By Mark Jackson
Editor’s note—Views expressed in the following op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of Church of God Ministries, Inc., or its affiliates. We publish op-ed features to provoke thought, stimulate healthy discussion, and inspire us to be with Jesus, become like Jesus, and do what Jesus did. We’ve asked to hear from a diverse range of voices across the Church of God movement. This op-ed features one of these voices.
Recently, I called a relative of mine who lives alone and is up in age. Her spouse died years ago. I was calling to see how she was doing. During our conversation, I said it must be hard being there in her house, alone, during this COVID-19 pandemic. I said it must get rather boring and lonely, at times. Her response sobered me. She said, “Mark, you have no idea.” She’s right. I have no idea what it is to struggle deeply with loneliness, especially when you’re living alone as a widow.
Now you may not be a widow, yourself. You may be young, and even married. But that doesn’t mean you can’t succumb to loneliness, at times. Psychologist Guy Winch explains, “More than 60 percent of lonely people are married. When married couples no longer share their deepest feelings, thoughts, and experiences with one another, it can leave them feeling disconnected and alone” (“10 Surprising Facts about Loneliness,” Psychology Today, October 21, 2014). This may be the worst kind of loneliness because the potential for connection and companionship is right there in front of you, but it eludes you day after day.
Loneliness is probably more prevalent and harmful than you may realize. Consider the following: “A 2018 Cigna study showed that loneliness is currently a public health crisis: Nearly half of Americans feel lonely. Loneliness has become so prevalent that pharmaceutical companies are even looking into creating a drug for loneliness. Research shows that loneliness can be worse for our health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. It can lead to depression, anxiety, and premature death” (Emma Seppälä, “Feeling Lonely? These 3 Ideas Can Help,” Psychology Today, March 12, 2019). Loneliness can hurt you emotionally, relationally, and even physically.
I’m glad the Bible is honest about loneliness. One of my favorite books in the Bible is the Book of Psalms. I appreciate the brutal honesty of the psalmist as he writes about his hurts, questions, and struggles. Consider this prayer in Psalm 25:16–17, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish.” The psalmist admits his loneliness and anguish to God. Until we admit to ourselves that we are lonely, we probably aren’t going to get the help we need. Be honest with God and with other people that you trust. God can help you if you are honest and turn to him for aid. His people can help you, too.
This may be a good time to ask what loneliness actually is. I think some people misunderstand its meaning. Loneliness is not simply being alone. You can be alone and not be lonely, and you can be around people and still be lonely. Loneliness is a feeling. It is a feeling of sadness or dejection because you’re alone or because you are disconnected from other people.
My children love LEGOs. I’ve stepped on them more than once, so I don’t love them as much as they do. Nevertheless, they do serve as a good illustration! You can have a LEGO piece right next to a group of LEGOs, connected to one another. It can physically be right next to them, but it’s disconnected and therefore it’s alone. In the same way, we can be around people, even be married, yet be disconnected. We’re in the proximity of people but we’re not connected with people. That’s why you can have tons of Facebook friends and still be lonely. You see, loneliness is that pain we feel when we are not connected with other people in meaningful relationships.
So, how do we replace our loneliness with a connection with God and others? I think it includes three things: having a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and a sense of companionship.
Everyone needs a sense of belonging. This is innate to who we are as human beings. God is Trinitarian, which means he exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God has always existed within the context of a loving, reciprocal relationship, and always will. Since we are made in his image, we crave and need relationships. This is where we gain a sense of belonging. This is why God created marriage. Genesis 2:18 explains, “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” God wants us to belong. Psalm 68:6 declares, “God sets the lonely in families.” This speaks of human families, but the church, too, is a family. Being connected to God’s family, by being an active part of a local congregation, can really help alleviate feelings of loneliness.
A sense of purpose is also important. Lonely people can feel that their life is unimportant and inconsequential. It’s life-changing to realize that God has a purpose for your life, a unique purpose. No two fingerprints are alike. No two snowflakes are alike. No two tigers are striped like each other. God values uniqueness, and he has a unique purpose and plan for your life. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). Do you know your purpose in life? Of course, your number one purpose is to know and serve God. But in that context, he has a plan for you to fulfill. I hope you find that plan soon.
It’s also necessary to have a sense of companionship. This can be found in marriage or human friendship. But most importantly, this can be found in a relationship with God. Jesus said, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:20). This is good news! Even if you live alone, are single, widowed, or divorced, God is with you! His presence never leaves you, and you can enjoy his presence anywhere. Knowing he is with you can remove those feelings of loneliness.
One last thing: Is there such a thing as a God-given loneliness? I remember Billy Graham once talking about a loneliness for God, what we might call an existential loneliness. This is when we feel all alone in this vast universe, when we feel despair over our mortality. This type of loneliness can actually be beneficial, for it can drive us to seek companionship and security in a relationship with God. If you are lonely for God, he is there for you. Trust in his Son, Jesus Christ today and you can enter into a personal, living, enjoyable relationship with your Creator. Then you will never be alone!
In pastoral ministry for more than twenty years, Dr. Mark Jackson has served as lead pastor of Towne Church in Middletown, Ohio, since 2016. Pastor Mark graduated magna cum laude from Asbury University in 1995, and earned an MA in biblical studies from Cincinnati Christian University, as well as an MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 2011, he received a PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in New Testament studies. The author of two books, A Closer Look at God’s Church (2016) and Salvation (2018), Mark also enjoys reading, fishing, watching sports, and spending time with his family. He and his wife Jenny have three children, Graham, Savannah, and Ally.