Unfortunately, there’s plenty of bad information out there about loneliness and the Christian faith. It’s not hard to find. Just Google “loneliness and faith” and see what kinds of results you get. Your screen may fill with questionable or semi-questionable content that will tell you your loneliness will go away if you:
• Spend more time with God. (Always?)
• Use your time wisely. (Really?)
• Let God remove this “trait” so you can have more intimate relationships that will aid you in your time of need. (Loneliness is a trait?)
• Call someone and tell them what’s really going on in your life. (Um. Maybe?)
They say if you do these things, you will be less lonely.
Or not. Most likely not.
Many of the people who say these sorts of things are simplifying loneliness so much that it’s hard to take them seriously. When Christians are quick to simplify difficult things that are worthy of grief and sorrow, it can feel like they are dismissing those difficult things (and the people experiencing them) and encouraging believers to straighten up, pretend like everything is okay, and be joyful, dammit.
Instead of responding to loneliness in ways that simplify and dismiss it, I prefer to react to loneliness with curiosity. I move closer in and give my attention to my loneliness and ask God to show me what’s going on with the sense of isolation that I can’t seem to get rid of with a three-step guide and a prayer.
My experiences have shown me that loneliness is pretty complicated, so I don’t believe spiritual Band-Aid solutions will work. If we slow down and notice what’s going on in our hearts and souls, we might discover the loneliness returns within minutes or hours or days. We might find there’s a lingering sense of loneliness that really might never go away as long as we are inhabitants of this world.
Well, that’s depressing. So now what?
Now we move into a space that has room for a more nuanced approach to loneliness. In this space, we can sit with our loneliness and wonder why we have it, what might have triggered it, where it might take us, how it might change us. Of course, we can pray and try to connect with God and reach out to a loved one and schedule some time together. These are healthy things to do when we feel lonely. Being with God and being with other people may give us a new perspective and may comfort us in our loneliness, but we need to accept that these actions might not wipe away our loneliness. I remember when I was a kid and my teachers used real chalkboards and real chalk. When they used erasers it never really worked very well. The erasers picked up a bit of the chalk from the chalkboards, but it seemed like the job of the eraser was primarily to spread out the chalk into huge smudged clouds. That’s how I imagine loneliness when we try to alleviate it. A fraction of our loneliness might be removed when we connect with God and others, but most of it remains in a huge smudge on the chalkboards of our souls.
My very first therapist used to remind me that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV). I love that verse because it helps us to rest in the fact that we can’t see—right now—an absence of loneliness in our lives. It helps us to rest in the fact that we may struggle with different types of loneliness throughout the rest of our lives. And it helps us hope for the glimpses of freedom from the loneliness that we do experience on occasion. It also helps us hope for eternity—when the smudges of loneliness will be washed away, when loneliness will be no more.
And in the meantime, I’m going to stay curious about my loneliness, I’m going to keep talking and writing about it, and I’m going to be on the lookout for more hope for the lonely. Thanks for joining me as I explore loneliness from different angles and examine how it intersects with the Christian faith.
For more on loneliness, be on the lookout for my Hope for the Lonely podcast that is launching soon. I’m also working on a manuscript (that will hopefully be a book one day) that examines loneliness from different angles. Essays explore topics such as Our Bodies and Loneliness, Art and Loneliness, and The Psalms and Loneliness.