An estimated 9 million people across the UK are often or always feeling lonely. This includes young people, older people, parents, carers and the middle aged. In the USA it is estimated at 40% of the adult population. Last week the UK government appointed a minister to tackle the silent epidemic. The Prime Minister said, “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life”. It’s a public health problem, a better predictor of early death than obesity and smoking. Why is it increasing? Family breakdown, living further away from friends and family, living alone, passive recreation, lack of meaningful interaction at work – these are just some of the causes. What help can we draw from God’s Word about loneliness?
The Bible speaks about this problem from the very beginning (Genesis 2:18). Even though Adam had an all-sufficient Creator to delight in, God recognised this need. As soon as sin entered it brought a form of separation into the bond God had formed between Adam and Eve as well as their relationship to God Himself. Sin creates this distance,sanctification ought to include overcoming it by loving our neighbour as ourselves and stirring up others to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). The Christian life is a shared life (Romans 14:7).
Christ Himself speaks of loneliness. He was the only sinless person in a world of sin, would that not be lonely? His family did not believe in Him, His disciples struggled to understand who He was. His message was mostly rejected. In the time of His greatest trial, He was abandoned by His friends, they would not even pray for and with Him. “A man of sorrows”, He had to cry out from unimaginable depths of soul suffering that God had forsaken Him.
There is a difference of course between being alone and being lonely. Christ was able to embrace and use the blessing of solitude for spiritual purposes (Luke 5:16). He could also say that though He was left alone by everyone in this world yet He was not alone. He had the constant presence of the Father (John 16:32). We ought to be able to say that too, resting on God’s unfailing promise (Hebrew 13:5). In one sense we need never be lonely and we are never alone.
George Hutcheson brings out the significance of Christ’s words in John 16:31-32. The disciples were professing their faith loudly but an hour of trial and suffering was coming which would try their faith. The disciples would be scattered and be isolated from each other, Christ Himself would be left alone too but not truly alone for the Father would be with Him.
The disciples abandoned Christ because of their sinful confidence in the flesh. They asserted the strength of their faith but did not consider how it might be tried. They were going to be scattered. Scattering and the disintegration of companies of God’s people, is one of the sad fruits of persecution. There is much we can learn from the Saviour’s words.
1. Selfish Isolation in the Time of Trial is Sinful
This “scattering” is our sin and weakness as well as our our affliction. Trouble and danger make us selfish and seek to look after ourselves, little considering the danger of Christ’s cause. This is the effect of their presumptuous self-confidence. They would be “scattered” each “to his own”. This does not just mean that they would go to their own home as they did afterwards. It also means them looking out for themselves while they “leave” their Master “alone”.
2. Those Who Suffer May Need to Do So Alone
Part of the trial of true sufferers may be that they are deserted in their sharpest conflicts. They may be deserted not just by those who make professions, but have real honesty. They may be left in the gap there alone. Christ has paved the way in this, He was left alone. Although no-one could join with Him in enduring the sufferings by which He redeemed His people (indeed He was careful to exempt them John 18:8) yet it was a trial to Him to be left alone in this way.
3. Christ Will Stand for the Truth No Matter Who Deserts it
Never mind how many desert Christ and His truth, He will still own and stand for it. He is left alone and yet stands alone in that conflict.
4. Those Who Suffer May Not be as Lonely as We Would Assume
The condition of sufferers is not so desolate and solitary as spectators or feelings would judge at first glance. Though they leave Him alone, “yet I am not alone,” He says.
5. God May be Graciously Present While He Chastises Us
God may be pursuing his own dear children in great displeasure yet also graciously present with them. He may be upholding them with the one hand as he smites with the other. For “the Father is with me,” Christ says when yet the Father is pursuing him hotly for the sins of the elect and deserting Him (Matthew 27:46).
6. God’s Presence is Sufficient to Sustain a Lonely Soul
The presence of God alone is sufficient to sustain a soul, when deserted by all, under the saddest difficulties. Christ said to the disciples that though they would leave Him alone “yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.”
7. If We Want God’s Presence At All Times, We Must Seek to Please Him in All Things
Whoever wants the comfort of God’s presence and company in all conditions, ought to set themselves to please God and observe His will in all things. This is what Christ did “he that sent me is with me” the Father had not left Him alone “for I do always those things that please him” (John 8:29).
Faith should draw strength in considering the aloneness of the Saviour. Having experienced such trials He is able to strengthen us also. He gives an example for us in His rejoicing in God’s presence even when abandoned by others. Isn’t it an inestimable privilege that the Most High values our company, who is infinitely happy in Himself and does not need us? We should not be afraid of solitude if it provides an opportunity to draw nearer to God. Yet we ought also to greatly value the blessing of useful friends that can strengthen our hands in serving God. Speak about the most important things, avoid always interacting at the surface level. Bear one another’s burdens in prayer.
Let us avoid the selfish spirit of the world and have rather the spirit of Christ who denied Himself for the sake of His people (Philippians 2:4-5). Even in the face of His own suffering and when He knew the disciples would forsake Him within hours, He comforted and counselled them and prayed for them.