Loneliness: It’s an even greater public health hazard than obesity. As perspective, obesity reportedly affects one in three Americans and is a leading cause of preventable death in this country. Loneliness’ impact is only expected to keep growing. So went the sobering conclusion of research presented in August 2017 at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.
Research also shows that loneliness and social isolation are major contributors to addiction and other psychiatric disorders, recovery from which, we now know, largely entails supportive relationships of love and connection. That field (recovery) is one that I’ve come to inhabit as a writer covering addiction and mental health issues, and it’s one reason I’m so struck by these findings.
Another is that as a full-time writer, I spend much of my day alone. (Writing is a solitary exercise, after all.) So in recent years I’ve become more acquainted with the various dimensions of aloneness, from the welcome sounds of silence and a blissfully empty house to those times when loneliness seems my only, unwanted companion.
As Christians, how might we understand loneliness within the context of a relationship with Jesus? In the spirit of the 12 Steps, which encourages sharing with others what one most needs to learn, here are three biblically informed tips for coping with this biggest threat to mental and physical health:
1. Loneliness is both a normal part of human experience and an opportunity to draw near to God. Perhaps nobody better exemplifies this than Jesus, who was fully human and fully God. At key moments in His life, Jesus had to feel lonely, by virtue of His mission. The nadir of that loneliness would have been the cross. Yet Jesus in that desolate place could still call out to God (Matthew 27:46), asking, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even in–or because of–His perfect sinlessness, Jesus apprehended how vast the separation between God and human beings and, consequently, how gaping the loneliness.
And Jesus gave full expression to this loneliness on the cross. There, instead of tuning out God, Jesus turned to God–with raw transparency. And, I suspect, the same spirit of raw transparency–the same unedited version of our loneliness, confusion, doubts, and weakness–is what God would rather have any day than our often empty and skin-deep words of praise and intercession. In this sense, too, loneliness can serve to nudge us toward God rather than away from Him.
2. God empathizes with us in our loneliness and wants to provide for us in our place of need. In Genesis 2:18, God saw that Adam needed company: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” So God created Eve, and strikingly, the same term for “helper” (ezer) that describes Eve in this context describes God Himself in other parts of the Old Testament. In other words, God’s very nature is one of loving responsiveness: God wants us to turn to Him for solace and help in our times of loneliness. So deep is God’s empathy for us when we’re feeling lonely, moreover, that God may answer our need before we even know what to ask God for. In Adam’s case, for example, there is no suggestion that Adam first asked God for a helper. Instead, God was the first to see Adam’s need, and having seen it, responded. God can do the same for us.
3. Seek out embodied opportunities for human connection. The “incarnation” of Jesus–the fact that God became a human being and lived and breathed as one of us–is, for me, the greatest article of faith that Christians espouse. In its most basic sense, it means that we as human beings need real embodied relationship with others, and that these real, embodied relationships are where we encounter God. In a world of exponentially increasing virtual connections, this reality is probably easier to forget than ever before. I, for one, am relearning it, thanks to a women’s group that meets weekly to study the spiritual disciplines. Those in-the-flesh conversations with other women from all walks of life are sacred opportunities to experience God in deeply refreshing ways. There is no virtual substitute. For some of us, 12 Step groups fulfill a similar need. Be intentional about making space in your week for these real (i.e., non-virtual) interactions.
Got a tip for coping with loneliness that has helped you? Share it with the rest of us!
Kristina Robb-Dover is a writer and author. Her latest book is The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addiction (InterVarsity Press, 2016).
© 2017 Amy Simpson.