While most will remember this year for a virus, many also will remember the emotional pandemic of isolation and social distancing. The effect in the human heart is an emotion we call loneliness. In one recent survey, 44 percent of respondents said they are now lonelier than they’ve ever been. With all the closures, cancellations, and stay-home orders, it’s no wonder why.
Nine years ago, I was in my early forties, and still single. As a senior pastor in a large church, my life was a swirl of people. And yet I went home to a quiet house every night. I was not only lonely in a crowd, but lonely while pastoring a crowd. At the time, I wrote an article about what years of unwanted loneliness were teaching me about God. I heard from many readers who resonated with my experience. One reader was a single woman in Kansas City. We had mutual friends who had sent her the article. A year later, we married.
This past decade has allowed me to consider loneliness more through my long-term singleness, but now also through my years of marriage and parenting. Am I still lonely? Yes, and I’m glad that I am.
You’re glad you still feel lonely? Yes. What a relief to find I am made for much more than a wife and children. This may seem like inverted thinking, but then again Jesus often does that when he teaches, inverting our normal human perspective. Growing in our faith is largely the art of renewing and re-forming life, values, and experiences as God intended them.
This brings us to the pandemic of human loneliness. Clearly, loneliness is a result of sin. Adam and Eve were made for perfect harmony with God and each other. Sin brought alienation from both. When God asked Adam, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9), what Adam sensed inside was a painful chasm and response: “God, where are you?” Like him, we often don’t know just how much we have till it’s gone. Adam felt a painful surge of vertical emotional emptiness; harmony with God was gone. The Adam and Eve marital blame game quickly revealed horizontal harmony had also vanished (Genesis 3:12–13).
Sin created loneliness, but we must realize loneliness itself isn’t a sin. In fact, loneliness can be a divine grace. Rightly understood, it can be both our friend and our guide.
Wisdom requires us to view loneliness inversely and respond to it rightly. For the couple of decades I lived alone, my loneliness seemed not like a friend, but like an enemy. It served to remind me of my past failures in relationships — relationships I had assumed would take this painful feeling away. Therein lies the lurking danger of loneliness: if it’s not your friend, it is likely a destructive adversary in your life. We all know people whose self-isolation is their coping mechanism for either the absence of relationships or the agony of relationships (Proverbs 18:1). For them, loneliness becomes a kind of canyon to live in instead of a valley to walk through.
While loneliness is easy to see in society’s recluses, most of us live in a general relational malaise hoping someone comes to take our loneliness away. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, most people live lives of quiet desperation. With this pandemic, the quiet desperation in most homes is an even more lonely desperation.
Loneliness is part of the inner architecture of our image-bearing. It acts like sensors in our car to tell us when something is missing — oil in the engine or air in the tires. We were made for God and for community with each other.
In this fallen creation, no human relationship will satisfy that longing fully. Our ability to be satisfied in God fully is impossible as well. Because of indwelling sin, our salvation is incomplete as we await glorified bodies and the fullness of joy in God’s presence (Psalm 16:11; 21:1). Till then, no matter our marital status, our circle of friends, our closeness with children and grandchildren, we will always be somehow lonely. My appeal as someone who has lived a long time both single and married, without children and with them, with a healthy church community and dear friends, is to see loneliness in this life as a kind of gift from God.
As hunger urges us to eat and thirst drives us to drink, loneliness presses us to a deeper and more authentic relationship with God and others. It drives us out of the gravitational pull of self-living toward relational self-giving. Rather than resenting loneliness, it will bless us if we see it as a God-placed incentive for human flourishing (Acts 20:35).
If I could talk to my old single self enduring another holiday alone at home, I would say, “You are putting too much hope in what a wife and family can provide.” I’m happily married. I love being a dad. But when we think our longings will be met if we only had this person or that relationship, we will respond to loneliness with destructive isolation and disappointment.
Loneliness hurts. God embedded prickly reminders of how wonderful harmony with God and others is. The pain is a measure of the loss. Not all pain is bad. When I work out, the pain tells me I’m doing something good for me. It’s good pain. Loneliness can be good pain if I construe it rightly. What does that look like?
Loneliness creates internal energy. I can use that energy to brood in or resent my loneliness. Or I can take that energy and intentionally reach out with it. This requires discipline and self-control as my flesh urges self-destructive responses. Christians are blessed, by union with Christ and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, to resist the flesh’s desire to weaponize loneliness (Romans 6:4; Galatians 5:16–17).
We really can make loneliness a weapon for positive change in our lives.
Over many years of singleness, I would secretly assume that I felt this internal pain because I was alone. I eventually realized there is often a big difference between being alone and being lonely.
Alone is the mathematical reality of one with no plus. When you are alone and lonely, it is easy to believe that a spouse, or family, or church family will drive loneliness away. My experience, however, echoes Scripture’s teaching that 1 + 1 ≠ the absence of loneliness. The common graces of marriage, family, sex, and children are very helpful in the daily struggle. Yet even the best moments of marriage and parenting and friendship always lack something; the moment of harmony passes too quickly. The warm feelings of care slip away. Human relationships ebb and flow. Even at their best, we sense that something is missing.
For this, we should rejoice. We should be glad to realize that the best of this life leaves us wanting something more, longer, and better. As wonderful as these earthly gifts are, the fact that they don’t satisfy makes God’s promises to fully satisfy us forever even more astounding. It means our joy in him and each other will be better, deeper, and yes, happier (Philippians 1:23). Every loneliness on earth is an internal confirmation that our greatest relational joys lie ahead of us. Absence should make the heart look forward.
This doesn’t blunt the pain of loneliness, but it does assure us that this pain is part of the fleeting and temporary world that is passing away (1 Peter 1:24–25). Our future is completely free of loneliness and filled with relational fullness far beyond what we can imagine. The next time loneliness shows up, thank God that your loneliness powerfully reminds you of the glory of what lies ahead for you with him.
Steve DeWitt is senior pastor of Bethel Church in Northwest Indiana, a host of the media/radio ministry The Journey, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two girls.