What Is Loneliness?
A person can be perfectly happy sitting alone or feel completely alone standing in a crowd. This is what is so perplexing about the experience of loneliness. On the surface, it seems straightforward. We say to ourselves,
“If only I could find my soulmate!”
“If only my kids lived closer.”
“If only I could connect more easily with people at work or school.”
We expect that our loneliness will disappear if we spend more time with the those we love or if we find new and deeper friendships.
But this line of thinking forgets that the roots of loneliness reach much deeper than our social circumstances. Ultimately, loneliness has more to do with the state of our soul than the size of our social circle.
Ultimately, loneliness has more to do with the state of our soul than the size of our social circle.
Loneliness is an unmet desire to belong. Humans crave companionship because we are hardwired to love and to be loved. This desire for belonging is an essential part of who we are. Loneliness is like an indicator light on the dashboard telling us that something is wrong. Our hearts need repair.
Designed for Community
The Bible tells us we are made for community. Before sin entered the world, there was only one time that God looked at his creation and called something “not good” (Genesis 2:18). This happened when he observed that Adam was alone. In Genesis 2, God saw that all of the animals had a companion, but Adam did not. Adam was the only creature made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and he was truly alone among the rest of creation.
To remedy Adam’s isolation, God made the woman Eve. She equally bore the image of God, yet was different from Adam. Their companionship would arise from these inherent differences. In the language of Jerry Maguire, they “completed” one another.
From this first couple, God established the family. Later he would promise to bless one family—the descendants of Abraham—who grew to become twelve tribes and then the nation of Israel. Throughout the Bible, God pursues a relationship with people—individuals, but also communities, starting with Israel. We were made for “sideways” relationships with others, just like Adam and Eve, but we were also made for an “upward” relationship with God.
Designed for our Creator
Let’s look more closely at the “upward” relationship. We must clarify that God didn’t create people because he was needy or lonely himself. We are not merely pets or playthings.
Remember that God is (and always has been) three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We find it difficult to wrap our minds around what this means, but at the very least we know that God’s love was complete without us. He created us as an expression of love and delight intending that we would find our own delight in loving him.
In Genesis 2:7 we read, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (NIV). God made us more than just physical creatures. He created us with souls to seek God’s presence and find our deepest satisfaction in him.
Some part of us will always feel isolated if we are not satisfied in our Creator. We were designed to find companionship with the Lord. If we do not have a relationship with him, we naturally feel like we’re missing something essential. As Augustine famously put it, our hearts will be restless until they find their rest in God.
How Did Things Go Wrong?
If we were created for this kind of companionship, why do we feel so disconnected and alone?
The short answer is sin.
In the first three chapters of the Bible, we see the incredible potential of human relationships. We discover that we were made to love and to be loved in a world where intimacy rises out of diversity and where God dwells with his people.
However, in these first chapters we also see the consequences of human failure. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve rejected God’s authority, disobeyed his instructions, and descended into accusations and blame shifting. Not much has changed since the garden. We also spurn God’s love, and we wound each other. Sin has broken our relationship with God and our relationships with others. Instead of intimacy, we experience conflict, disappointment, and isolation.
Even our healthiest relationships include tension or conflict. We struggle to connect with other people because we are all set in our own ways and preoccupied with our own needs. Sometimes we simply give up and binge watch TV alone.
We desire the intimacy, companionship, and sense of belonging or purpose that existed in the Garden of Eden, but these desires often remain unfulfilled in our sin-broken world.
We Tend Toward Loneliness
Not only is the world around us broken, but we’re also inclined to create our own loneliness. In spite of our desire for belonging, we compound our loneliness by indulging in bitterness or anger or fear. We sometimes find it easier to withdraw from difficult relationships than to love bravely and faithfully. We retreat instead of reaching out.
In his Lectures on Romans, Martin Luther described the human soul as “curved in” upon itself. He argued that our souls are bent because of sin. As a result, we try to bend and twist good things to our own purposes.
Even our desire for companionship can be twisted into a selfish attempt to see our own needs met. We seek appreciation and understanding from others but fail to give the same. When relationships become difficult, we withdraw. When social situations leave us feeling drained, we find it easier to stay home. Instead of pressing on in the beautiful, messy, necessary work of loving others, we bend into ourselves.
The apostle Paul described the work of Jesus as a “ministry of reconciliation” (Romans 5:10, 2 Corinthians 5:18-21). He wrote that, through Jesus, God “reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). The only way for an unholy (sinful) people to be reconciled to a holy God is to have their sin taken away. This is what Jesus did by dying in our place on the cross—he absorbed the punishment of our offenses against God so that we could be forgiven. He has also called us to extend this reconciliation to others by inviting them into God’s love.
Jesus made our bent and crippled souls whole again by reuniting us with God. When we turn to Jesus and repent of our selfish, sinful behavior, we receive forgiveness and he reconciles us to our Father. We are never alone again! At the same time, he also calls us to a life of “reconciliation”— life committed to patiently and lovingly bearing witness to others.
We belong to a great family of reconciled ones, and we are always reaching out to draw others into this community. Ultimately, loneliness has no grip on those who are reconciled to God.
But I’m a Christian, and I Still Feel Lonely!
The “short” answer to why we feel lonely might be sin, but it is not a simple answer. Remember that sin has affected every human being and every human family or group or institution. Our homes, our workplaces, even our churches are influenced by a sinful tendency to self-absorption. As much as we all desire connection and companionship, we sometimes struggle to have it.
While our hearts and souls are being restored in Christ (a process called sanctification), we still suffer the effects of sin and we still fall into old habits. Sometimes we will fail to love others because we are focused on our own needs or interests. Other times we will be wounded by harsh words or be neglected or experience cruelty.
The difference for Christians is that we belong always and forever to Christ (1 Corinthians 3:23). The companionship between God and humans established in the Garden of Eden has been made possible again (Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18) by Jesus’ death and resurrection. God is near to us (Psalm 145:18). He hears us when we pray (Psalm 34:15-18), and he speaks to us through the Bible (Romans 15:4). His Holy Spirit is always with us comforting us and encouraging us (John 14:26). God is always with us.
We said earlier that loneliness is an unmet desire to belong. The Christian is never truly alone because he or she belongs to Christ (1 Corinthians 3:23) and he has promised never to leave or forsake us. Belonging to Christ also means that we share his mission to reconcile others to God. Engaging in friendship and pursuing others for good is no longer optional. We are to be known as people who love well because this points to the unwavering, unreserved love of Jesus.
When we feel lonely, the temptation (ironically) is to withdraw. However, those feelings should urge us deeper into relationship with others, especially with those in our churches. The church is where we go to be reminded of God’s love. It’s also where we go to “practice” loving others well.
God makes our bent souls straight and strong again as we serve other people. Regular giving and receiving, confronting and repenting, forgiving and being forgiven are necessary. The church bears witness to love that flows from the mercy of Christ through hearts that are being restored and made whole. Only Christ’s love can make this kind of community possible.
We have fresh courage to persist in loving others because God loved us. He proved it once and for all by sending Jesus. This bedrock of belonging can never be taken away! Christians still grieve broken and lost relationships, but we do so with the hope one day God will heal our broken hearts. In the meantime, our Father who is near will provide the comfort we need.
The Remedy to Loneliness
If loneliness is an indicator light on the dashboard telling us that something is awry, we must ask ourselves, “Am I drawing near to God who has drawn near to me?” (James 4:8). The first and most important cure to loneliness is to be reconciled to God.
Once our relationship with our Heavenly Father has been restored, we are never truly alone. We always belong to God, and we always belong among the people of God.
Our belonging is rooted in what Jesus has done for us and that can’t change. However, we are easily distracted and forgetful. We must keep coming back to the things that remind us of God’s love including prayer, the Bible, and fellowship with other Christians.
Drawing near to God gives us the strength we need to draw near to others as well. Engage fully with your family. Sink deep roots into your church. Know the people in your neighborhood or your workplace.
Whether you are feeling strong or weak, loved or lonely, as a Christian you belong to Christ, and you have been given the ministry of reconciliation. Draw near to God to receive fresh hope and new strength to love others.