This article is by Garrett Higbee and published by BCC
A few years ago, I wrote a small group study looking at ten of the one another verses in Scripture. I was struck by the repeated commands to love one another by encouraging, praying, bearing with, and comforting one another (to name a few). In the Creation account, the Bible points to the clear interdependence for which we were created (Gen. 2:18). That’s why the current social isolation only adds to the profound problems associated with loneliness. Feeling alone and disconnected is increasingly prevalent in our world today. It’s not surprising then that even secular social scientists talked about an epidemic of loneliness in the U.S. even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The forced social isolation in the last several months has only exasperated the consequences of an increasingly disconnected society.
The effects of loneliness on physical and mental health are well documented, but this article will focus on some more insidious effects of loneliness on those in our faith family and circle of influence. These are very real but less talked about effects that we hope may come out in a small group or with a trusted friend. But some don’t have this outlet. What happens when you live in fear or sadness, but perhaps you don’t share or confess for fear of judgment? The fight with temptation intensifies when we are feeling disconnected, insecure, or depressed.
While it is beneficial to seek needed times of solitude, drawing near to God and away from busyness and distraction, loneliness is not a discipline to create times of reflection but a perceived or real deficiency in relationship. God invites us to Himself to meet the most profound depth of this deficit. Our people need to understand there is a vacuous place in our soul that can only be met in Christ.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
The beauty of the Christian faith is that we are never really alone. God is with us, and abiding in Him is the first and most powerful antidote to loneliness.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken” (Ps. 62:1-2, emphasis mine).
But let’s face it, we need to remind each other of this truth. Sometimes we need to be there to help someone who is so tired, fainthearted, or depressed that our care incarnates God’s heart toward them. The Lord ordained the Church to provide a platform for deep fellowship with Him and each other. I am convinced that the Church has an amazing opportunity to return to deep fellowship, mutual discipleship, and soul care: To be a place where authentic community happens weekly and even daily. A beacon of hope that draws people from every tribe and tongue together to satisfy a longing for connection. Ultimately, the deepest need to connect and abide is with our Lord Himself, but He has chosen the Church to be the most intimate reflection of this communion (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23).
Loneliness Increases Common Temptations
Most of us know that when feeling isolated, we are more likely to fall into temptation. Temptation can happen any time, but we are more susceptible to wrong thinking and fleshly desires when we are not in life-giving fellowship. James 1 lays out a pattern for temptation’s slippery slope.
“ Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Loneliness doesn’t cause us to sin, but it certainly makes it easier to start down the path. Staying in fellowship (Heb. 10:24-25) and having a close friend to talk to (Prov. 17:17) can make all the difference between giving in to sinful desires and fighting them. The image of a lone sheep comes to mind. Maybe this sheep has strayed from the flock, or maybe it has been isolated in some way. Regardless, it is vulnerable. Satan is watching for strays and attacks when we are most isolated, weak, or susceptible to temptation (1 Pet. 5:8). Like a lone sheep, we are vulnerable to all kinds of dangers when isolated.
Most of us have felt some intense moments of loneliness in the current season. Still, the desperately lonely person may have added feelings of abandonment, betrayal, rejection, loss, or unresolved conflict. That type of loneliness is skeptical of prayer requests or an invitation to attend church again. This state of mind leaves us with a yearning that takes us to false comforts, false security, worldly pleasures, and passive aggression. A young single professional asks herself, “Does anyone really care? Why doesn’t anyone call me?” An older widow asks, “Why doesn’t anyone check in on me?” A prodigal child at college feels justified to drink because their family seems to have given up on them. Loneliness isn’t the same for everyone, but it is an equal opportunist.
These kinds of feelings of fear and alienation call for intrusive love and follow through when most of us seem to be waiting for someone else to reach out to us! Those of us who are feeling a bit disconnected from others but generally close to the Lord need to be on the loving offense, not the fearful defense. You will find reaching out not only helps those you serve but blesses you as well (Prov. 11:25).
Loneliness is Like an Echo Chamber in Our Thought Life
Loneliness tends to exaggerate negative thinking and behavior. It is like an echo chamber of our worst fears that drowns out wisdom (Prov. 1:33). Our self-talk tends to ruminate on the what-ifs or insecurities, leading to lies we start to believe. Nervousness becomes a paralyzing worry and can cause erratic behavior; disappointment can lead to despair, bringing with it hopelessness that can result in poor self-care. Some fulfill their own prophesy… “I am unloved” by staying away from others out of fear or distrust. They may feel they have been hurt or disappointed and can’t open themselves to more of that treatment right now. Others may see it as an excuse to avoid accountability. Proverbs 18:1 warns us not to self-isolate, which can be a sign of either selfishness or pride: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.”
In either case, a true friend confronts lies lovingly or asks forgiveness for neglect and presses into hurt until the person is restored (Gal. 6:1-2). We speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), helping others to interrupt and change the narrative that “no one cares” or “God is not there for them.”
Loneliness and Social Distancing
But what if life circumstances force isolation on us? We long for connection, but it’s temporarily cut off. The Psalmist writes,
“I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop” (Ps. 102:7).
Trouble sleeping, a profound sense of being left out, or just missing people we used to hang out with can bring sadness. These are only a few effects of temporary, situational isolation. It is a time for compassion and humility: “I want to hear your story and to share some of how this has affected me.” A great way to enter into these conversations is to admit your struggles without comparing your suffering to theirs. No doubt, we have all been disappointed and had moments of “hope deferred” (Prov. 13:12). Just reconnecting and sharing common experiences is helpful for most.
Ministering to the Lonely
If loneliness is a predominate issue in our world right now and is increasing the temptation to sin, what can we do to face it head-on? First, we admit it. We preach sermons that pull in the Psalms and other passages that address suffering and loneliness with a vertical reality. We ask people who have walked through loneliness with the help of a friend to share their experience with others to bring light to the issue. We don’t shame people or make them feel that faith should be enough, that a trite Christian saying or superficial attempt to help will do anything more than alienate or hurt further. Perhaps we share stories in sermons of real people and real struggles (with permission) or at least use believable hypotheticals. We go the extra mile with people who seem tenuous or skeptical of our care. We text, call, Zoom, or drop off food, but then we follow up again. We don’t just help with physical needs—we target the heart. We invite people to fellowship to the edge of their comfort zones. It might mean online with some, but it might mean intimate conversations in our living rooms taking proper precautions with others. If they don’t show, we call right away to ask where they were. If they are hesitant, we ask them what is keeping them away. If someone has given into temptation, they may feel shame; if they have drifted from godly disciplines, they feel embarrassed and fear judgment. Others will test you to see if you are just trying to make the rounds or if you really care for them.
Remember, many had already experienced a sense of feeling disconnected before the virus wreaked havoc on communities around the world. Some of the most vulnerable already lived alone, lived in nursing homes, or struggled with mental illness or various addictions. The temptation for them to find comfort in mindless distractions, fulfilling lustful desires, numbing the pain, or becoming self-destructive has likely compounded their struggle. Listen carefully, provide a safe place to confess, and pray with them.
Take people to the Scripture, remind them that God is waiting for them (Matt. 11:28-30), He will never forsake them (Ps. 27:10), and He is the Good Shepherd (John 10). Let them know that their temptations are common (1 Cor. 10:13), and they are not alone. The Church is where real community happens, and while social distancing may be necessary, social isolation is not. We need to be there to help encourage others to flee from temptation (2 Tim. 2:22), run into the arms of God, and stay in the protection of the flock.
Questions for Reflection
- How is your self-counsel and heart as you experience social distancing and the challenges of this season?
- How can you use your own struggles with isolation to break the ice with others who are hurting before taking them to the Word?
- Who is someone in your circle of influence who needs the intrusive love of God through you?