When was the last time you were lonely? Was it when you stood in a crowd of 5,000 cheering people? When you visited with a friend, or when you lay next to your snoring spouse at 2 a.m.?
Everyone experiences loneliness at some time. It’s a common denominator in the equation of life. It’s also something no one likes to feel, so our natural response is to run from it, avoid it or deny it by filling our lives with a million distractions.
God has a better way.
When we sink into loneliness and allow it to do its redemptive work by embracing it, it can be a powerful teacher. And as Henri Nouwen writes in his book, The Inner Voice of Love, we may find our "loneliness not only tolerable," but even fruitful.
Luke 5:16 says, "Jesus withdrew into lonely places and he prayed."
True, Christ may not have been lonely, but just “withdrew into lonely places.” However, in the same way that his lonely places provided a place of hope for Him, the loneliness you sometimes feel can promote positive change in your life.
Several years ago, my grandfather was diagnosed with leukemia. During the weeks before his death, a tenderness settled into his eyes and a loving spirit embodied him like I'd never seen. He hugged tighter, smiled wider and laughed more. On this side of his passing, I've often wondered why. My best guess is that the thought of saying goodbye to those he cared for, and moving into eternity without their physical presence enlarged his heart to love—his greatest sorrow produced a greater virtue.
In the same way, the sorrow of loneliness can be fruitful by causing us to ache for human connection. Loneliness is God’s gift that drives us into relationship and enlarges our hearts to love. Without it, we would never marry, engage in friendships or endure the numerous problems that are natural part of intimacy.
Loneliness can also cause us to appreciate the beauty of others in a new way. I imagine that in the days before his death, my grandfather savored his great-granddaughter’s smile, wife’s embrace and pastor’s encouragement more than ever.
Think back to when you’ve felt most lonely. My bet is that you’ve longed for a connection with someone familiar and that you reflected on their best virtues with gratitude. In short, loneliness enlarged your heart to love.
Just as physical solitude helps us to hear God’s voice, the inner solitude produced from loneliness can open us up to a deeper knowledge of God’s love when we get alone with Him.
I have to be honest. There are times when I’m lonely that I fight my need to spend quiet time with Christ. Why? Because facing loneliness can feel threatening, like squaring off with a mean bully who presses me into a corner and makes me look at things about myself that I don’t want to see. However, I’ve learned that when I embrace my loneliness and hold the hand of God, I don’t fall into a pit of despair like I feared. Rather, I find His comfort, hearing His voice of love and healing for my broken places.
What do we miss when we run from loneliness and refuse to invite God into it? Ironically, the pain we try to avoid by running can create an even greater inner chaos. We need time alone with God when we are lonely.
For example, a friend of mine always has a packed social calendar. When he’s not working, he’s helping someone with a chore, attending a group luncheon, watching a movie or engaging in any number of other social activities. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with his interests. However, there is something wrong with using busyness to hide from personal pain and loneliness. God calls us to live balanced lives in which we are not afraid of solitude or loneliness and neither are we afraid to be with others.
Prior to becoming a writer, I was an elementary school art teacher in Houston, Tex., where my days were spent tying shoes, painting, coloring and pasting. My evenings were spent primarily alone. Because my family and closest friends lived several states away, it was the three loneliest years of my life.
I wouldn’t want to repeat my Texas experience, but I also wouldn’t take it back. It was a time of tremendous personal growth both spiritually and emotionally. It was necessary for God to mature me. My loneliness caused me to question my purpose and ask myself if the things I was pouring my life into agreed with God’s will.
I also found a new calling through my isolation. It was the first time I became serious about putting pen to paper. I spent many hours journaling and the result was an idea for a book I am writing, which I’m confident wouldn’t have been produced if I’d been running from one social function to another. I learned that when God strips away our close connections with particular people for a season, it’s for a reason. It can be His way of moving us into His calling for our lives.
Certainly, you may not be a writer but every calling can emerge from loneliness and isolation when God has a greater opportunity to speak to our hearts about where we are going and where we have been.
If you are lonely today, I hope you are encouraged. Remember that God can use your emotional pain to complete you. He has not forgotten you. My prayer is that the next time you are standing in a crowd feeling lonely, that you can press into your loneliness and find God’s gift in it until it passes.
Shana Schutte is a freelance writer, author and speaker living in Colorado Springs, Colo.