I preached this sermon yesterday at my church. It was a difficult one to write. I think this is because it was more topical instead of being based on a single Bible passage. That made it harder for me to decide what to put in and leave out. In the end, I may have put too much in. In spite of that, my prayer is that God spoke through a fragile instrument.
p.s. – These are my notes, slightly fleshed-out so that they make sense. Not the entire text of the sermon.
We are in the midst of a series called “A New Kind of Normal,” based on the book by Carol Kent. We are examining places where our lives are not what we would want. We would prefer for things to return to our definition of “normal.” Instead, we sometimes need to redefine “normal” based on our actual experience.
Often when we think of people who are alone, we think of single people, divorced people and widowed people. But those are not the only people who struggle with loneliness. Married people can also be lonely. This sermon is directed toward all people who experience loneliness, whether they are single, divorced, widowed or yes, even married. The sermon is in three parts: the first looks at our experience of loneliness, the second looks at what the Bible says about loneliness, and the third presents two steps to a “solution” for loneliness.
Our experience of loneliness
Loneliness is a big part of our society, and it has become bigger in the last 50 years or so.
The most recent census showed that 25 percent, or 27.2 million of U.S. households consisted of just one person. In 1950, it was just 10 percent.
Robert Putnam wrote a book ten years ago called Bowling Alone, about the loss of community in American life. The book gets its title from the fact that the number of people who bowl in America has gone up in recent years, but the number of bowling leagues has gone down. People today are less likely to form associations with others than they were a generation ago.
Loneliness has even become more prevalent in the last 20 years or so.
A study in the American Sociological Review from 2006 showed that the average American had just 2 friends with whom they could discuss matters important to them. The number of people with NO close friends in 1985 was 10 percent. In 2006 – 25 percent. Another 19 percent said they had just one: their spouse.
This may seem strange, because we have much more connecting technology now than we used to: cell phones, e-mail, Facebook. And yet people are lonely. People have an itch for community, but it’s not being scratched by how we use technology. Why is that?
What the Bible says about loneliness
Let’s look for an answer in what the Bible says about loneliness. If you look up “loneliness” in a concordance, you won’t find much. The Bible was addressed to a culture that was much different from our own. It’s not that people didn’t experience loneliness back then. It’s that if you were on your own, loneliness was the least of your problems. The three most vulnerable types of people in ancient societies were widows, orphans and aliens – people who didn’t have the support structure of family.
But the Bible does have something to say about loneliness. Let’s begin at the beginning. You may want to write these passages down to look at later.
In the beginning, God made Adam, the first human, and put him in the Garden of Eden. After he put him there, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Then, after having Adam look at and name all the animals, God created woman.
Then along came the serpent and convinced them to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God had told them not to do. Then come the events of Genesis 3:8-13. They hear God coming, and for the first time they hide. They are alienated from God. Adam blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on, as the old joke goes.
The roots of loneliness are right here: because our ancestors suspected God was not working in their best interests, there is now a loss of intimacy between humans and God. Our natural inclination now is to be alienated from God and from other people. Is it any wonder that people struggle with loneliness?
In the rest of the Old Testament, from time to time you see people who have lost family or community. Here in Leviticus, people with leprosy or other skin diseases are told they must live alone. This gives new meaning to the fact that Jesus healed lepers in his earthly ministry. Part of his purpose was to restore community. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
1 Kings 19:1-5a, 13b-18
Here we see the prophet Elijah after he had killed 450 false prophets. Despite this great victory, he was afraid of Jezebel and ran away. This is a kind of loneliness that was his own fault. He was not really alone, but he had pity on himself and was afraid of the queen more than he was afraid of God.
The Psalmist’s loneliness: Psalms of Lament. Two good examples: Psalm 88:8, 15-18, 102:1-11. In psalms of lament, the psalmists feel abandoned by God and by other people. So far we’ve seen at least two kinds of loneliness: sometimes loneliness happens because community is taken from us, but sometimes loneliness happens because we are feeling frightened and sorry for ourselves.
New Testament loneliness: Jesus did not experience loneliness for most of his life. The only time he experienced loneliness was on the cross. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He is quoting the opening of Psalm 22. Jesus was experiencing a distance from his Father that he had never known. Jesus always referred to God as his Father, but here he uses the less intimate term “God.” At the end of Psalm 22, the psalmist is vindicated by God, and Jesus knew that he, too, would be vindicated by his resurrection. All the same, he experienced abandonment on the cross, even if he knew it was temporary.
2 Timothy 4:9-18. The final stop on our tour of loneliness in the Bible has us look at Paul’s loneliness at the end of his second letter to Timothy. Paul is in prison and writes to his protege Timothy toward the end of his life. He expresses the desolation that several of his friends and associates have left him. He knows that God is always with him, but that doesn’t take away the pain of being betrayed and deserted by humans.
So what do we learn from this crash course in what the Bible says about loneliness? We learn that:
1. Loneliness is a result of alienation from God and other people.
2. Loneliness can happen because of self-pity and self-absorption (as in the case of Elijah).
3. Loneliness can happen because we lack a community, or have been abandoned by our friends (as in the case of Paul).
4. Loneliness can happen if we feel abandoned by God.
The “solution” to loneliness: moving from loneliness to solitude with God and from solitude to community.
“Solution” is in quotes because there is no permanent solution to loneliness in this life. It is part of the human experience. Even if we go through long stretches where we don’t experience loneliness, none of us is completely immune.
Some of you may ask “Why isn’t marriage a solution to loneliness?” Two reasons: First, we’re not in the Garden of Eden anymore. Even if we get married, it’s still possible to feel lonely. Loneliness has a lot to do with our expectations of other people. If we expect a marriage partner to ease our loneliness and make us feel good all the time, we are going to be disappointed. Second, not everyone is going to get married. I don’t want to present marriage as a solution for single people, because we will not all experience marriage.
The first step in the “solution” is solitude. When we’re lonely, the biggest temptation is to distract ourselves. We call or e-mail people; we check our Facebook. But the way to make loneliness productive is to turn that loneliness into solitude. We need to go into the desert of loneliness and turn it into a garden of solitude. Henri Nouwen wrote,
“When we live with a solitude of heart, we can listen with attention to the words and the worlds of others, but when we are driven by loneliness, we tend to select just those remarks and events that bring immediate satisfaction to our own craving needs.” – Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
When we are lonely, we are restless and unhappy, and we reach out to other people in order to have them meet our needs. When we are in solitude, we are content, we are listening to God, and we are able to listen to, care for and be present with people. What does solitude look like? Jesus gives us an example. He often sought solitude with his Father:
Mark 1:35 – “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
Luke 5:15 -”Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
Luke 6:12 – “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.” Jesus led a very busy life, but always made time for solitude. When we’re lonely, shouldn’t we at least ask ourselves: am I reaching out to people for selfish reasons? Do I need solitude with God right now?
There are lots of ways to practice solitude. Spending daily time in prayer is one. Setting aside regular time to go on silent retreats is another. People who are really experienced with solitude can do it even in the midst of people. Richard Foster wrote:
Solitude is more a state of mind and heart than it is a place. There is a solitude of the heart that can be maintained at all times. Crowds, or the lack of them, have little to do with this inward attentiveness. It is quite possible to be a desert hermit and never experience solitude. But if we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone, for we know that we are not alone. Neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us. In the midst of noise and confusion we are settled into a deep inner silence. Whether alone or among people, we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart.” – Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
The second step in the “solution” is moving from solitude to community. And it’s really a two-step. We go from solitude to community, then back to solitude then back to community.
The Bible tells us that God’s people ought to be a community that reaches out to the lonely. God’s people ought to be a family:
Matthew 12:46-50 – Jesus: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
John 19:26-27 – Jesus on the cross: “here is your mother,” and “here is your son.”
Acts 2:45-47 – “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Galatians 6:10 – “let us do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers.”
Eph. 2:19 – “you are members of the household of God.”
The early Christians knew this. When there were plagues in the cities of the Roman Empire, nearly everyone cleared out, except for the Christians. They stayed behind to take care of the sick and dying, whether they were biological family or not. Julian the Apostate at one point wrote to his pagan priests, saying that Christians put them to shame because Christians took care of everyone. The reason why pagan priests couldn’t do this as naturally is because their gods didn’t humble themselves and die like outcasts.
Julian’s question to the pagan priests is a good question for us in the 21st century: “Why can’t we do the same thing?” We need to look to Luke 5:12-16 for guidance. Like the leper, we need to turn to Jesus to heal us from sin and the things that make us lonely, whether it is our self-pity, or whether we have been abandoned by others. When Jesus heals us, he always restores us to community. We always go from loneliness to solitude, and from solitude to community.