There are rhythms of the year when family, friendship and community become very visible and more expected and needed than other times. Christmas, Easter, birthdays, Mothers/Fathers Day to name but a few. Family, friendship and community are foundational on other days but it is during these times particularly that it becomes chillingly noticeable if you feel you don’t have them.
There are single people, divorcees, widow(er)s, single parents, migrants. There are people who feel desperately alone within their own families and communities. And loneliness hurts. It hurts emotionally, but it hurts physically. We feel it in our bodies. That’s because when we experience loneliness, our bodies can be flooded with stress hormones – those make our blood pressure go up, it can interfere with our moods and our sleep, it can cause headaches and digestive problems. It can also cause that generally deeply unpleasant feeling of being uncomfortable in our own skin, making us agitated and emotionally and physically troubled.
Christians are not immune to loneliness, even though, as the 19th century hymn tells us, what a friend we have in Jesus. The Bible also gives us the means to acknowledge our feelings and move through them. But there’s another side of loneliness that needs to be acknowledged.
We are no longer used to feeling uncomfortable. Our modern life is designed to remove discomfort and pain and so we have no tools to deal with it. We air condition our emotional lives so we can feel perfectly at ease. We interior design ourselves so at the slightest hint of unpleasantness, there is a soft landing. Our world surrounds us with choice so, when facing anything distasteful or distressing, we have a hundred avenues to correct ourselves and re-achieve a state of equilibrium.
Being outside our comfort zone is, as they say, where the magic happens. But only if we are striving for something. If we experience the deep pangs of loneliness, that is not a suffering that we need to consider helpful or necessary.
But really, it is. It is necessary.
I am a single mum. My conscience and theological conviction means that I will not marry again. Without marriage being a possibility for me, that means no dating. I am content with this. But that means from time to time that loneliness hits. It is that specific loneliness of being without a partner. For me it is not a sexual yearning but the lack of a male companion who is wholly, intellectually, romantically and intimately my partner and mate. Someone who knows me and gets me. Someone who can see and anticipate my needs. Someone who is mine, and mine alone.
I can be surrounded by beautiful friends and be invited into their homes. But at the end of the day, the door closes and when they have returned to the loving fold of their own families, I am alone. And, since I cannot date, there is no possibility of my loneliness being eased.
This is not an article seeking the love of strangers or expecting relief and validation from social media. This article explores a key danger area that comes with the physical and emotional pain of loneliness, and why the suffering is necessary.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that we should sit in anguish and wallow in misery. We should do the hard work with our emotions, seeking Jesus, using the words that God gave us to express our feelings to him. We should seek the support of our friends and, where need be, seek professional help.
What I am talking about here is how to deal with the immediate and real temptations to self-manage in unhealthy ways. It’s so easy to self-manage by jumping onto a dating app as a means of taking control of our situation. Taking control makes us feel like we are doing something – it eases the the pain.
Its also easy to self-medicate with wine or food. It numbs the pain. Its easy to lose ourselves in gambling, shopping, gaming, social media obsessions. It helps us forget.
It is also easy to get angry. Anger is actually an analgesic. That means it physically relieves pain. Its why we get angry at a wall when we stub our toe. Our body and brain are hard wired to produce physiological effects that will ease our suffering. But when we are dealing with emotional suffering, getting angry means blaming someone or something – perhaps even ourselves, giving us the building blocks for bitterness and self-hatred.
It would be easy to wallow in self-pity. As bizarre as it sounds, loneliness itself can become a comfort zone. If we retreat into it, it means we don’t have to try to do anything. We don’t have to do the hard work with the emotions. It helps us create comfort within the pain.
In extreme cases, it can be easy to self-harm. The psychological discomfort and pain become so extreme that the only way to “make it stop” is to cut, or to hit or to tear. It replaces an emotional pain with a sharp physical pain.
It is temptation to take away the pain by taking control ourselves. “In the wilderness of loneliness we are terribly vulnerable. What we want is OUT, and sometimes there appear to be some easy ways to get there” as Elisabeth Elliot says in The Path of Loneliness. Elliot looks at the temptation of Jesus in the desert. “The price of Satan’s offers, on the face of it, was cheap” – as they do to us. Jesus was at his most needful. Hungry. Thirsty. Alone. Satan offers him a way out. He does not take it.
The suffering was necessary – not for suffering for its own sake, but for working through in a time of suffering without turning to something that would be unhealthy, dangerous and ultimately turning away from God.
As we seek to self-manage or self-medicate – as completely understandable as that is – what we are also doing is wresting control from God’s hands. Sometimes we just need to do the hard work in the suffering. We need to manage it, as one would manage chronic bouts of illness, but resist the temptation to take a shortcut out of the wilderness.
It is hard, terribly hard, but we keep going. We pray. We read. We create space for God to keep working in us. We lean on Christian brothers and sisters. That doesn’t take the pain and the loneliness away. But it helps us manage as we keep walking through our wilderness.
For me, 90% of the time I am fine, and I have preventative measures in place for when bad spells hit – I have an active church life, I invest in my friendships, I have a dog, I have hobbies. And when the 10% hits, I keep on trucking with a healthy diet and good sleep. None of these things take the pain away. But I know I have to just keep walking through the suffering until the the suffering is done.
The key for me is Daniel 3:17-18 and 24-25:
“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
“Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”
When we feel physical and emotional pain, the first thing is to acknowledge that we are in the fire. Second, we could turn to other gods to get us out of the fire. We could succumb to satan’s cheap temptations to ease the pain. We must resist. Third, even though we are in the fire, even though we are in the pain, God is with us. That doesn’t stop the pain from happening, but it means we are not alone even though we might feel it. He is the one who will keep walking with us in the midst of despair until we come out of the other side.
This is where faith works its hardest. It is also where God is working hardest for us. He placed people around us to help, he gave us words to express ourselves to him. He gave us the Bible to meet him where he communicates with his people. Jesus is our salvation and treasure and Lord. He has felt and experienced everything that we are feeling. He suffered. That is how we have the assurance that when we feel the emotional and physical pain of loneliness, that Jesus gets it, and has the most tender compassion on us.
God gave us the means to know him and love him and lean on him. Sometimes there is nothing to be done except to feel the feelings until they pass. We must sit in the pain and discomfort. We must live through the unpleasantness and distress, knowing that it is painful but sadly necessary, to get to the other side. But God did not leave us defenceless, or alone.