Wisdomfest 2019: Lonely in Church
It’s so good to see you all this evening. If you’re not in 1 Peter 4, go ahead and turn there. And if you need an outline, Bill, Aaron, Ben are ready to provide one for you. 1 Peter chapter 4. And let’s pause before we dive in and again ask for help.
Father, thank you that you’ve given us your Word. We come under your Word now because we believe that what you say is more important than what we say or what we think. So Spirit of the living God, take your truth, bring it home to our hearts. And we pray that you would teach us how to fight loneliness with our whole being — our head, our heart, our hands — that we would learn how to think, love, and serve in response to what can feel at times like an avalanche of loneliness. So please be our teacher now, in Jesus name, amen.
So Lars Svendsen (a very cool name) is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Bergen in Norway. He has written a great book on loneliness, “A Philosophy of Loneliness,” which by the way is featured in a list of recommended resources. If you want to read more on loneliness, go to the website, click on “Wisdomfest,” and you’ll see some recommended resources. This one is my favorite secular book, so you won’t agree with everything in it. But he defines it this way:
“Studies have demonstrated a clear inverse correlation between loneliness and generalized trust: the more trusting you are, the less lonely; and the less trusting you are, the more lonely.”
That’s an interesting connection isn’t it, between trust and loneliness? Distrust seems to be a key ingredient in loneliness. And if this is true, then it helps explain some of our experiences. As we walk into church, and many of us know what this is like, to come into a church with hundreds of people and yet feel alone.
Typically when we experience that we can go one of two or three directions. We can tend to ask, “What is wrong with me? Why am I a reject? Why don’t I fit in?” when we experience loneliness in a group. Or we can ask, “What is wrong with them/you? Why aren’t they reaching out? Why aren’t you friendly? Why are you cliquish snobs, you people?” Or “What is wrong with you, God? Why don’t you help? Why have you forsaken me? Something’s wrong.”
And this is exacerbated typically if you’ve experienced, for example, spiritual abuse from leaders, or deep disappointment, or any kind of bad experience with whatever group, a church, whatever group you happen to be a part of. Because those experiences tend to erode trust which tends to fertilize fear and loneliness.
So how do we move forward? I want us to look at 1 Peter 4. We studied this passage a couple years ago, but I want us today to look at it from the angle of loneliness. The passage is not talking or addressing specifically loneliness. It’s addressing a much broader set of subjects/challenges which could include loneliness. But the church that Peter was writing to was, based on explicit and implicit statements in the Epistle, the letter, we know that they were experiencing a number of difficulties that would naturally lead toward loneliness and erode trust.
So let me give you a few of these from the first few chapters of 1 Peter so that it will help us understand where the readers were, where some of us are, and why this passage we’re going to look at is so important. First of all, chapter 1 verse 6 Peter begins, “You have been grieved by various trials.” So the readers, original readers of this letter, were experiencing suffering, and suffering can tend toward loneliness.
Secondly, internal passions. Verse 14, “the passions of your former ignorance.” Now that word “passion,” “epithumia” is a neutral word. It could be good kind of passion; it could be bad kind of passion. But Peter in his epistles never uses that word in a positive way. He’s talking about sinful cravings, desires, yearnings, that are not appropriate for a Christian. So I think we all know what that’s like when you’re fighting these passions, and you walk into a group, you can tend to feel like “I don’t fit in. If they knew what was going on inside of me, they would ask me to leave.” And Peter is very upfront with the fact that they, us, we all, they may vary in the kind and degree of passions, but we all battle isolating passions.
Number 3, family disconnections. Verse 18 of chapter 1,
“You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.”
Now we all link our identities to our family background way more than we realize. And these Christians had experienced … When they came to Christ, they experienced a break with their family background, at least the sinful aspects of their family culture and background. And that can be both liberating and disorienting. And we can wonder, who am I now? Where do I fit in?
Number 4, interpersonal conflict. Peter addressed in Chapter 2 verse 1 and said, “Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” Notice how each one of these characteristics, each one of these sinful actions or thoughts are both injurious to our brothers and sisters, and they alienate us from one another. And Peter is addressing them saying these are way too common in churches.
Number 5, political tension. In chapter 2 Peter deals with a Christian’s response to government. A little background may help. He is writing to a group of Christians in what is today Turkey. These churches were not too far from the churches that we talked about when we were in the Book of Revelation, seven churches of Revelation. Different churches, but not too far, in the same area, and this is around A.D. 62. So it’s earlier than the seven letters were written. But empire-wide persecution had not begun yet, but localized persecution and opposition had already started. So these Christians knew what it was like to follow Jesus and pay a price.
Number 6, marital strain. In chapter 3 Peter refers to wives whose husbands were not believers and the tension that brought about. In verse 7 of chapter 3 he addresses husbands who did not understand their wives, something that husbands today no longer deal with, I’m sure.
Number 7, social exclusion. And he deals with this from a couple different angles. First of all, for the gospel. Chapter 3:13-17, “when you are slandered” for your lifestyle. This is right before our text. He says, verse 4, “with respect to this, they…” [that is your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors who are not following Jesus] “they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” It’s almost like you’re made to feel guilty because you won’t do the sinful things you used to do. And that can feel alienating, isolating.
There’s a kind of loneliness that comes when you feel like, “I don’t even fit in to the culture that I live in now.” And right after that he says in verse 7, “The end of all things is at hand.” What is he talking about here? We read that and we tend to think chronologically, which is a part of it, but we need to think teleologically. The word “end” is the Greek word “telos” which means “goal, purpose, design.” The design of all things is at hand. And what he means by that is not just a time statement but a direction statement.
Let me give you an example. A couple weeks ago my family and I drove straight up to my folks and then I was doing a wedding up there, and we decided to do it straight through. Because of construction it took 20 hours — 20 hours, seven of us, in a minivan. So let’s say you’re driving 18-19 hours, and someone in the van suggests, (this did not happen) but someone in the van suggests, “Hey, there’s a state park up here. We could pull over and do some birdwatching. Wouldn’t that be fun?” Or “There’s an antique store up here, we could do some antiquing.” What would have been the response of our van? Wait, whoa, the end of all things is at hand! What is the purpose of this trip? We did not come to watch birds or look at antiques. We came to get to the destination. The purpose of this trip is to get where we’re going. How about we get where we’re going.
And that’s what Peter is saying. Where is everything heading? And he’s talking big view. Think creation, fall, think flood, ark, Exodus, plagues, wandering, tabernacle, sacrifice, sacrifice, millions of sacrifices, temple, prophets are all pointing in one direction, toward the revelation of Jesus Christ. When he came in weakness to live and to die, and to be buried and to rise from the dead, in order to call the nations to himself and return in his glory, Peter is saying the end of all things is at hand.
In light of that, he tells us to do a couple things, and that’s what we want to look at. And we talked about this a couple of years ago, but again, I want us to look at it specifically in light of loneliness. He addresses, in a sense, he addresses all of us. He first focuses in on our head, and then our hearts, and then our hands. “The end of all things is at hand.” In light of that, let’s talk about how we think, how we love, how we serve, and apply that specifically to loneliness. This is a multi-dimensional approach.
Number 1, our head, our heads. Verse 7,
“The end of all things is at hand. Therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”
Self-controlled means, “sane, sound in mind.” Sober-minded means, “sober, clear-headed.” Due to the fact that the design, the goal, of everything is at hand, he is essentially saying bridle your thoughts. Chapter 1:13, a verse I turn to very often. The ESV doesn’t translate it this way, but literally it says, “gird up the loins of your minds.” And we don’t know what that means now because most of us men don’t wear flowing robes. [thank you] But in that day, when you prepared for action, like battle or work, you girded up the loins, meaning you strap up the robe under a belt so that this flinging, flowing garment did not get in your way as you worked or fought. And Peter is comparing that to thoughts. You know the crazy thoughts that come into our minds while you’re listening to a sermon and you’re thinking about something totally different? Way too many of you nodded your head. We all know what that’s like.
Peter is saying, “Think sane, sober, clear-headed thoughts despite the fact … Let’s review, he’s acknowledging the fact, look what they’re experiencing again: various trials, internal passions (we listed these), family disconnections, interpersonal conflict, political tension, marital strain, social exclusion. And you’re facing all these things, and your mind is going to tend toward what I want to call “hypotheticals.” What are hypotheticals? “What ifs.” A steady stream of possible scenarios, perspectives. “What if God doesn’t really care about me? What if I’ve blown it one too many times and I’m on the shelf? What if God was on vacation when I got married?” All these crazy thoughts that flow our minds, you could give us hundreds of examples. If I believed everything that came into my cranium, I would go crazy. And you notice how up close and personal Peter starts. “The end of all things is at hand! So let’s talk about your thoughts.” What are you thinking about? What lies of loneliness are you believing? What hypotheticals are you giving credence to?
Look what he says next, verse 7, be sane and sober “for the sake of your prayers.” That’s interesting. He links being sane of thought, sober thinking, with suitable praying. What’s the connection there, and again specifically related to loneliness? In order to answer that let’s review.
The first week I talked to you about the chronic loneliness cycle that is fed by fear and distrust. As we talked about today, distrust is a key ingredient to loneliness that leads to higher expectations, kind of a relational perfectionism. “If you’re going to be my friend you had better….” Which results in greater caution. We’re hypersensitive, on high alert, hyper-vigilant, increased social sensitivity, thinking we’re protecting ourselves, when it’s fascinating studies actually show the opposite when you get caught in this. It actually limits your clarity of thought regarding healthy and unhealthy relationships. But this hypervigilance leads to anti-social postures or behaviors. What do I mean postures? Withdrawal, avoidance, kind of an all-or-nothing mentality about people. Behaviors like asking fewer questions, talking more about yourself, blaming others more quickly, and that ends up feeding more fear and distrust and the cycle continues.
Well after we talked about that five weeks ago, someone came to me and mentioned, some of you came to me and mentioned, and I’d been wondering about this too: what do you do if this is true not just, at times, in your relationships with others, but with your relationship with God? It seems like we can get caught in this cycle in our relationship with God as well. We approach him with an unhealthy fear. There’s a healthy kind of fear of the Lord and then there’s an unhealthy fear or distrust that leads to higher expectations. What do we mean by that? A spiritual perfectionism. “God, if I’m going to worship you it’s … you’re going to be aware of my agenda. You’re going to live up to my expectations.” And so we have greater caution in relation to God. Our defenses are up. We’re hyper vigilant. We anticipate disappointment and that leads to anti-social postures and behaviors to God like avoidance and withdrawal, not listening, blaming quickly, which feeds the fear and distrust.
And there seems to be a relationship, as Peter is getting at back in 1 Peter 4:7, between if we’re living in the hypothetical in thought, we will probably be praying the hypothetical to God. Hypothetical thinking leads to hypothetical praying, which over time can actually lead to a hypothetical god. We begin to create a god of our own image, not the true living God. We’re worshipping a god that we fabricated in our minds and have not heard his revelation as to who he is. We’ve imposed our expectations on him or what we’ve experienced on him, and therefore he seems distant.
Could it be that many of us are lonely because we don’t know how to be alone with our thoughts? If our thoughts are out of control, then we’re going to do what Paul talked about last week maybe. We’re going to have to constantly pursue media to cover up, distract, or we’re going to have to try to bend God into what we imagined him to be or anticipate him to be. So in either case our thoughts being out of control affect our prayers and begin to reshape our relationship with God.
So what does God do? God puts us through, at times he puts us through difficult circumstances to expose these hypotheticals in order to purge us — what do I mean by hypotheticals there? What we wish God would be, what we wish others would be — and bring us into reality, bring us into where we are today. He calls us to sane and sober thinking to bring us into the reality of who we are, in all of our brokenness that leads us to run to Jesus to see who we are in Him. So God purifies our heads through our loneliness.
Secondly, he turns to our heart. Verse 8,
“Above all, keep loving one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic book “Life Together,” wrote this:
“Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes the destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intention may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
What is he getting at there? He’s saying it is impossible to love a hypothetical community. You know these people that say all the time “I love Jesus, I just can’t stand his people or his church.” Yeah, that makes sense. He’s perfect, his church is not, yet. But what Bonhoeffer is saying is you have no idea what community is. God is calling us to love one another where we are, not where we would imagine someone to be. That’s like saying “I love marriage, I just can’t stand my wife.” No, no, your calling is to love where you are.
You say what does that have to do with loneliness? Follow me here. If loneliness is the gap between social expectation and social experience (that’s one really good definition of loneliness), it’s that gap, that ache we feel between what we expect, what we long for, and what we experience. And you can see there can be a lot of room for good and bad longings, right? Some of those longings God has put within us, as Joey said earlier, because they point us right back to the source, to God himself. But tangled together with some of those longings become illicit longings that actually end up distracting us from what will truly satisfy. And that’s why Peter is going after our brains to say, “Okay, we’ve got to think sane and soberly so we can distinguish what is truth and what is lies.” And then he goes after our hearts so that we’ll learn to love right where we are.
This is what he gets at. Look at verse 8 again, “above all keep loving one another.” It’s really easy to start loving one another. Everybody loves their mate on their wedding day. Everybody loves us when they join the church. Welcome to membership, we’re glad you love us. We will disappoint you sooner or later. Keep loving one another! What does love look like when we learn and grow and struggle and fail and are disappointed with one another, have to speak hard things to one another, grow together through our failure and our success? That’s what Peter is going after. Keep loving one another since love covers a multitude of sins. It doesn’t mean they’re atoning for sin, but our brokenness is healed in the midst of community. We are broken together; we are healed together. Don’t bail when it gets hard. Love exposes and expels lies.
You’ll see some examples there in your notes, and that’s why some of these descriptions of love in verses 8 and 9 are so powerful in exposing and expelling lies. He says, “Above all keep loving one another” kills the lie. Well, I have other priorities. “Keep loving.” Well, I’ve done my part. “Earnestly.” Well I’m Just going to wait and see. Love “covers a multitude of sins.” Well I don’t think they deserve it. “show hospitality.” Well I tend to love selectively (which contradicts the definition of hospitality). “Love without grumbling.” Well I can’t believe they… You see, love enables us to move toward people, not hypotheticals. It’s easy to love a hypothetical person, your “wish dream” as Bonhoeffer describes it. It’s harder to love a real person. Loneliness can tend to live in the hypothetical, what we long for. Love lives in the here and now.
Elisabeth Elliot when she had been widowed twice, knew the longings of loneliness and described how terribly vulnerable we are when we are lonely. She wrote in her book “The Path of Loneliness,”
“What we want is OUT, and sometimes there appears to be some easy ways to get there.”
She’s talking about trying to eat our way out of loneliness, or shop our way, or distract our way, or porn our way, or a million different ways, work our way. We long for whatever we don’t have and imagine a kind of happiness in that hypothetical. But love is here with the God who has proven his love on the cross and with the people he has given us to love and be loved by. Listen to what she wrote:
“We may be earnestly desiring to be obedient and holy. But we may be missing the fact that it is here, where we happen to be at this moment, and not in another place or another time, that we may learn to love Him — here where it seems He is not at work, where His will seems obscure or frightening, where He is not doing what we expected him to do, where He is most absent. Here and nowhere else is the appointed place. If faith does not go to work here, it will not go to work at all.”
So loneliness longs to love and be loved by someone somewhere. Love turns closer. It says, “Can you love the one who I’ve called you to love today? The one who is really hard to love, the neighbor who really needs your love.” Love looks near. So he calls us to sane, sober thinking. He calls us to love right where we are, and then he turns to our hands in verses 10 and 11. And I’ll just begin this. Look at verse 10, our hands.
“As each has received a gift, use it. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
What does that mean? God has entrusted his fueling, edifying favor into your hand. He’s gifted you with an expression of his fueling favor that will benefit your neighbor. Use it. His grace is varied; it’s a kaleidoscope of grace. It’s different for each one of us. He’s talking about the different manifestations of his grace gifts. “Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God.” When you speak, it’s not that what you say is the same as God’s revealed Word, but you’re speaking with a sense of stewardship, that your words are representing the living God. When you speak, speak as one who speaks the oracles of God. “Whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies.” Notice the first six words and the last six words of this passage. “As each has received a gift … by the strength that God supplies.” All our speaking and serving is a stewarding of God’s grace. We received; God is the supplier.
This is a massive shift if you’re battling loneliness. Loneliness screams deficiency. You are deficient; you don’t have what you need. You don’t have what it takes. God is speaking sufficiency. I’ve given you… you have what it takes. Whatever you have in your hand which you may feel is not enough or is not sufficient or is not glamorous, use it! Use it for the benefit of your neighbor. And this is such a big deal in relation to the subject of loneliness that yes, we are ending our series today, but we’re going to take the next three weeks right before we jump back into the book of Revelation to do what we’re going to call connect — Connect Sundays. We’re going to talk about connecting from a bunch of different angles. It’s really one of the key antidotes to loneliness, as a separate series. How do you do what Peter’s talking about here? If I’m struggling with fitting in or I don’t know where to serve or the ministry of the church just seems like a treadmill that I can’t jump on, how do I connect with God’s people? We’re actually going to talk about that over the next few weeks.
So look how Peter ends the passage. Verse 11, second part,
“in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
So after our first loneliness message I was interacting with Steve Kaminski on email, and he made some really insightful observations. Look at what he wrote:
“Think about where you left us in the Revelation series.” [Remember we were in Revelation 4 and 5 in the throne room of God. We just had some glorious times of worship.] He said, “You left us … in God’s throne room, filled with creatures and elders and colors and praise. Now think of where you took us next: to the ‘alone room’ where my bones burn, where I eat ashes for bread.” [And he’s quoting from Psalm 102 where we looked at that in that message.]
He went on and explained the whiplash that comes when you move from the throne room to the alone room, and yet he explained that we so often live in the alone room.
“God is just as glorious,” he writes, “in the alone room as he is in the throne room. It’s just so much harder for me to see him there. Thankfully the scriptures talk a lot about the alone room. In fact, I think they talk more about it than they do the throne room. That is an encouragement to me.”
He’s talking about all the psalms that walk us through the paths of loneliness, that feeling of “How long? How long, O Lord?”
But what Peter is doing is really connecting the two. He again … Let’s put up those seeds of loneliness again and think about the first readers of this letter. When they hear this letter, and they’re thinking about their trials and the passions they’re battling and family disconnections, interpersonal conflict, political tension, marital strain, social exclusion. All of that, that’s the world they’re living in which can lead to the alone room, feeling isolated. And Peter begins with their heads. So we’re not going to believe the lie. Think soberly.
Then he moves to their hearts. Let’s begin loving those we’re with. Notice how it’s not just, look for someone who will love you the way you think you should be loved, but begin loving the one who is near you. Big shift. And then God has given you, entrusted as a steward, his varied grace. It may not be as glorious as you would imagine, but he has a beautiful task for you to accomplish. He will use you, and he will energize. He will give you everything you need to be used by him. And all of that leads us back to the throne room where he ends here in verse 11, “that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”
So let’s offer up our heads, our hearts, our hands to God right where we are. You may be in the alone room even though you’re in a big room with a lot of people. You may feel like you’re in the alone room today. Will you offer up your thoughts, your affections, your service?