Wisdomfest 2019: Lonely in God
Well if you’re not already in Genesis 3, go ahead and turn there, right near the beginning of the Bible. It’s so good to see you all as we begin this series on loneliness. I want to give a big shout out to Gordon and Sally McAttee celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this week. Praise God! (applause) Congratulations! Thanks for setting us a good example.
So in his New York Times best-selling book, “Lost Connections,” Johann Hari describes a horrible experience he had with food poisoning. He was on a side street in Hanoi, Vietnam. He was hungry. He noticed this freakishly large, bright red apple, and it appeared so inviting. So he bought it, was careful to wash it with bottled water, and then began eating it. When he bit into the apple, it had a bitter, chemical taste to it, but he ignored that because he was so hungry, and he unwisely went on eating.
About halfway through he set it aside, then about two hours later the stomach pain began. And then for the next two days his hotel room was spinning and his body expelling. On the third day, he was getting nervous about the fact that his time in Vietnam was disappearing. So regardless of the way he felt, he called his translator. They went deep into the countryside. He was actually there to interview people for a book he was writing. So he was in a little hut with an 87-year-old woman who was the only person to survive from her village (she and her children) in the war. And as he’s asking her questions he suddenly experienced an unexpected event where his body just said “enough” and started exploding. And this precious woman who had survived so much, through the translator, said, “This boy needs to go to the hospital; he’s very sick.”
Johann tried to ignore that advice, but his translator insisted, “We have to go to the hospital.” So they ended up spending hours of exams, tubes, ongoing nausea, and he was pleading with the doctor (through the translator), “Please give me something to stop the spinning.” And the doctor, through the translator, this is the translator’s response: “The doctor says you need your nausea. It is a message, and we must listen to the message. It tells us what is wrong with you.”
So hours later they found out his kidneys had stopped working. He was severely dehydrated. If he hadn’t gone to the hospital he would have died. He didn’t die, but he didn’t forget that message from the doctor. “You need your nausea. It’s telling us something.”
So I wonder if it would be helpful as we begin this series on loneliness, if we could replace the word “nausea” with “loneliness.”
“You need your loneliness. It is a message, and we must listen to the message. It tells us what is wrong with you.”
You need your loneliness. To hear the message of loneliness, we must first know what we’re listening to. So let’s define “loneliness.” Loneliness is a feeling (accent on that word, it’s important to know), it is a feeling of social isolation. That feeling is experienced when there is a gap or a disparity between your social expectations and your social experience. When there’s a gap, a disparity, between your social expectations and your social experience. So loneliness is a little like emotional nausea triggered by a sense of deprivation, social deprivation. It is a relational ache. And according to myriads of media reports, loneliness is prevalent and on the rise. According to the economists, for example, more than 2 out of 10 adults (22 %) always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated. A recent Cigna survey revealed, nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46%). Over half (54%) say they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. According to some research, loneliness is the #1 fear among young people, and 42% of millennial women are more afraid of loneliness than cancer. That would be women in their, approximately 20s and 30s. Now this fear has been codified in the acronym FOMO. What does that stand for? Yes, “Fear Of Missing Out,” which is an anxiety that one is missing out on a social interaction. And today there is also a pretty steady flow of media reports about the health dangers of loneliness. I’ll just share one meta-analysis that concluded,
“Living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5 percent. Living with obesity, 20 percent. Excessive drinking, 30 percent. And living with loneliness? It increases our odds of dying early by 45 percent.”
But here’s the challenge with all these stats. When you start trying to compile stats on loneliness, you’re in a rather subjective area, because I could show you just a flood of stats that show loneliness is on the rise. I could also share some pretty good research that shows it’s fairly constant. The levels of loneliness are fairly constant. How can you have that disparity? Well it’s really difficult to scientifically quantify a feeling, right? Because depending on how you tweak the question, you can get a very different response. And even many people who are truly lonely would not describe it that way; they would say they’re anxious or depressed. And many people who are depressed may be really lonely. So even the way we experience and express our feelings varies. So it’s hard to find really reliable data on loneliness. But regardless, we know loneliness is a fairly universal experience. Not that everybody’s lonely all the time, but everyone will at some time taste loneliness.
So if we’re going to listen to loneliness and let it say what it should say to us, then we at least need to make sure we have a biblical framework through which to hear what loneliness is saying. Otherwise, we’re just kind of out on a sea of subjective interpretation of what loneliness says. So let’s pretty quickly walk through the gospel story in Genesis 2 and 3. And this framework I want us to establish is not just for this message, but really for the whole series. What’s the biblical framework through which we should listen to loneliness?
Number 1, God created us alone together. God created us alone together. Now what do I mean alone together? Two things: He created Adam and Eve as individuals — alone, separate. He named each one of them. There is a singularity, a solitude, a separateness that is intrinsic to who we are. But he also created Adam and Eve together. First, together with him. We are made in his image; we resemble and represent him. We can’t even truly know ourselves unless we know him because it is through knowing him that we begin to know who we are. We are made for community; we are configured for togetherness. So not only together with God but together with one another and our configuration for community comes from/flows from God’s trinitarian oneness. We are made to be together with God. And before sin even entered the world, God declared human solitude an incomplete picture. “It’s not good.” So God created us to be alone together.
Number 2, sin twists aloneness and togetherness. Let’s be clear. Loneliness is not the same as being alone, because you can be alone and not lonely or you could be lonely and not alone. But sin twists aloneness and togetherness, and loneliness is an emotional spin off of aloneness.
When Adam and Eve fell, an avalanche of brokenness was unleashed, and loneliness was a part of that. For example, in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve ate a different apple or fruit than Johann, you see this isolation, this fracturing four ways. One, isolation from self, verse 7, Genesis 3:7, their eyes were opened, “they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together.”
So they traded the garments of transparency for the clothing of shame. They instinctively felt exposed, sought cover, and for the first time felt unknown. You know that feeling when you feel like you could be in a sea of people here right now, and yet you could still feel very unknown? No one gets me. No one really knows me. That feeling began.
Secondly, isolation from God. Look at verses 8 and 9, “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” So this describes in vivid ways things that happened for the very first time. The sound that previously was an invitation to draw near their father, a theophany — God revealing himself. Their father walking in the garden was an invitation to come near, is now a warning to hide. The trees that shaded from the heat now hide from love. They’re using the trees to hide from God? The question that was an invitation, “Where are you?” is now a threat to Adam and Eve. Isolation from God.
Third, isolation from one another. When Adam was confronted by God notice he, again for the first time, blamed his wife and indirectly blamed God. It’s the woman you gave me. And thus began a colorful history of blame-shifting and finger-pointing. The pronouns shifted from “we” to “me,” and the very gift of God in this wife/husband relationship began to become a scapegoat for self-justification. Isolation from one another.
Then finally, isolation from creation. In verses 14-19 there is a description of the curse, which is sin’s effect on all creation. All creation, from beasts to babies to bread, are affected by the fall. So loneliness is simply one note in the universal chorus of groaning. But it has something to say to us. Sin twists aloneness and togetherness.
Number 3, Jesus redeems us alone together. Just as we were individually and collectively broken, we are individually and collectively restored. Notice how Jesus did that with his life, in his life. Jesus loved solitude. There were times where he would just disappear to be alone. But yet he also loved to celebrate with his disciples at a wedding, to feast together. He loved to be alone but he loved to be together. There is an aloneness and togetherness in the life of Jesus. But Jesus always lived in the presence of his father. He couldn’t enjoy a meal or see the sun or the rain without attributing it all to the goodness of his father. He lived and loved in the presence of his father. So we see in Jesus the redemption of aloneness and togetherness.
But we also see it, not only in his life, but in his death. The crucifixion of Jesus is the apex of aloneness and togetherness. What do I mean? If you want to burn some brain cells, just think about this for a moment. When Christ was on the cross, he was alienated from God and man. So therefore it would be the most intense experience of loneliness in the history of the universe. But at that very time he is alienated, he is alienated from God and man because he has been united with us. He is bearing our sin, and he is obeying his father. So you see such a beautiful convergence of aloneness and togetherness. As Christ hangs on the cross, he is isolated and yet united because he’s bearing our loneliness. He’s bearing our sin. He’s united with us. He took on our identity as sinners so that we could take on his as righteous. Notice how Paul describes this in Ephesians 2 after describing our alienation and isolation. He says in verse 13,
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,”
What that’s saying is he’s taking people who were formerly isolated and alienated from one another — Jews, Gentiles, others — and making peace.
“And might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (the family of God).
The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the redemption of aloneness and togetherness.
So what is, in light of this, what is our loneliness saying? Let’s try to limit it to two things today. One, loneliness is saying we need God. And I know this is going to seem a little trite, like a platitude, but do we really get this? When my stomach growls, and I start feeling a little dizzy, a little irritable, I know what that’s saying to me, right? I’m experiencing a nutritional deficiency. I need to eat something. So when we feel the ache of loneliness, when we feel the stomach ache of loneliness, do we know what to do? We’re pretty well trained to know what to do physically when we feel stomach aches, hunger aches, hunger pains.
But have we been discipled in knowing what to do, so that when we experience loneliness aches, relational aches we know what to do? Because you know, just like with hunger pains, you can actually eat the wrong thing that will eventually make you worse off. And I’m not just talking about food poisoning. I mean, if I fill my mouth with candy and junk food when my stomach is aching, it may give me a quick nutritional boost for about two seconds, and then it’s going to drop. And I think some of us, when we experience the ache of loneliness, have gotten into the habit of filling our relational craving with junk food that ends up leaving us feeling worse off in the end.
And that’s why it’s so important for us to see loneliness not just as “this is just some subject for somebody who’s experienced deep loss.” Yes, it is, but this is a gospel issue. This is a discipleship issue. This is something Christ followers need to understand how to respond to. And this is also, I think, where some of us are going to feel a little frustrated. Because when the preacher gets up and you say, “Well, when you’re lonely what do you need?”
Well you need God. And you’re just like, “Ugh!” When I experience loneliness I don’t want another hymn, sing a hymn. I want a hug or I want a real person to talk to. I want somebody who really gets me. And we’ll get there. We’ll talk about that. But can we at least understand that the craving that we feel in loneliness, our first response needs to be to go to God? I will misinterpret the message of loneliness if I don’t go to God first and interpret my loneliness through his greatness and goodness.
Let me give you an example of this, Psalm 102:7. We’ll put it up on the screen. The psalmist says, “I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.” So he is giving us a vivid picture of how he feels isolated, alienated, experiencing insomnia. In the previous verses, prior verses, verse 4 he described himself as lost his appetite, verse 5-groaning, verse 6-abandon, verse 8-taunted, verse 8 later, “My name is used for a curse.” So he’s describing a pretty bad relational situation. But after this horrific description, just kind of dumping how he feels, he says this in verse 12. And this is so counterintuitive and in some ways can be frustrating to us. Look what he says in verse 12, “But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.”
Now why might that be a frustrating response to those who are lonely? It feels like it actually confirms the way we feel. Okay I’m feeling like a lonely sparrow on a house top, but you, O Lord, are remembered throughout all generations. Yeah, that’s my problem! He’s remembered, I’m forgotten! Everybody else, it seems, is remembered, I’m forgotten!
But what is the psalmist doing here? He’s reorienting our perspective. Loneliness is screaming, “you have a deficiency” or “you are deficient” or some other potentially deceitful message. And it tends, as Lydia was talking about in the video, to cause us to turn inward to find satiation for this loneliness. But what the psalmist shows us is, he actually turns outward. And he says, “God, I may feel forgotten, but you are remembered through all generations.”
And what’s fascinating to me is the more you follow the latest loneliness research, they’re starting to say things like, “the reason loneliness may be on the rise in our culture is because we have lost a transcendent sense of meaning.” Woah! They’re seeing (these are secular researchers) are seeing what the psalmist wrote thousands of years ago. The most important, the first thing — I’m not saying it’s the only thing. I’m just saying where do we start when we’re lonely? — the most important thing is to get up and out of ourselves to see who God is, to look at things from God’s perspective. “You, O Lord, are remembered through all generations.”
Richard Baxter wrote a poem that illustrates this beautifully. It’s a poem about a fleet of vessels that is traveling across the ocean, and a storm arises, and all the vessels get scattered in the storm. So they lose touch with each other. So it’s this picture of a bunch of individual ships bobbing around the ocean lost, lonely, if you will. But the poem is written from the vantage point of someone who is able to see them all. You think of this chief naval officer who has this vision of all of them (God) and he leads them all back safely into harbor. And that’s what’s happening in Psalm102, is seeing God’s perspective. That’s why the psalm ends with this massive vision of who God is. Seeing a vision of who God is doesn’t mean that we’re going to be forgotten. It means we’re actually going to be remembered because he’s the only one who can see everything and everyone at the very same time. So loneliness is saying, “we need God.”
Secondly, loneliness is saying we need each other. No one wrote about this more clearly than C.S. Lewis. In his Four Loves he wrote this,
“As soon as we are fully conscious, we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.”
Only the individual who has the capacity for relationships can experience loneliness; therefore, loneliness is almost like a team uniform. When you experience it, you know. You’ve been made in the image of God, wired for community. You have the capacity to have relationships, that’s why you feel its deficiency. So in a weird sort of way, loneliness can be comforting. But it can also be confusing.
Chad is 32. He’s a member of a good church. He became a Christian ten years earlier. When he was a senior in college a friend of his shared Christ with him. He’s an architect. He is single and he is intensely lonely. Recently his church did a series on friendship, and he became motivated to do something about this intense feeling of loneliness. So he got more involved in his church’s singles group, started to go out with more people, to eat at restaurants, golfing, anything so that he didn’t just go back home and watch TV every night after work. But what Chad noticed over time is the more he anticipated getting with people and got with people, he actually felt worse. The worst he’d felt. And he was slipping more and more into hopelessness and depression.
So what is going on there? Because in a series on loneliness, for some of you listening to the preacher say, “Hey, if you don’t want to be lonely, you’ve got to reach out and be a friend to people. Because if you’re going to have friends you’ve got to be friendly.” That wise counsel can be helpful to certain people but can actually be really, really difficult to other people. So let’s distinguish two types of loneliness that may be important for us to understand as we move forward.
The first kind is situational loneliness. That is an experience of loneliness related to a change in your life. You move into a new neighborhood, you take a new job, you attend a new school, or you go through a period of illness, or a loss of a loved one. All of these and many other things can launch us into what we call a situation or a season of loneliness. But there’s a different kind of loneliness, what we could call chronic loneliness. Chronic loneliness is generally unaffected by social situations.
Dr. John Cacioppo in his book creatively titled Loneliness, reveals a ton of research that he has done at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, and he focused his research on loneliness.
Listen to what he writes. And it’s important that we get this because a lot of people think, the reason I am chronically lonely is because I don’t have the social skills or I’m not winsome enough or attractive enough or something is wrong with me for why I can’t build healthy, joyful relationships. And Dr. Cacioppo concluded the opposite. He said,
“There are extremes within any population, but on average, at least among young adults, those who feel lonely actually spend no more time alone than do those who feel more connected. They are no more or less physically attractive than average, and they do not differ, on average from the non-lonely in terms of height, weight, age, education, or intelligence. Most important, when we look at the broad continuum (rather than just the extremes) of people who feel lonely, we find that they have the capacity to be just as socially adept as anyone else. Feeling lonely does not mean that we have deficient social skills.”
That’s really a major shift in the way loneliness researchers think about loneliness. So rather than a skill deficiency, what’s going on? And I’m going to suggest that what is going on, (and this is a compilation of a lot of different people’s research) is that there is fear/trust, a distrust, a trust deficiency. And I want to illustrate this with what I’m going to call a “Chronic Loneliness Cycle.” And some of you will be able to identify very well with this cycle.
So the “Chronic Loneliness Cycle” begins with fear and/or distrust. Chronically lonely people experience more fear about relationships and distrust other people more than non-lonely people. Related to that, either feeding that or from that, is our higher expectations. Chronically lonely people experience what we could call relational perfectionism, social perfectionism. They move towards social situations with more internal forecasting than non-lonely people. What do I mean by that, internal forecasting? They’re thinking about what are they going to get out of this relationship? Or what is this going to be like? Or how are they going to fail? Or how will they be failed? There’s a lot more going on — expectations about what this relationship should be or not be — than a non-lonely person toward the relationship.
Now think about the significance of this. And in some ways it’s counterintuitive. A chronically lonely person is… And when I say moving toward a social situation, I don’t even mean just a big social situation. It also might be their mate in a marriage or a friend or a co-worker. There is more fear and distrust. There are higher expectations as to what this relationship should be or do.
And then third, therefore, they move toward the relationship with greater caution. There is an increased social sensitivity. Those who are chronically lonely see social situations as more threatening. Therefore, they are hyper vigilant. And some of the neuroscience in this is fascinating. I think it was Cacioppo’s team that measured the response time to a potential social threat in the lonely and the non-lonely. And lonely people’s response time, the time where the potential threat appears and the time where it is registered in the brain, is 150 milliseconds for someone who’s chronically lonely and it’s 300 milliseconds for non-lonely. So what is that saying? Someone who is lonely is potentially twice as fast (their brain is) at picking up a potential threat in a social context than someone who is not lonely.
Why is that a big deal? Well then, that explains why lonely people take fewer relational risks than non-lonely people. Because if you’re moving toward a relationship — and again, this could be in marriage, this could be a friendship, this could be a co-worker, any kind of social context, a church — if you’re moving toward a social context with more fear, more distrust, more caution, more expectations, and your brain is racing, expecting someone to either disappoint you, not respond the way you would hope, then you’re going to take less risk.
Wrestle with this question. Try loving people without risking and see if it’s possible. Because every time you reach out a hand to shake a hand or to give a hug, or every time you extend a greeting, or provide a meal, or do something kind, love in any way, verbal or physical, you are risking the fact that that person might misunderstand what you’re doing or might not reciprocate.
So it is impossible to love well without risk. So if there’s greater caution, that means there’s less risk. I’m picking up on potential danger much more quickly. And that leads finally, to anti-social postures or behaviors. And what I mean, I’ll define those. Anti-social postures: lonely people withdraw more quickly, experience or practice avoidance, and build more boundaries. And it makes sense, humanly speaking, because often chronically lonely people have experienced some kind of trauma that they’re seeking to protect themselves from. But these are the anti-social postures. Anti-social behavior: studies show that chronically lonely people are not as interested in others as non-lonely people are. And again it makes sense. If your mind is racing with risk factors, how do you think about others? So therefore, chronically lonely people ask fewer questions, talk more about themselves, play the victim, and preemptively blame quicker than non-lonely people.
So in the end, you can see how that creates a relational exhaustion. Because so much is happening in here that relationships exhaust. And they feed the fear and distrust, and the cycle continues. Fear ends up evicting the thing it craves, right? The chronically lonely person craves relationships, but the fear and distrust actually prevent the very thing that they crave from being experienced. So this may be why Chad’s desire to be around more people is temporarily creating more stress, more exhaustion, more despair. Chad is actually allergic to the very thing he craves.
So what is our loneliness saying in a situation like that? Can you see what a gift that is? If we will listen carefully to loneliness, we will see our hearts in ways that we would not have seen them. We will see what’s shaping or driving, or what we’re fearing or trusting. So when we experience loneliness pains, like hunger pains, what should we do?
Well there are so many answers to that question, and really the whole series we’re going to be wrestling with this. But let me just suggest two things in summary. First of all, we’ve seen we need to start with God. If my first response, when I feel lonely is to be angry or frustrated or reaching out to people to satisfy this craving of loneliness, I am going to spend my life disappointed. Because no one can do that for you.
So first we go to God. And what’s amazing to me is the way God moves toward us. You notice in places like 1 John 4:18 it says, “perfect love casts out” what? Fear. “Perfect love casts out fear.” Why? Very next verse, because “We love because he first loved us.” So even the way God does relationships is so different from the way someone who’s chronically lonely is anticipating the relationship going. God comes in and says, I love you. I’ve given my son for you. There is nothing you can do to change my love, and there are no strings attached, and there is nothing I’m expecting you to do to prove yourself to be worthy of earning this love.
So he’s going right for the fear/distrust that gets the cycle going, and he’s saying, let’s go right after that. “Let not [your mind] your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” So we go to God. We’re like, “God I may not understand a lot of what’s going on in my heart. I don’t even totally understand this cycle. I haven’t been able to put all the pieces together, but I know, I know you have the answers, and I know you will give me the clarity of thought, the wisdom of other people, to walk through this, the healing of your Holy Spirit.” We love because He first loved us. In other words, our ability to love in a healthy way has to flow from the kind of love that he’s already poured out for us. He’s saying it’s there for you; tap into that.
And the second thing I would say is, just for today, are you willing to take a risk? And for some of you who saw yourselves on that “Chronically Lonely Cycle,” a risk might mean going to a friend and saying, “Can you help me unpack this? I see a lot of me on this. Have you seen any of this in me?” And you may quickly realize, we need some help, and call for a Christian counselor to walk through that with you. That’s a huge risk. But God’s love is saying, “I’m with you. I will walk through that with you.”
For others of us, taking a risk might simply be praying, “Lord, you have something for me in this series. It might be something you want to change in me, or it might be something you want to help me see so I can help others.” But part of that risk is just saying, Lord, help me to come out of my own world and be willing to hear what you have to say to me. So what I’d love for us to do is to call out to him now and ask for his help.