Have you ever felt lonely? Ha, that was a loaded question. At some point in our lives, we’ve all felt lonely in one way or another.
At the beginning of this academic school year, I bought a Bible study group discussion set called “Univited” by Lysa Terkeurst. My reasoning for buying this entire set [complete with book, DVD and discussion guide] was due to the newest development in my on-going identity crisis: “What small group does a young widow join after losing a spouse?” If you’re wondering what the answer is, there’s not one…yet. [I may try to work on that in the future.] Anyway, I went through the Bible study for the first time with one of my close friends and her daughter, and per usual with Lysa Terkeurst books, we absolutely loved it! I loved it so much, in fact, I ended up going through it again with my 9th/10th grade cheerleaders (whom I adore), and then again with my family group (basically small groups within our school connecting an individual teacher to small number of students – in my case, an equally amazing group of 11th grade girls).
At the end of our first family group lunch meeting I asked my girls about their thoughts on session 1 of the “Uninvited” DVD, and if any of the main points played a role in their lives. One girl spoke up and began to discuss the points made about loneliness. She disclosed that a major problem consuming her generation was the feeling of being alone often leading to depression. She then went on to say what I’d wager a lot of us think, but may not verbalize. Now, I’m paraphrasing here, but she said something along the lines of: “I know God is around us all the time, and we’re not supposed to feel alone because of that. But sometimes it just feels like He’s not really there, and so it’s sometimes hard to want to spend time with Him because you can’t really have an audible conversation, ya know? And so then it’s even harder to help people overcome these feelings by just saying, ‘well just know that you’re not alone, and God loves you even though you don’t really feel it.'” Well. I have to admit, I was a little less than prepared for that “real talk”, and therefore scored [I’d say] a solid 9.5 on the “I have no idea what I’m talking about” scale. Luckily the lunch bell rang about halfway through my answer, and I was able to quit talking before I revealed I actually don’t know all the answers.
As the girls left the room I couldn’t help but feel a little less than motivational; and while I watched my next class take their seats, I visualized myself unpinning my metaphorical “teacher of the year” badge from my chest and dropping it in the trash. [Yes, I do actually imagine things like this. I blame it on being an only child and being forced to play a childhood of solitary pretend games.] I then began to think back on my last blog post in which I discussed changing our perspectives to see how loneliness and solitude are not the same by definition or connotation; as well as believing God’s promise to work for our good, and thereby justifying a means to an end. But after letting this consume my mind for the rest of the school day, I realized where my missing answer could be found. While the statements listed above are true, they don’t really give direction as to how one begins to both think this way, and also believe it to the point their heart honestly desires it as well. I believe that’s what that sweet 11th grader was really asking, wasn’t it? She wanted to know what it took to make a person’s heart and mind agree to believe they’re not alone. And furthermore, to believe it so much they’re able overcome the heart-griping feelings of loneliness.
I know, right? Those are some pretty heavy questions for just one blog post…You took the words right out of my mouth. Don’t worry. I’m not going to attempt to answer these questions in full detail. I mean really, there have been millions of sermons preached on just a fraction of the topics arising from this conversation. Instead, I’ll do my best to present maybe a stepping stone along this confusing path called life.
Okay. So what does it take to overcome this sickness called loneliness? How do we move from desiring to change our perspective, to finding the motivation to actually do it? I believe it starts with identifying where we find our sense of belonging and purpose. Why? Well because these particular aspects of our psyche have the power to dictate our attitudes and emotions, as well as define our self-worth and importance.
“…we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” – 1 Corinthians 3:23
In my opinion, loneliness can be boiled down to one of three reasons: (1) we feel like we don’t fit in, (2) our life may not have a meaningful purpose, and/or (3) our life is not that important to the world or possibly the God who created it. At different points in my 28 years, I’ve felt a combination of one or all three of these reasons. Whether because my ethnic appearance made me look different than my family, or my over-imaginative personality lacked maturity in the eyes of my friends, I constantly found myself struggling to not feel left out and lonely. Perhaps you’ve experienced the same feelings? Maybe you’ve been broken up with and it caused you to question yourself. Or maybe texts to a friend have gone without response and you’re wondering what you did wrong. Or maybe past bad decisions you’ve made make you feel unfit for the “Christian Girl” club? Or maybe you reflect on tragic life experiences that cause you to ask God why you don’t matter? It’s ok sweet friend. I didn’t just make up these examples. I’ve personally wrestled with all of them myself, and for many years I let them control my self-esteem and anxiety levels. To this day I still sometimes struggle to push away similar thoughts and questions so they don’t infect my heart with feelings of self-doubt and loneliness. In the past I thought I was the only one who experienced this, but after talking with friends and family, as well as reading your comments and messages, I now realize loneliness is an epidemic felt by all.
Which leads me to a few “reflection questions” I’ve answered and would like you to answer as well. And don’t worry. You can be honest. I won’t make you share with the class (insert blow kiss winky face emoji here).
- What is at the core of my loneliness?
- What am I defining as being happy? In other words, what do I need my life to look like in order be happy with it?
- To what degree am I expecting God to provide my definition of happiness? (I’m looking for honesty here, not Sunday School answers.)
- Where am I finding self-purpose?
- On a scale from 1-10, how much do I truly believe God is actually present in, paying attention to, and desiring good for my life?
Answering these questions for myself in my prayer journal has been a wonderful reflection tool. After reflecting on these answers, I found four recurring themes I believe led to my feelings of loneliness. Before I go into detail about these themes, it’s important I connect the dots for you. The first two themes work as a set and include selfishness and a need for importance. I believe these two themes can cause us to feel unhappy with our lives and/or circumstances and unable to feel God’s presence. And this, I suspect, is the foundation of loneliness. The last two themes can also be coupled together, and consists of a need for a sense of purpose and belonging. This group, however, if directed correctly can possibly help us find the motivation it takes to make strides in the right direction.
“The past cannot subtract a thing from what I might do for you. Unless that’s what I let it do.” Relient K, “Therapy”
So, like I just said, I came to realize many of my answers were based on my own selfish nature and desire to be important for worldly reasons. Of course this is nothing new for the human race…I mean we’ve been dealing with this since the Garden of Eden. But for me personally, I began to see how the American culture I grew up in, had a major impact on my desires for this life. To illustrate my point, here are a few examples of how I allowed culture to shape my selfish understanding of my own importance, which consequently led to feeling alone…
- In pre-school I was told I could be anything “I wanted”. Okay…then why didn’t God let me achieve a particular goals I’ve wanted and been preparing for my whole life?
- In middle school I was told God viewed me as beautiful and perfect in every way. Okay, so why didn’t that guy think so, and why are those girls making fun of me for how I look?
- In high school my mom told me I had tons of friends, and was great at connecting with people. Okay, so why do I feel so alone and like I don’t feel that close to any one person?
- And as a young-pro I read in the Bible that God desired nothing but good for my life. Okay, so why did I lose my husband, Craig, in such traumatic way?
Yes, I found myself asking all these questions, only to realize they all spurred from the same place – my selfishness. I know, I know. Those examples may not seem like such terrible ways things to think. And I would agree, technically, there are much worse things I could have shaping my perspective. The issue is, our hearts are rarely ever “technical”. By allowing these questions to consume my thoughts, I slowly became oblivious to the way in which the world was taking hold of my heart; and unbeknownst to me, these worldly perspectives were constructing my very specific expectations for my life out of my feelings of entitlement as one of God’s children. In more basic terms, my perspective was as follows: God knew the desires of my heart and my expectations for my life. Therefore, if He loved me he would meet my expectations. This way of thinking, however, has a whole slew of problems going along with it. But most importantly, it’s establishing a love for God based on reciprocation. Meaning, “If I love and worship God like He says I should, then He’ll meet my expectations and give me my desires as defined as A, B and C.” But what happens when desires A, B and C don’t line up with God’s plan? Well, I’ll tell you friend. Our unmet expectations can sometimes cause us to question God’s goodness, as well as, whether or not He views our lives as important.
“It’s so hard to see the reality, that the end will be the end of things. And our hearts are all we’ll get to bring, so let’s go ahead and make them worth something.” – Relient K, “Apathetic”
We all want to feel important…at least to somebody. This feeling of importance may be characterized by wanting to feel worth-while to one particular person [i.e. why girls stay with guys who treat them terribly. Not pointing the finger. I was that girl.], or possibly wanting to feel popular amongst a larger audience. You know that feeling I’m talking about…that part of us that secretly [or not so secretly] desires to hold some position of influence in which people care about what we say and do. Well here’s a nugget of truth I’ve come to believe about this subject: The most influential people are ordinary individuals with the ability to see how their everyday interactions can have lasting affects on others. What do I mean by this? Well thanks for asking! I’d love give you an example…just ’cause I like ya.
Have you ever met a person at a seemingly ordinary job, a job typically not accompanied with worldly glory, but yet they do it with absolute joy and excellence? I remember having a waiter in Destin, FL who did his job [truly] as if it were the only thing he lived for. When we left the restaurant, I remember talking to my friends about how inspiring it was to be around someone like that. I was so impressed by this waiter that I often thought about I how I might also exude his level of joy and passion no matter the task placed in front of me. Do you see what I’m getting at? That man had a major influence on a random group of tourists because he saw the impact he could have with this everyday role. He may never know how he inspired me that day, but what I love is that that wasn’t his reasoning for doing it. He didn’t perform his job to the best of his ability for own self-glorification, or so he could earn his “I made a difference” boy scout patch. He did it because he simply saw his daily actions as impactful moments. And while I don’t know if this man was a Christian or not, the selflessness of his actions made me think of Colossians 2:23-24, which states:
“Whatever you do, Work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
And this is where we can find our first motivation towards changing our perspectives, and overcoming the suffocating hold of loneliness. When we start to feel alone in our circumstances and unimportant to God’s plan, we can remember this: The amount of influence in which we have on others is not measured by our participation in extraordinary daily activities, but rather we participate in extra-ordinary daily activities in such a way that God’s influence is unmeasurable to others. That means no matter how you spend your days, you have an influence on others [positively or negatively]. And if you have influence, then this naturally suggests that you have a purpose – our third theme.
Purpose is not dictated by your job title or social media activity. No, being able to find purpose in this life means learning to be happy in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in – even if it’s not what we wanted – because that’s where God placed us. Which leads us to our last motivation…a sense of belonging.
“But you are a CHOSEN RACE, a ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, a HOLY NATION, a PEOPLE for HIS OWN POSSESSION, that you may proclaim the excellencies of HIM WHO CALLED YOU out of darkness into His MARVELOUS LIGHT.” – 1 Peter 2:9
Every single one of us belong to, and were chosen by, God. That’s pretty stinkin’ awesome. As I stated earlier, 1 Corinthians 3:23 lovingly states, “…we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” What a wonderful remedy for our loneliness! We belong to the most important group in the universe. A what I especially love about both these versus is their relational nature. They mean we are always connected to something so much bigger than ourselves. And before you tell me that you know this information already, and it still doesn’t help you feel any less alone, lets discuss the characteristics of a healthy relationship. Healthy relationships require selflessness, communication and quality time. I’m going to be the first to admit, that I often fail quite miserably at achieving those three things in my worldly relationships – and perhaps more so in my spiritual ones. But, that aside. If we truly want to feel like God is present in our lives, it means we have to first work on our relationship; which ultimately requires selflessness. The putting aside of our desires for His desires, and spending quality time together everyday. If we’re not spending time pouring into our relationship with God, how can we ever expect to feel close to Him?
Another key aspect of relational building with God is the shifting of our worldly perspectives (which create unmeetable expectations), to God’s perspective. God’s perspective requires us to stop looking inwardly at what we want [and sometimes feel we deserve], and begin looking outwardly at what other people need. The more we look inwardly, the more we see where we’re lacking and where out loneliness is hiding. But [as crazy as it may sound] the more we look outwardly, the more we can see all God’s goodness and blessings in our lives. Because when we focus on selflessly helping others we realize we are no longer alone, and we now have purpose with such resounding positive influence.
So after all that. Here’s what it comes down to. You now have all the how’s, why’s, if’s, and’s and but’s answered. But the final step is truly just making the choice. Yes, it means deciding to let go of any long felt anger against God for not giving us what we wanted. It means letting go of our own expectations for our lives, and selflessly decided God’s desires are more important to us. It means shifting the focus of our perspectives from inwardly to outwardly. And as much I so desperately wish I could, I can’t take those steps for you. No one can make you decide to live this way. But I can do this for you. I can encourage you by saying that I’m so proud of you for even taking the first step towards letting go of the loneliness this world creates within us. And I’m so proud of you for even contemplating living differently and taking on a more Christ-like perspective. How few people ever choose to do this…and yet you’ve been chosen to do so.
You are so loved sweet friend. I know Christ is so excited to get started catching up, and establishing a real relationship based on quality time together. I can’t wait to hear your stories of how you felt Him working within you this week, and I’m even more eager to hear how you’ve begun to overcome this sickness called loneliness – a secondary emotion once based on our level of worldly importance and unmet expectations. How blessed you are sweet friend. I pray you’ll feel God’s love for you this week in every beat of your heart, and every breath of your lungs.
With all my heart,
Helen Elizabeth Strickland