we lob at people with little understanding as to what Paul’s actually saying when he talks about it. Because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:7, “Each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” And in the context, it’s perfectly clear Paul’s talking about married and unmarried. Both are gifts. Everyone here has a gift.
No one in here is giftless. That life you have is a gift. That gift is lived out either in the context of marriage or singleness and in 1 Corinthians 7:17 Paul says, “Only let each person lead the life the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” Live your life wherever you are. God has given it to you; it is a gift. That doesn’t mean we can’t ask our Father for other gifts. He is great at giving gifts. He loves to give them. That doesn’t mean if we’re married, we can’t ask for more gifts in our marriage, that it would grow and be better. But this whole idea of living the life God has given to us fundamentally requires that we recognize, wherever we are, we’re in the realm of a gift.
Loneliness hopes, when it comes to this language of both being a gift from God, that God’s people act like a 4-year-old on Christmas morning. Loneliness would love that. Have you ever seen a 4-year-old on Christmas morning? You give them a gift and everybody else around them a gift. They tear into theirs and basically chuck it and they’re trying to grab everybody else’s gift. God wants you to look at the gift that he’s given you. You have one. How are you receiving it?
Loneliness would be horrified if we knew that marriage and singleness are both temporary. They’re both temporary, in that we are united. So a friend of Jesus named Matthew records this interaction of Jesus with these pretty conservative religious leaders of the day who are trying to set Jesus up. They go to Jesus and create this impossible scenario that actually would never actually happen and required Jesus to answer according to Old Testament law. It is a complete setup and it’s all about marriage and remarriage. How does that work? And Jesus cuts right through and says this: “For in the resurrection they [people in general] neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven.”
Marriage is an earthly device not a heavenly reality. Marriage, as we know it, ceases at resurrection, ceases in heaven, ceases in the future kingdom. Unmarried, as we know it, ceases at the resurrection, ceases in the future kingdom. How do we know that? This temporary reality of marriage and singleness is overshadowed by the future reality that in the end, everyone is married. Everyone gets a wedding. Revelation 19:6-7,
“Hallelujah! for the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exalt and give the glory for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.”
Followers of Jesus, we’re the bride! Everyone has an amazing wedding. For the lonely, right now whether you’re married or unmarried, loneliness wants you to roll your eyes at this truth. Loneliness wants you to hear this truth and receive it like a knife to the heart rather than an embrace from God. Loneliness wants single people to hear this preacher say, “we’re all going to be married one day” and then write it off as “Oh great, here’s that pastor just telling me look to the future.”
Loneliness wants nothing more than for all of us to see this future reality, this future wedding with Jesus, as nothing but unsatisfactory biblical metaphor, some neat little picture that actually does nothing for my life today. That’s what loneliness wants. Loneliness wins if a future marriage to the Lamb of God is not as valuable as being freed from the marriage you don’t want or receiving the marriage you really desire.
One of the things you do as a pastor is you make hospital calls. If one of the people from the church are in the hospital, you go and visit them, and you try to encourage them, and you pray over them. And a lot of those things are really rough situations. Right before I got up here, I was texting with a guy that we prayed with who has cancer, and he was telling me about how he’s going into second round of chemo tomorrow. July is going to be a rough month. One of the things that Christians have that you bring to bear during suffering, as it comes towards death even, is the future. It’s one of our greatest hopes. It’s one of the biggest power sources we have is, it’s not about today. There’s something out there that’s so amazing that it will transform the way we even view today.
The wedding of the Lamb and the church transforms loneliness today. If the Lamb of God is not enough of a groom to destroy loneliness, then no human has a shot of curing loneliness. If loneliness doesn’t want us to know the truth just about singleness and marriage, then he definitely doesn’t want us to know the truth about Jesus and the church.
So what truth about Jesus does he want kept secret? To what truth about Jesus am I referring to? Church people love the phrase, “Jesus is enough.” Jesus is enough. You’re in a rough situation with somebody in “church world,” you just walk in and you throw them a “Jesus is enough,” and you’ve done your job. They should be better. Loneliness hates and loves that phrase. If “Jesus is enough” means that within the person of Jesus I have everything I need to be reconciled to God, that in the person of Jesus all my sin is forgiven, and I’m forever secured and adored and loved by God Almighty, then loneliness hates the phrase. But if the phrase “Jesus is enough” is spoken over someone who is single like a spiritual band aid by a married person, then loneliness loves that phrase.
If “Jesus is enough” is thrown into the middle of a marriage where a husband feels discounted and a wife feels unknown, loneliness claps his hands. Why? Because now, on top of dealing with loneliness, those people feel spiritually guilty because they should just think Jesus is enough. In other words, sometimes we throw “Jesus is enough” out as a code word for “get over it.” So I say this gently, hear what I’m really saying, there is truth and there is lie in the phrase “Jesus is enough.” “Jesus is enough” truth: Jesus is all I need to be reconciled to God. We’re united in this. “Jesus is enough” lie: Jesus is all you need to battle loneliness.
And Jesus, I get it, perfectly meets our need as Savior, brother, friend. Jesus is the most powerful and best source to combat and defeat loneliness. However, God’s plans for his people are always in the plural. God is always building a people, plural. The scriptures reveal and require that we need other people. The one another commands are proof of this. You cannot live the Christian life without loving one another, serving one another, honoring one another, bearing one another’s burdens.
You can’t live out this Christian life without other people. God created a world where we are both vertically relationally dependent and horizontally relationally dependent. Now for all you independent people, I might have just lost you on this one. But it’s true. You can’t make it through flying solo. The author of Hebrews describes it this way,
“Take care brothers,” [watch out for each other, brothers] “lest there be in any of you an evil unbelieving heart leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort” [a fancy way of saying call people together, but get somebody with you, exhort someone] “every day as long as it is called today so that none of you may become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
We need God and God’s people every day. Loneliness longs for us to believe lies not only about Jesus but also about the church. What’s the truth about the church? Here you go, the church and Jesus are two different entities. What Jesus does perfectly, the church imitates imperfectly. So when it comes to loneliness, what Jesus does perfectly, the rest of us imitate him imperfectly. When we want the church to be as perfect as Jesus, we will be disappointed every single time. There’s no way around it. Read the Bible cover to cover.
It’s interesting, just in the world in general, the way people view Christianity. If we wanted to write a holy book to make Christianity and its people look really good then, in a sense, the Bible does a terrible job. If the Bible is a marketing campaign for Christianity, it fails. Why? Because everybody in there’s jacked up. Cover to cover they’re all screw-ups! And we want people to read the Bible, see what we’re like. Come to this gathering, and see what people are like. What Jesus does perfectly, we imitate imperfectly. Even with that being true, we need each other.
We need Jesus and we need his church. We need the perfect Jesus and we need the imperfect family of God to point us to the one who never fails. We need an imperfect family to love us even when they’re not really good at it yet. So the truth is, North Hills Church to each other will be and is relationally imperfect. Glad you’re here visitors. I hope you stay. The truth is Jesus is never a failure to you. But the truth is you need the perfect one and the imperfect family.
Loneliness doesn’t want us to know any truth about his lies. And here, because in a sense they’re the words of the people of this church, this expression of the body of Jesus, I want to go back to those words that I began with and see what truth is there in scripture that answers the lies of loneliness? See loneliness says this: you’re isolated. God says you’re invited. Matthew 11:20 says, Jesus actually is saying, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” And Jesus in the Gospels has invitation after invitation after invitation. Repent and believe the good news.
Loneliness wants to say that you’re excluded. God wants you to know that you’re included. Luke 15:2, “And the Pharisees and scribes grumbled saying, ‘This man [Jesus] receives sinners and eats with them.’” Now there’s a lot underneath this verse. The culture of the day, you did not eat with people like this. Meals were so important. They mattered who your society was, who you ate with. And Jesus just rocks the world by how he’s going to sit down with people like us that are really screwed up and have a meal, share some bread. He includes people.
Loneliness wants you to believe that you’re minimized, Jesus would love for you to believe you’re exalted. And that’s not pride. I say this kindly, but for many of us who grew up in really conservative church world, to believe that we are exalted gets so close to feeling wrong. You’re not more spiritual if you think you’re terrible. Jesus died so you’re not terrible, you’re exalted. Revelation 5:9-10, Jesus “ransomed people from every tribe and language and people and nation,” and what did he do to them? He “made them a kingdom and priest to our God!” You are a consecrated servant of Yahweh.
Loneliness want you to believe you’re unknown. Jesus looks at you and says, “I know everything about you.” John 10:27-28,
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Loneliness wants you to think that you’re discounted. And the best word I could come up with here is Jesus wants you to know that you’re going to be publicized. Revelation 3:5, get this moment,
“I [Jesus] will confess his [your] name before my Father and before his angels.”
So put your name in there. Jesus at some point is going to say, “Yahweh and the myriad of heavenly hosts, this is Ryan. I know him. You need to know his name.” You are not discounted by him. That’s a pretty big news flash in heaven when Jesus says, “I know Ryan.”
Loneliness wants you to believe that you’re lost, you’re not findable. Jesus wants you to know that you’re found. In Luke … Oh I skipped one didn’t I, disconnected. I’m going to go back to that one, disconnected. Jesus wants you to know that you’re connected. John 15, Jesus said,
“Abide in me and I and you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is the bears much fruit.”
We are not a tree limb floating in the middle of space trying to create fruit. We’re actually right abiding in, attached to, connected to Jesus himself.
Loneliness says you’re lost; Jesus says you’re found. Luke 15, Jesus tells these stories about sheep and coins and of them being lost. One out of one hundred sheep and one out of ten pennies is lost. The point of the story is, the lost things, if they remain lost, are not of that much value. One out of one hundred sheep, walking through the woods, you get back with ninety nine, that’s a pretty good deal as a shepherd. You did a great job. The story reveals that Jesus places an inordinate amount of affection on lost things. He goes after them, so they’re found.
Loneliness wants you to believe you’re invisible, God wants you to believe that you’re seen. And this is just the Gospels; this is Jesus himself. Jesus continually sees people. The scripture writers keep telling us that he sees people. He sees marginal people, traitorous people, introverted people, sinful people, rough people, evil people, traitorous people, religious people, and proud people. And over and over Jesus sees these people, and his response is to have compassion on them. I wish I could go into this whole story, but I just have to summarize it this way, God himself in the Old Testament tells this story where he shows up to help a victimized, marginalized, single mom. And God introduces himself to her as “I am the God who sees.” You are not invisible.
We have to know the lies. We have to speak the truth. And we have to do that within a relational context that is bigger than our singleness or our marriage. We have to do that within a family. Of the people that I’ve talked to coming into this, many people think the opposite of loneliness is togetherness. But there’s a problem with that. So many people are still lonely when they’re connected or together with a lot of people.
So what if the opposite of loneliness is actually unity, that we’re unified. If the lies of loneliness deceive us all, truth and community unite us all. Loneliness loses when truth and unity combine forces. A poet in the Psalms, Psalm 133, it’s a really short psalm, describes this relational power of unity. He says this:
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like … ” and he gives us some weird imagery here, we’ll explain, “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It’s like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”
Some translations include the word “together.” “It’s pleasant and good when brothers dwell together in unity.” Loneliness is never good and pleasant; it’s dreary and discouraging. But when God’s people are together and unified, the result is goodness and pleasantness. In the psalm, the result of that dwelling together, it’s like anointing. That’s the image of Aaron. In that day when you were set apart for a certain job, especially that of priest, they would pour oil on your head and the priest would actually feel it running down his face, a covering, a calling from God himself. And when we dwell together unified it’s like we’re becoming priests.
The second image he gives is one of refreshment. The result is refreshing. This is where one mountain in essence shares the dew with a smaller mountain, the smaller mountain receiving the life giving refreshment of water. Finally in Psalm 133 we see that this dwelling together in unity, this being together, this pleasantness, is one of blessing, life forevermore.
Unity seems to have a lot of power. The lies of loneliness deceive us all. Truth and community unite us all. Married and unmarried, no matter where you fit in either one of those categories, we need to unite to fight loneliness for ourselves and for each other.
So in the spirit of recognizing the lies, speaking the truth, in a relational community context, I have a really big ask for every member of North Hills Church. And just so you know that’s 1364 people. Of those, 1049 are married, 208 are single female, 107 are single male. To fight loneliness, I want to know if you’re willing to jump in and do it together. I don’t think I’ve ever asked anything like this in any of the times I’ve preached here in the past 11 years. But to fight loneliness — knowing the lies, speaking the truth, doing it together — I want to know, if you’re a member of North Hills, will you commit over the next six months to do one meal per month in your home with somebody else from this church? Not someone you already know that’s like your best friend where you guys have meals every week. This could be someone in your life group that you don’t know very well yet. This could be someone that you just meet in here and invite over to your home, not a restaurant, to fight loneliness. If all 1364 of our members committed to do this and reach out to each other, that would be 8184 meals between now and Christmas. How would that affect our body, moving towards the loneliest time of year, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s?
Now let me say a couple of things here and then we’ll wrap up. One, introverts here, calm down. If you are on the scale of introvert, you will be okay. I’m not asking you to invite everybody from this church over. You could actually target those 315 people who are unmarried, who could be in any category — widowers, widowed, divorced, unmarried — and you could have six people over between now and Christmas. And don’t underestimate the power of that. Extroverts, calm down. I’m not asking you to invite everybody over to your house between now and Christmas. This is not a competition for you to get as many new friends as you possibly can. Now, I long for everybody to do this. It’s simple; it’s not that big of a deal. But if you’re willing to do it, we actually want to try to keep a record of it.
So if you’re on social media, and most of us are, no matter what your age, the vast majority are, today would you take a picture of where you would serve a meal in your home and throw on the hashtag #lonelinessloses. And then every time between now and Christmas when you have that meal, one once per month, will you take a picture of you and the people that you’re eating with and hashtag it #lonelinessloses. The lies of loneliness deceive us all. Truth and community unite us all. If we practice these things then loneliness loses, and I think we could declare it is well with our soul. Let’s pray.