Maybe it was the resemblance to my own high school years, rushing through congested hallways past a blur of faces. Maybe it was just that lonely-in-a-crowd feeling we all get sometimes. Perhaps that feeling was intensified by knowing we were united in our unspoken longing for our children to thrive in this place—and that most of us would never be more to each other than a familiar face.
It was curriculum night at my daughter’s high school, when parents spend the evening going from class to class, much as our teenagers spend their days. We meet teachers and hear about what our kids will learn. We see some people we know and plenty we don’t.
On this occasion I suddenly felt disconnected from everyone around me, lonely and longing for the warmth and satisfaction of knowing and being known by the community of people around me.
A Universal Problem
Everyone knows what it’s like to feel lonely, and for up to 40 percent of us, it’s a chronic issue. For the rest of us, loneliness may not be constant, but we all feel it from time to time. Some mental health experts even fear that an epidemic of loneliness is developing in our society—and it’s not to be taken lightly. Loneliness, they say, can be as hazardous to our health as smoking, alcoholism, or obesity.
Many experts say the problem is increasing even as we make more and easier connections through social media. We are lonely mothers, wives, and single women—introverts and extroverts. Some of us are lonely people who also happen to have a lot of friends.
Despite the fact that loneliness is a universal experience, most people don’t readily admit to it. Doing so can feel like failure—failure to achieve deeply satisfying relationships, failure to attract people who want to be in our lives, failure to take the risks required for relationships we want. Some Christians carry an additional burden: the belief that loneliness is a spiritual failure.
A popular myth among believers holds that if you’re close enough to Jesus, all your relational needs will be met. In his classic devotional My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote, “When once we get intimate with Jesus we are never lonely, we never need sympathy, we can pour out all the time without being pathetic.” In other words, if you know Jesus, you don’t need anybody else. And if you feel a longing for connection beyond that, you must not be intimate with Christ.
It’s okay to be lonely, and we need not feel ashamed to acknowledge our loneliness. That very acknowledgment can free us to address the problem in healthy ways, beginning with the realization that we don’t have solutions to our own problems. As with many other areas of life, denial here gets us into trouble.
The God-Shaped Hole
Loneliness is a kind of pain. And as we know from the way our marvelous body systems work, pain is never the real problem. Pain is a symptom, an indication of need.
Loneliness is a symptom of two needs: our need to be connected to other people and our need for connection with God. When God created human beings, he did so with a clear desire to be in relationship with us (Genesis 1–2). Human rebellion didn’t change his desire. Immediately after Adam and Eve sinned, God initiated his redemption plan to bring us back into relationship with him (Genesis 3:14–15). He unfolded that plan through his covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17); the sacrifice of his only Son to redeem his fallen creation (John 1:10–13); his unconditional love (Romans 5:8); and his astounding invitation to friendship (Revelation 3:20).
We are created with an inborn desire for God, and our lives are incomplete without a connection to him.
We Need More than God
Much of our loneliness is driven by desire for God. And it’s easy to believe this means our loneliness is an active rejection of what Jesus offers us, or an obstinate refusal to be satisfied by what he gives us. But it’s simply not true that knowing Jesus diminishes our desire to know and be connected to other people. We are created to know and be known by our fellow human beings too. Healthy human relationships are right and good and glorifying to God. If we don’t have them, we should long for them.
The importance of human relationships was affirmed in the beginning when God created Eve (Genesis 2:18–23). “It is not good for the man to be alone,” God declared. Adam had unbroken fellowship with God before sin entered the world, yet God did not expect this relationship to satisfy all of Adam’s needs. Apparently neither did God consider the creation of one human being sufficient to fully express what he wanted to express through his creation. He called it “not good,” in contrast to his other pronouncements about what he had made. Only after he had created both male and female (Genesis 1:27) did he call his creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Elsewhere in Scripture we see affirmation that we are created to enjoy relationships with each other (see Ecclesiastes 4:7–12; Romans 12:4–5; 1 Corinthians 12:12–26; Galatians 6:1–3; Colossians 3:12–15; 1 John 4:7–12). Our relational nature is one aspect of what it means for us to be made in God’s image, for the Trinity is a relational God.
You Are Not Alone
When Elijah felt alone, God didn’t encourage him simply to spend more time in prayer; he told him there were others like him and sent him to mentor Elisha (1 Kings 19). When Paul was battle-weary and discouraged, God encouraged him not just with a greater sense of his presence but by sending his friend Titus and news of his friends in Corinth (2 Corinthians 7:5–7). Jesus himself modeled the value of relationships for us in his life on earth by forming close relationships with 12 other men and friendships with many more people. When he faced death by crucifixion, he told his disciples, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.” And he asked them to stay with him, keeping watch through the night (Mark 14:34). He didn’t want merely to pray; he wanted to have his friends with him too. We can take comfort in the realization that Jesus knows the experience of loneliness. He “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Like the people we see represented in Scripture, we long for unbroken relationship with God; we are meant for that. Yet we also need relationships with each other, and that desire is a good, God-given one.
We err when we focus only on one of these needs. When we overlook our deeper longing—to be in right relationship with God and to be in true fellowship with him—we deprive ourselves of the very substance of true life. And when we believe our spiritual needs will erase all others, we deprive ourselves of vital nutrients.
We are created both to desire God and to desire relationships with one another. We need to know, be known by, and be loved by both God and other people. When loneliness strikes, we must address our deeper longings as well as the ones that are sitting right on the surface of life.
Longing for More
That said, it’s important to recognize that a certain degree of loneliness is part of life. We will never achieve the level of satisfaction we want on either front—in our relationship with God or our relationships with others—in this life. Several obstacles get in our way:
• Our emotions are not truth. They may be based in truth; they may not be. They are not always reliable or reliant on what’s true. So regardless of what we know or believe, our feelings don’t always cooperate.
• Our knowledge of and relationship with God are incomplete and will remain incomplete in this life (1 Corinthians 13:12). No matter how much we learn about God or experience him, we don’t have the capacity to see him clearly. We will always feel a barrier between us until, at last, we see him face to face.
• We are made right with God but not yet made fully righteous. We can’t expect our experience in this world to match what will be true when all of creation is fully redeemed (Romans 8:18–25).
• We are created for another world, and we will long for it until we live there. This longing is good, and sometimes it leaves us feeling empty.
• People who have been forgiven by God still sin. And deeper than our acts of sin is our inborn condition, mutilated by our wrongdoing—our sinful nature, as Paul calls it. Despite our best intentions, we cannot eradicate this from our lives (Romans 7:14–25). Our ongoing sin reinforces and emphasizes the barrier between us and God that Christ has overcome but which is not yet completely removed.
• Our sin also separates us from each other. When sin entered the world, its curse immediately introduced discord into human relationships (Genesis 3:16).
• We are self-protective. We guard ourselves for a good reason: We have a tremendous capacity to hurt each other. But when we are too guarded, we keep ourselves from love too.
Comfortable in Discomfort
Loneliness is real, and it isn’t always a sign that you’re doing something wrong or neglecting something you shouldn’t. We do need to invest in relationships with others. We need to invest in our relationship with God. But in this sin-darkened world, we also need to “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” to quote the Navy SEALs.
If you feel lonely, it can mean something is wrong, but it can also mean something is right. It can mean you are in touch with your longing for the kind of world you were made for.
Amy Simpson is the award-winning author of Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry and Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. She’s also a life and leadership coach, a writer and editor, and a frequent speaker. You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter at @aresimpson.