Tag Archives: #emotions

An open letter from a happy single person on Valentine’s Day

It’s the week before Valentine’s Day. It must be because I’ve started seeing articles and memes about being kind to, and thoughtful of, all the lonely miserable single people. And no doubt that is a thing. Valentine’s Day for many is a reminder of all the things you don’t have. That can be excruciating. Especially when everything everywhere is geared towards rubbing it in your face – 2 for 1 deals for you and that special someone, people forever asking “What are you doing for Valentine’s Day” and even worse, posting their romantic excesses on Facebook. It triggers an extra loneliness because every other day of the year you might feel alone, but on this particular day, you feel super lonely.

We absolutely need to be sensitive to people’s needs around this time.

But lets not assume that every single person is lonely and miserable. I’m single-again (divorced) and decided from the get-go that I would not be in another relationship. So if I was not going to be in a relationship, that means a deliberate choice for single and celibate.

But I am generally a very content alone person. I am happy to be on my own and have a community of Christian brothers and sisters who I can spend time with if I choose. I suppose I miss companionship from time to time – someone to tell about your day, someone to watch TV with, someone to cook with. I guess I feel it the most when times are hard. There’s nobody to fall back on, no one to support you. You have only your own mental and emotional resources and it can be exhausting.

But that doesn’t happen that often in the grand scheme of things and on the whole, I’m very content in my life choice.

How do you “get” that kind of satisfaction? It could be age. Or experience perhaps. It helps that I’m generally very satisfied in my own company. But I have something else. I am content with Jesus.

I can almost hear everybody’s eyes rolling at this point.

I’m not saying “Jesus is my boyfriend” and I’m not saying he is my imaginary friend. I’m saying that an overall happiness in the knowledge of God seeps into a more general state of peace and contentment.

I am also not saying its a silver bullet – an easy fix to “the problem of singleness”. Because it definitely isn’t. Like I said above, some weeks are really hard.

What I am saying is that I don’t see my singleness as a problem. It was my personal choice on theological grounds, but I didn’t (and don’t) see it as a self-flagellating abstinence for the sake of the kingdom.

I see my singleness for what it is – a personal choice, guided by scripture, as to how to live my life.

This seems counter cultural. Our lives are generally focussed on pairing up. It’s a societal norm and cultural expectation. Not being married is to be lacking in something. To not want to be married is something that’s a bit weird.

But Jesus was single.

It’s interesting that in the early church, it was actually celibacy that was exalted to rock-star status. By the time of Martin Luther (and ever since), the pendulum has swung the other way, with the exaltation of marriage. This is problematic in many ways as our churches can be places of great community for families, but much less so for singles, who are seen as “in waiting” til they have spouses of their own.

I’m not waiting. I’m happily single and celibate for the sake of the gospel. I read a lot and I get to know Jesus a little bit more every day, and it is vastly and peacefully satisfying.

I’m not living in a cloister though. I’m living in the world with two kids and a full time job, so how I live out my singleness is just as haphazard and chaotic as anyone else living out their situation.

I live my singleness much the same way that anyone else lives their family situation. It’s not better or worse, its just my life. And I am quite content in it.

So come this Valentine’s Day, if you’d like to know what I’ll be doing – I’m going to see a movie with a mate. It’s an early show because one of my favourite things is also going to bed early, drinking tea and watching TV or reading a book. (Side note: as a younger adult I loved that I could go to bed whenever I wanted. Back then it meant 2 or 3 in the morning. Now it means 9pm).

But, if you need a pick me up, I can highly recommend 7 Myths about Singleness by Sam Alberry. It is solid, biblical, wise and insightful and really should be read by singles and non-singles, because as Alberry points out, everyone will be single again at some point.

Why Christians are not immune to loneliness

As Christians, I often feel like we should be immune to loneliness. We have Jesus, right? But this is one of those areas where an inspirational Christian meme doesn’t really cut it. “Only God is enough to satisfy our loneliness” I read. And “You are never left alone when you are alone with God”. These are true, obviously, but not really helpful when you’re feeling the raw reality of loneliness.

If you google “bible passages for the lonely” you find lots of gems. “Surely I am with you always, till the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Also true. But this is part of Jesus’ great commission to his disciples, not a consolation to a person crumbling under the weight of loneliness.

And yet, there is acknowledgement in scripture that loneliness is real, but not necessarily in the emotional way we might think of it. For example, in Psalm 25:16 “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” The Hebrew word translated as “lonely” denotes more a physical state of being solitary – like a friendless wanderer or exile. Of course there is a psychological state associated potentially with that, but that’s not what the language denotes. Loneliness described and discussed as a psychological state is a relatively recent phenomena. That doesn’t mean it was any less real prior to the last hundred years, just that it wasn’t talked about the same way. In history, to be friendless or cut off from community was a social state and was the epitome of a fate worse than death.

We talk now about loneliness as a psychological and emotional state. It might include feeling cut off from community, but includes fear, despair, hopelessness – and as Christians we are not immune. Even though we have the truth of our salvation in Christ and an eternal relationship with the living God, we will still from time to time feel the awful chill of loneliness.

Loneliness can happen to anyone. Whether you are single or in a relationship, whether you are in a large family or none. It’s not the same as being alone. Personally, I’m quite content on my own. I am an introvert by nature and I enjoy reading, writing, knitting (badly) and so on. But being alone in this way is a choice. Feeling lonely is when we are alone in a way that we don’t feel is our choice – when we want to be with someone, or with family, or with community – and we can’t.

That’s when secondary emotions kick in. Disappointment that things aren’t different, anger at feeling powerless to change things, despair that things will always be this way, fear of a future that is uncertain.

Loneliness can feel cold and brittle. There is a stillness that you feel in the cavernous hollow of a dark mountain cave. You are the only living and breathing thing. There is a silence. There is nobody else and there is the thick rock cave wall between you and the rest of the world. If you screamed in this sound-deadened cavity, nobody would hear, and the only sound would be the echo of your own scream coming back to you. You are the only person who hears your pain.

That’s what loneliness feels like.

Loneliness is both our modern emotional understanding and the historical social understanding. You feel cut off from people. Even though our modern world is less constructed according to familial ties and community, we feel separated. And you feel the associated ragged emotional cuts of isolation physically and psychologically.

What is interesting is that even though the meaning behind the language has changed over time, scripture still acknowledges that anguish.

Psalm 142 gives us important teaching without ever using the word “loneliness”. It is attributed to David when he was hiding in the cave from his enemies. Verse 4 says:

Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

This seems to be a perfect description of loneliness. And what does this psalm tell us?

I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.

I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.

Sorry to sound obvious but prayer is the first step when we are feeling pain. What is interesting here is that David says he tells a God of his complaint before he tells him his trouble. For David this might be his complaint about his physical situation (I’m trapped and alone) and then his “trouble” is then his emotional state – which he lays out in the following verses.

When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way. In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me.

4 Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

His spirit grows faint – he is feeling overwhelmed. People have hidden a snare – he is surrounded by enemies. Nobody cares for him. These are all things that resonate with us.

I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.

This whole psalm is a prayer – it is a conversation with God. David has told God his complaint (“I am alone”) and he’s laid out his trouble (“I feel so lonely and overwhelmed and frightened and this is too big for me…”). He continues this conversation, talking to God in real and raw emotional need. There is no prayer-formula here. There is no massaging of words to sound right, he just lets it pour out.

But what comes next is fascinating:

Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.

David doesn’t end with a hope that the loneliness will end at some point. He calls on God to deliver him so that he might praise his name. Then the righteous will gather around David – his loneliness and uncertainty will end. Not because of David, but because of God’s visible goodness.

This might feel confronting to us. Our prayers are requests but largely asking for God to empower us to feel better – as though God is a self help guru. What David does is directly and boldly ask God to change his situation (the circumstances of his complaint) and through God’s action, his trouble will be alleviated.

Sometimes, in our lack of confidence, we minimise God and our knowledge of what he is able to do. David, in the midst of his despair, asks God to essentially perform a powerful work so that in his responding praise, people will see evidence of God’s goodness and gather to him.

These are David’s words to God, but they are laid down as God-breathed scripture, which means they are words that God has given us to acknowledge our pain and provide a means and a language for us to reach him in those times. We must use them.

So, if you are like me and from time to time struggle with loneliness, we can use this approach to God. We can take the burden of self help off our already aching shoulders and ask God for help. We can not just speak words of complaint and trouble, but let them pour out of us. We can ask for deliverance. We can be bold because we are approaching our God who is bigger than any circumstance we have.

We are Christian and we have a relationship with the living God. But we are not immune to loneliness. God knows this and gave us real words to bring to him in our pain. Formula prayers and inspirational memes won’t cut it. In the Psalms he gave us these beautiful words that express how we feel – but he doesn’t leave us there. He gives us the means to move forward.

We need to give ourselves permission to be raw with God, be bold in asking him to take over our circumstances and deliver us from our loneliness.

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.