The Gift of Loneliness
- Adapted from The Single Journey Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2006 21 Jun
If there's an organ in the body that causes loneliness, I'm sure it's located near the stomach. When I'm really hungry I'll eat anything—lettuce, ice, dried pasta, frozen peas. The same is true when I'm lonely. I'll look anywhere or do anything to stop the hunger.
I know I'm lonely when I check my e-mail, click on another site, and then check my box again to see if mail came in. Maybe I missed something. Sometimes I dial the voicemail on my cell phone to check for messages, even though the very colorful and accurate display screen reads "no new messages." Maybe the screen messed up. When I get home from work, my first stop if my office to check my phone. Aha! The little green light on my caller ID box is flashing. A new message! I dial into the system. I punch in my code. I wait. I frown. I hang up. Another telemarketer wants to sell me solar heating for my pool.
As that unidentified organ near my stomach begins to pump the lonely feeling into my body from ears to toes, I resort to the backup plan. Noise, motion, a task, any distraction is all I need to stave off the growing hunger. I turn on the radio. Nuts! Commercials. I turn on the TV. Fifty-five channels of boredom. I eat. I just bought these cookies, how can they be stale? I drink. Remember to buy more milk. I sleep. Why do all my neighbors have dogs? I do laundry. I mow the lawn. I write out bills. I make my bed. I play video games. I write. I run errands. I organize my closet. I read. I vacuum. I desperately search for any distraction to deaden the pain.
Finally I find myself sitting on my couch thinking, Maybe I should call somebody. I haven't talked to Dave in a while. Dave moved to Colorado three years ago, and since then we've talked twice. What about Brandy in New Jersey? We need to catch up. I haven't talked to Brandy at all in two years. If someone does call to ask a quick question, I become unusually friendly. So how are you? What's new with you? I'm sure the caller can see through my charade.
Now the organ inside is working overtime. I'm consumed with loneliness. I grow bitter. Why don't more people call me? I'm a nice guy. I think about all the things I've done for other people and wonder why they don't do more for me. I think about Friday night approaching—I've received no invitations and made no plans. Time for a one-man pity party. I bet everybody is going out on Friday night except me. I embellish the fantasy in my mind by imagining all my friends at a rocking party with great music in the background. They're all standing around with beautiful partners on their arms.
Why is everybody happy and connected except me? I shouldn't have to live like this. I'm made for so much more.
Indeed I am.
I'm sure if someone took a survey, one of the most often quoted Bible verses among singles would be Genesis 2:18, in which God looks at newly created Adam and declares, "It is not good for man to be alone." I've personally browbeaten God with this verse many times, but with few results. God himself said it's not good for a man to be alone. I figure sometimes I need to remind him of that fact.
Adam's story isn't much different from that of many singles. He strikes out into the world ready to prove he can survive in the jungle. Due to lack of competition, he builds a successful landscaping business that dominates the market. Yet when Adam takes time to smell the roses, he feels the hunger of loneliness. Alarmed by the realization that success isn't enough, he longs for somebody special in his life, somebody who can help with the business and comfort him when he comes home at night.
Then comes the part we all long for as singles. While Adam sleeps, he dreams of meeting a perfect mate. This mate is a lot like him and they have much in common, but there's also something very different. The mate can do things he can't do, understand things in ways he can't understand. Together their life is fulfilling.
Adam awakes and realizes he isn't imagining or dreaming. Like a slow-motion scene in a music video, she appears: the most captivating and enticing creature he's ever seen! At once he knows she compliments him perfectly. She's just like him, yet she's different in all the right places and in all the right ways. He stands speechless for several moments. And then he utters those famous words, "Woe Man!" The name stuck. Adam then composed the first love song, called "At Last!":
This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man. (Gen. 2:23; ESV)
Adam's sense of loneliness before Eve was created wasn't some silly feeling. The image-bearer of God truly was incomplete for his task without his partner. God himself declared Adam's isolation "not good." Together Adam and Eve were perfect strength and beauty. Apart from each other there's a sense of disjointedness.
These verses can be painful for singles. We long for Adam and Eve's scene to be our scene. We're moved by powerful and romantic encounters in movies because we want the same in our lives. We pray for the perfect companion, chosen by God, who's the right match in every way. Both men and women are created in the image of God, whether they are separate or together, yet each often feel incomplete until becoming one flesh with a spouse.
That's why Genesis 2:18 can encourage us. It validates our sense of drifting and apartness. There isn't something wrong with us. This verse not only tells us we'll feel lonely and alone, but it also tells us something is probably wrong if we don't.
I know too many singles who pretend they aren't lonely and pretend they don't care about marriage. At times, I fight the same temptation. It's easier to deny the angst of being without a soulmate than to step into the abyss of loneliness. Stifling a desire makes us feel in control; acknowledging a desire makes us vulnerable. Yet a desire that isn't open can't be filled. Adam's experience reminds singles that loneliness is normal and necessary.
This is affirming to me, because often I grow weary of the single life. I want to throw in the towel because everything seems out of place in my life. I took a wrong turn somewhere. I need a new job. I need to change churches. I need new hobbies. I need new friends. I need to move to a new city. Yet when I calm down and take a good look at my life, I realize I actually like my job and my church. I enjoy my hobbies. I value my friends. I love where I live. I'm just out of sorts because I feel unconnected. But it's okay; I should. Adam had the same feeling until God gave him Eve. We're made for so much more. Loneliness is the wailing siren that doesn't let me forget.
Between the powerful feelings of loneliness within us and the hailstorm of pressure from others to "settle down already," it's tempting to stifle our God-given desires for intimacy, romance, and union because they're just too painful. Holding onto the desire for intimacy in this world is like trying to hold a dozen eggs in one hand. It doesn't take much for us to give up and call ourselves foolish. It's no wonder most singles are reluctant to open up about their deep loneliness, even with other singles. We're often more accustomed to misunderstanding and misguided attempts to "fix" our condition than we are to receiving genuine sympathy and compassion.
So what do many singles do when they're intensely lonely and bombarded with disheartening messages? They get married; if not to another lonely single, then to their job, hobby, ministry, or anything else that kills the hunger of loneliness. "I know I hide behind being busy with my job," a single told me recently. "But it's just easier that way."
Ironically, most singles don't need a marriage as much as they need a divorce—a divorce from the idolatrous relationships they've formed to kill their hunger pangs of loneliness. In truth, our desire for union with another can't be met unless the desire is acknowledged, enlarged, and available. Often God can't put good things in our hands because they're already too full with idols. Detours around loneliness are such idols.
If many of us had the choice, we'd marry as soon as possible; we'd do anything to get rid of our singleness. I've begged, bargained, screamed, yelled, cried, and pleaded with God, yet he hasn't budged. At times I doubted he even cared, until he mercifully reminded me of his goodness and his love for me.
So why should we smash the idols and look our loneliness in the eye? Because God wants to do more, say more, and change far more in us than just our marital status. He wants to use our loneliness in a profound way. As singles, we're in an awesome window of time to discover who we are in God's great story and where we're headed. We need to cherish the freedom to listen to God's voice without the hindrances of a demanding spouse or a wailing toddler. Loneliness can be one of God's greatest gifts to singles.
When someone first told me to treasure this time in my life and embrace my loneliness as a gift from God, I thought he was crazy. How insensitive can you get? Don't you know I'd do anything to get rid of this gnawing inside? Yet gradually I've come to appreciate the wisdom behind those words.
Loneliness is a gift from God because it's a continual reminder I'm created for so much more. Not just union with a spouse, but also a deeper connection with my family and friends—and most of all, intimacy with my Creator. Loneliness pushes me forward when I'd otherwise be tempted to settle for lackluster relationships and an isolated existence.
We're all tempted to retreat when we're disappointed or hurt by others. We want to pull up the drawbridge leading to our hearts. Loneliness beckons us to release that kind of control and to engage and connect with others. It's a reminder that we're fueled by relationships and that our tank is empty.
Sometimes, when loneliness gets the best of me, I become angry and bitter toward God. How could he let this happen to me? I conclude he's cruel because he could give me a spouse in a flash, yet he refuses. So I choose to avoid him and just go through the motions of religion. I mutter under my breath in disgust. But then, aware of my need, I fall before him pleading—and he always answers with comfort, hope, or new paths for the future. Without loneliness, I'd run from him and not look back. But I can't, because this creature was created for intimacy with its Creator.
Loneliness is also an opportunity for us to ask God what he wants to let surface in our hearts. It gets our attention and consequently we're driven to ask our Father what he's trying to tell us. What are you trying to get me to notice, Lord? What relational pattern are you trying to free me from? How am I sabotaging the good things you're trying to give me? Would marriage be destructive for me right now? What new thing do you want to do at this point in my journey?
As much as I don't want to admit it, God has used my loneliness from time to time to convict me of sin. He's shown me my bitterness when I've blamed someone else. He's shown me my fear when I've claimed, "She's not my type." And he's also used my loneliness to propel me towards action. I've often found the motivation to hit the dance floor, ask for a phone number, or go new places because I was so tired of feeling alone.
Finally, loneliness brings me to a place of submission and surrender. The weight of a lonely heart is too great a burden for me to bear. I struggle, strain, and grit my teeth to carry the load, but it becomes too much. I'm forced to lay it at God's feet and let him carry it. Surrendering our desires for intimacy to God isn't the same as stifling those desires. When we surrender our desires for romance to Christ, we admit we aren't in control of this area of our lives nor do we want to be. We heed his call to patience. We wait for his best. When we kneel before our Father with uplifted hands, we have his promise that when we ask for bread, he won't give us a stone.
I am amazed at Jesus' example during the last night he spent with his disciples. Just hours away from the most grueling, brutal suffering the Roman world offered, Jesus knew full well what lay ahead. The Evil One was tempting him away from the cross at every moment. When I'm facing a great trial, I need loving, supportive friends around me. I believe Christ needed the same that night. In fact, he told his disciples he yearned for some time to share supper with them. The end had come. There would be no more exorcisms or mass feedings for now. Jesus' predictions regarding his death were about to come true. The horror of the Passion was about to begin.
Yet notice Jesus' primary concern. He's intent on drawing his disciples closer. As they argue over who'll be the greatest in the Kingdom, he washes their feet. As they promise to stick by him, he promises not to leave them without a Comforter. When Jesus retreats to the mountains to pray, he doesn't go alone; he takes Peter, James, and John and repeatedly asks them to pray with him in the Garden. The Son of God seeks the intimacy and encouragement of those he came to save at the most crucial hour in mankind's history. The next day he would be executed for them. That night he just wanted to be close to them.
I don't believe Jesus ever felt so alone during his earthly ministry as he did that night with his disciples. None of them understood what was about to happen. How could they? Instead, they asked irrelevant questions and jockeyed for position. Still, Jesus sought to serve them, encourage them, and love them. He turned his deep feelings of loneliness into an opportunity to submit to his Father and connect with his friends. There's no better example for singles struggling with loneliness.
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