In July of 2013 I took some ideas written by Rick Baugh, added some quotes from others and sent them to most of my friends and spiritual companions. The request was for them to read and to send back their insights. The response gave me many new insights – only some of which I have included in this treatise for fear that it was already more than most people would want to read – so thank you to all who contributed to my learning – even if all your good thoughts did not make it into the final draft
Rick Baugh’s original thoughts
“People are out of gas and have little or no energy in their tank because of loneliness – isolation from people and God. It is like the old Beatle’s song where there are people all around us but we are totally alone. We can have hundreds of friends on Facebook and still be lonely. I define NOT lonely as when we are known by a person and that person wants what is best for us no matter what that is. How many people have a friend that knows what their dreams are, their concerns are and what this year’s responsibilities are? If no one knows these things, then the person is still alone and isolated. But being known is not enough. When the person who knows us also wants the best for us then we are not lonely.
Just having social interactions with people such as golf buddies, Bible study buddies, etc. only masks the problem but does not put a dent in loneliness. These social interactions treat the symptoms but they do nothing to help with the underlying cause of our loneliness.
I often think of how God BOTH completely knows and completely loves us. On the human level it is obvious that just being known or just being loved is not enough to breathe life into us. To be totally known but not loved would be terrifying. What would the person do with all that knowledge? It could be devastating. Being completely loved but not known is not helpful either. We would always be wondering that if the person really knew who we are, would the love stop?
I am more impressed than ever that probably the hardest job in life is to LET God’s love get past our subconscious mind and drop deep down into our being such that we can believe it – our whole being is lined up to act as if God really does completely know us and love us. (Willard’s definition of belief). Experiencing God’s love deep within us causes a restructuring of our subconscious. That is not a small job! But it is foundational to all other relationships and an essential portion of the antidote to loneliness.
Responses and personal insights
Several who responded indicated that loneliness was not a problem for them. That is an enviable place to be and it was usually based on meaningful relationships with the Lord, members of their family, and close companions with whom they shared their lives. They were in the minority as most who have come to similar conclusions about what helps relieve loneliness got there by struggling with their personal experience of loneliness.
Others who responded indicated that we have all the resources we need in God’s love for us and the people He brings into our lives so that loneliness should not be a problem. Bud Hancock captures this idea in these words
“I define loneliness as emptiness which is a product of all the pseudo substitutes and finite fillers. The God made vacuum can only be filled by the infinite God who made us for Himself. If we settle for anything less we experience emptiness and loneliness. We rob God, ourselves and others of the fullness of joy from Christ in us as the ultimate Hope of Glory. As St Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself O God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Loneliness is displaced when we surrender the master key to our heart and give Christ the place He holds in the cosmos of Sovereign King.”
In a clever use of scripture Jim Eney expressed this same thought in these words
“What is Loneliness teacher? Not loving The Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is first part of loneliness. And the second is like it: don’t love your neighbor as yourself. All of loneliness hangs on these two thoughts.”
In 2 Timothy, chapter four, Paul gives a list of all the people who have left him for one reason or another and then he writes: “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength.” When all others forsook Paul, Jesus did not leave him. The promise all of us have is that God will never leave us nor forsake us. So certainly we do have the resources to not be caught in loneliness.
But we are broken people in a broken world and even though we have all the resources to live a life devoid of loneliness it does not happen. As Gil Wesley points out
“Loneliness is the inevitable results of mankind’s decision to assert our will to become like God because of our loss of confidence in God’s goodness and love. In the Garden, this disconnect from the source of Love/Life immediately created a profound sense of vulnerability and inadequacy. This awareness led to a shame-based need to blame and to hide; to “cover our ass”. Humanity lives with this ever present wounding echo.”
Thomas Wolfe is quite pessimistic with this statement, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” And apart from a deep walk with the Lord he is probably correct about many people.
What are some of the other ways to express the roots of our loneliness?
“For many of us in this highly psychologized culture, affection has become the central concern. We have come to judge ourselves in terms of the affection that is given or refused to us – being loved, liked, appreciated, praised, acknowledged, and recognized. These are the most desired prizes of life. The lack of these forms of affection can throw us into an abyss of loneliness and depression.” The Road to Daybreak by Henri Nouwen
And of course, some of our chasing after these things is because we do not know that we already have them in the God who created us. This gets explored more fully in exploring the healing that comes from knowing and receiving God’s love for us. We are so busy chasing after love and affirmation from others that we don’t look over our shoulder and discover that God is eager to provide these for us at the deepest level.
“Over time the loneliness of decision-making, of being responsible for other people’s well-being, ensuring adequate resources, staying faithful to a calling that seems impossible, wears us down. The irony is that by now we have learned how to wax eloquent about the idea of community, how to cast vision for it and how to help others experience it, but we have lost it ourselves.” Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton
Dietrich Bonhoeffer zeroes in on one of the roots of my loneliness when he writes:
“It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.” Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
It has not been difficult for me to confess in general that I am proud, greedy, lustful, and self-centered in many ways. But to talk about the specifics of how I have hurt others and myself by those character failures is another thing. I do not advocate going around and confessing all our sins to everyone. There is a reason someone came up with the expression, “as boring as sin”. Who wants to listen to all the garbage in anyone’s life, but the fear of being found out to be a sinner in specific ways erects a barrier between me and others and leaves me alone in that area of my life. We compete in our areas of strength but we bond deeply in our areas of weakness.
One of the other causes of loneliness for people who are serious about their relationship with God is wrong thinking about that relationship. Years ago I read a piece that contrasted two approaches: Being “center-set” or “boundary-set”. Jesus encouraged us to be center-set with the words, “Follow me.” When our focus is on Jesus we are connected to all who are moving towards Jesus no matter where they are on their journey. People who the security of knowing who is in and who is out establish theological or cultural boundaries that define their group. At first this makes us feel secure and at one with others who have the same boundaries but it also makes us feel proud that we have it “right”. And then we begin to discover that no one has exactly the same boundaries as we hold so dearly – and our individual boundaries isolate us from even those who are part of our larger boundary. Focus on Jesus rather than boundaries connects us with each other.
Mark Wickman points out a root that is more prevalent in North America than in other parts of the world with these words:
“We’ve confused acquaintances with friends. I remember living in Europe. Many Swiss people were frustrated with Americans who had so many “friends”. Those same Americans who developed “friendships” with the Swiss would say, “I’ll call you.” The Swiss would literally wait by the phone for a call and then when the call didn’t come wonder what kind of friendship that was. The Swiss can be hard to get to know but for them once a friend, always a friend — not just an acquaintance.”
And of course this leads to all the questions about how much the world of virtual friendships contribute to isolation and loneliness. This is a subject too vast to pursue here—but certainly an increasingly complex issue in our relationships in this modern world.
Cover up or minimize loneliness
Most people who sent written responses to the study chose to not comment on the ways they covered up their loneliness. So I am grateful for the following two comments because they parallel my own experience.
“One way I managed this “stomachache” loneliness in my youth was to become what I called a pseudo extrovert. This meant I had to be doing something all of the time in the name of Jesus. It was hard work and brought stress and unhappiness.” Ruth Ann Minifie
“I hide from my loneliness by busying myself leading ’important’ groups and activities. There’s no better way to avoid loneliness than by being the savior and mentor to many and receiving their thanks and praise.” Bill Hamilton
While living in the D.C. area for fourteen years I had every opportunity to hide any indication of loneliness from myself by the many ways I could stay busy in “important” activities. Often I would be working past midnight. Most days were full of people and projects. I knew solitude was important (a subject explored a little later on) so I did a day retreat once a month. Most of the time was spent in going over the lists of all the things I had committed to do and only a small part (a very helpful small part) was given to quiet reflection and soul-healing solitude.
And I had people in my life. Many of these were ones who were gifts from God to me – companions who helped me walk with the Lord in good and healing ways. But even in these relationships I could slide into the wrong desire described by C.S. Lewis:
“I believe that in all people’s lives at certain periods and in many people’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” The Inner Ring by C. S. Lewis
And of course, one of the things that kept me inside the inner ring was all the projects I helped make happen.
All of you who have read this far are enough interested in the subject and are perceptive enough to have concluded that the root of our difficulties is in a poor relationship with the God who made us and/or poor relationships with the people He brings into our lives. So let’s move on to consider what we are all learning in these areas.
Embracing God’s love
We have lived so long in a world that gives affirmation and “love” based on our performance that it is very difficult to accept that God loves us in our times of good performance and he loves us when we are not performing well. He knows us completely and He loves us completely.
Gil Wesley brings further understanding to this process of healing that we all need:
“Rick wrote that letting God love us may be the hardest job in life. I have been fascinated by Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21. Paul asks God to grant all believers the “power to grasp (comprehend) the infinite dimensions of the love of Jesus”. This comprehension far exceeds an intellectual affirmation of this love (it “surpasses knowledge). The word for power used in this prayer is the same word used to describe the energy God used to raise Jesus from the dead. The question I have is why does the follower of Jesus need “resurrection-type power” to comprehend Jesus’ love for us? We are not being asked to sacrifice our life or give up our treasured idol. It seems that Paul agrees with Rick. Grasping this love is hard work! It needs God’s strongest support.”
I begin my journey as a follower of Jesus in 1955. From that first contact I heard the words that God loved me. It is central to the message of Jesus. And I promoted that message to others all my life, getting up early in the morning, staying up late at night, traveling thousands of miles to tell others that God loved them – just as they were. But when you grow up in a home and a society that tells you that love is earned by performance this is a message that is nearly impossible to grasp. Twenty-two years ago I had an experience with my grandson, Thomas, which has been transformational for me.
Thomas and his parents lived with us in Falls Church, Virginia. When he was six months old I was sitting on our front steps holding him on a lovely summer morning. He sat quietly watching the cars drive by, watching a bird fly over, watching a potato bug crawl across the sidewalk, and doing nothing else. He was doing absolutely nothing productive! And I had never been happier in all my life. My love for him had nothing to do with performance or production or good conduct. I just loved him because love for him was part of my nature.
That was a transforming time in my life. Hundreds of time I have returned to that experience to help me Know at a deep level that God knows me completely and that God loves me completely – irrespective of my good or bad performance.
Introverts and Extroverts
This was an “I wonder if . . .” kind of question. Two good responses came as a result of asking if introverts and extroverts experienced loneliness in the same ways and to the same degree.
“An introvert requires more time to process life, therefore, one would think all the Scriptures encouraging us to spend time with God would be helpful! But the world runs on extroversion and busyness, I have heard the common response to “How are you” has changed from “fine” to “busy”. This technological world expects “faster”. An introvert “feels” the stigma of “you are not accomplishing this fast enough; you are not busy enough to be in step with the world” – therefore, introverts have to deal with the loneliness and depression imposed by our culture.” Connie Smith
“It seems that although introverts and extroverts experience loneliness equally, their attempts to end their loneliness could take disparate paths. It is important to practice both the disciplines of abstinence and engagement. In my experience as an extrovert, I tried to alleviate my loneliness through fellowship, worship, service; in short – disciplines of engagement. For my healing, I needed to withdraw into solitude so I could hear God’s declaration of love acceptance. The introverts may need to engage in order to experience the healing of being known and accepted by fellow brothers and sisters.” Gil Wesley
Kay and I have learned in our marriage that one aspect of loving each other is that we are to learn what the other needs. For many years we would be coming home from a lively encounter with people and as we are driving along I would be busy processing all that has taken place while Kay would sit quietly wishing I would do the same. Eventually I learned that people energized me but they were enervating for her – even the ones she loved deeply. One day as we were driving along I received the affirmation that I had finally learned this. After an hour or so of silence she said in a musing voice, “Being with you is almost as good as being alone.”
Recently Jim Eney and I were given the opportunity to work with the 60 plus Young Life staff people from Oregon and Southern Washington at a day set aside for solitude and reflection. The staff people build a monthly day of solitude into their schedules because they know the importance of renewal and transformation that comes from times like this. It was interesting to note the differences between those who were more on the introvert side and those who were clearly extroverts. After a morning of solitude we met in small groups to discuss what had been experienced prior to spending the next three hours in a similar time of solitude. The introverts would be delighted to stay by themselves and not interact with anyone, but the extroverts were ready to move on to being engaged with people.
Recalling Bonheoffer’s statement in Life Together “Let the one who cannot be alone beware of community. Let the one who is not in community beware of being alone.” We encouraged each person to lean against his or her desire. For the extroverts it would be good for them to spend more time alone. For the introverts it would be good to engage on a deep level with one or two others in a time of sharing the things God had been teaching each of them – the true basis of friendship according to Jesus in John 15:15.
No matter what our personality profile each of us needs a life of inner quiet and each of us needs deep engagement with a few close companions in Christ.
From loneliness to solitude
In 1971 my friend, Doug Coe, sent me to Africa for a month as a way of broadening my experience of the world and discovering the broadness of God’s love for the people of the world. He sent me for a month – alone! The first stop was a little scary when I arrived in Cairo at 2:30 in the morning and was taken by taxi into the heart of the city not knowing whether or not I would be driven into a secluded spot and killed. But the next morning I met up with my friend and it was marvelous to meet his family and friends and to see his city through his eyes. After Cairo I went on to Kenya. The next three weeks were in East Africa with Dick and Joyce Hightower – wonderful companions in their love for the Lord and their love for the people of Africa. Those three weeks were the beginning of the love I have for Africans that has grown ever since.
Then came Nigeria! The Biafra war (a major civil war in Nigeria) had ended a couple months before. The country was in disarray. I eventually escaped all the Nigerians at the airport who had plans for my life – or at least for my money—and arrived at my hotel. The man who was supposed to meet me at my hotel never showed up in the three days I was there. I called his home and Mr. Adefarisin (my contact) said he had never heard of me or Doug Coe. A couple hours before I left for the airport to depart Lagos I found him and then discovered that the name that came through on his telegram was nothing like mine so when he came to the hotel they said I had not come – a rather common happening in Africa. And the number I called was his home but his brother was the resident. All of this to say I was in a strange country, with miserable heat and humidity, poor cooling system, and as one of the few white persons in Lagos a prime target whenever I went on the street. Three days in a hotel room in Lagos were filled with loneliness – and I knew nothing about the joys of solitude.
Today, I would still find the situation frustrating, but I would also have accepted it as a gift from the Lord to have a time of quiet and solitude after the intensity of Kenya and before the next few intense days in Ghana. But in 1971 I knew nothing about turning my loneliness into solitude.
Some other thoughts on this process:
“Solitude is significantly different from loneliness. Loneliness is the unwanted aching of the heart. If we let it control us, it makes us needy and manipulative as we consume and use people in a vain effort to relieve the ache. By contrast, solitude is a courageous choice to set aside the distractions, the relationships, and the busyness in order to confront the heartache head-on. If we can stand to be prayerfully quiet long enough, we will discover what Jesus discovered. We will learn that we are not alone, but we are known and loved, even cherished, by our Father.” Sacred Thirst by Craig Barnes
“By carrying our loneliness into the solitary place we encounter the caring presence of God, who hears our cry, and we open ourselves to receive those who God is giving to bear the burden with us. These we watch for and welcome as a gift from God, so that together we can be open to God’s life-giving Spirit among us.” Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton
“The cure for loneliness is solitude and silence, for there you discover in how many ways you are never alone.” The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
“Solitude for me is just a stopping off place leading to something better. In loneliness I get bogged down in self, laziness, and not caring.” This leads to nothing. Ruth Ann Minifie
“I was stimulated the most by the idea of turning loneliness into solitude. The Dallas Willard quote was powerful. It represents the idea of turning a victim attitude into a world-class attitude. Technically, loneliness and solitude are very similar. The difference has to do with perspective, in my eyes. Once this perspective is implemented, the brilliant, paradoxical truth suggested by Willard is allowed to take form and provide comfort.” Kris Asleson
“It makes perfect sense that the way past the wound of loneliness is solitude; the place where one can drink deeply from Jesus. In solitude, one hears Jesus’ invitation to come and drink freely; to come and reconnect to the source of love and life.” Gil Wesley
“All humans long for companionship but the deeper longing is intimacy and a connectedness to self and another. Connectedness to your own self, to God, and to others is work. This work is begun by love. It is pretty difficult to experience intimacy if you do not love. Loneliness is remedied, so often in my experience, by just loving and accepting my Self. This leads to accepting and loving others without judgment. This is what Christ instructs. If we listen to what he says, it’s amazing what can happen, isn’t it?” Anna Carlson
“When I am courageous enough to take the time to be alone with Jesus he is always gracious enough to come meet me. It is in solitude where Jesus reveals my shadow self. These are the holy moments where the Lord embraces me and reminds me that my only hope is in Him. I leave these encounters at peace, encouraged and with the confidence it takes to share my poverty with some trusted friends. I am then no longer standing alone in a fearful state.” Bill Hamilton
Turning our loneliness into solitude that renews and equips us for the journey is a lifelong challenge. May we encourage each other in this quest. Which brings me to the next thought:
Learning solitude – together
“God made us then whispered “think symphony, not solo.” Bob Goff
Monthly we have six to ten men and women who show up at our home for a day of reflection. Kay calls this our time of “solitude together” with a question mark as it seems to her that the “together” diminishes the solitude. But I know with this group of us we would be much less into solitude without the encouragement we give to each other to pursue times of quiet and renewal. We have also discovered how this works to deepen our relationship with both the Lord and with each other. At the last supper, Jesus told the Eleven that they became his friends because he shared with them the things the Father gave him. As we learn in quiet and then let others know the things God is speaking into our lives the depth of the things we tell each other deepens our friendships.
“The spiritual life is a treacherous undertaking that we best not attempt alone. Good mentors are themselves on this road, so they are not shocked to hear us say how often we return and then leave again. We want to find mentors who don’t judge us or tell us what to do.” Home Tonight by Henri Nouwen
“The central search for meaning and order and for an antidote to loneliness leads us to the necessity of community.” Becoming Human by Jean Vanier
Jerry Minifie points to John 13-17 and the special time Jesus had with the Eleven before his death.
“Jesus’ expressions of comfort and love were, no doubt, permanently implanted in the minds and hearts of his followers. He told them to stay together and to love one another. He promised to not leave them alone, but would send the spirit of truth and peace to be in their hearts. He encouraged them to stay focused on their union with him, the source of all strength. And he prayed for them that they would all be one.”
This is a wonderful reminder of the importance of communities of close companions meeting around Jesus – who gives life to all of us. So where was Jerry when I was stuck in Lagos in 1971?
There is something “heroic” in being the single person on a mission for God, but I now see that this loneliness of mission was because I was not functioning in partnership the way God would want. In Acts 13 God sent both Barnabas and Paul on the mission to Asia Minor. Even after Paul had had the amazing Macedonian vision when he and others were in Troas, Luke records, “we got ready to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
Later when writing to friends in Corinth Paul writes: “Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.” So another reason for responding to the Macedonian vision was because Paul did not have his chief partner with him in Troas.
When we moved back to Oregon from Washington, D.C. I had ideas about how God could use in Oregon. In submitting some of those ideas the counsel from those to whom Kay and I submit our lives was: “Don’t pioneer anything alone and especially look for a younger person to partner with you.” I listened! I have learned the lesson of Lagos.
Loss of a special person in our lives
One of the questions was to comment on the special loneliness that comes from the loss of a child or a spouse. Those who been through this experience all indicate the special pain and deep loneliness that was their painful experience. I have yet to have this experience, but I think a comment by Roy Thompson has been the most helpful for me to understand it. Shortly after his son died in his twenties a very insensitive person asked him if he had gotten over it. Roy’s statement, “You never get over it! It is like losing an arm. You do learn to live without the arm but you never get over it.”
I have not lost an arm, but in the loss of some wonderful companions I have some smaller holes in my life. I can’t walk into the cul-de-sac on 24th street without thinking of the many hours over 30 years of sitting with Roy and Evelyne Cook, enjoying the humor and the biblical insights that flourished in their presence. I can’t begin to process ideas that are outside the box without missing the amazing friendship and different ideas that I received from Kelly Kenagy for over 50 years. I can’t write anything about what I am learning from Jesus without missing the questions and insights that were a great contribution to my thinking and my life from John Gilman. I could go on, but the point is already clear – I have a great sense of loss in those who have been my companions and who are now gone.
I have also learned something about the deaths of those I love. Dores Mitchell, who lost her husband, Bill, two years ago, quoted a statement from Bill’s memorial service: “The day will come when the thought of your loved one will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye”. She has discovered this is true. Remembering wonderful things shared with the one who is gone brings the person back in good ways. There is still pain for me in their departure but in wonderful ways they are still part of my journey as I remember what they did or said as we walked together.
Propel to good by loneliness
I have been pondering the response I received from Lise Struthers and it helps me understand both this kind of aloneness and how God can use it in propelling me forward in the things he wants me to be and to do. She wrote:
“In the spiritual life we have to make a distinction between two kinds of loneliness. In the first loneliness, we are out of touch with God and experience ourselves as anxiously looking for someone or something that can give us a sense of belonging, intimacy, and home. The second loneliness comes from an intimacy with God that is deeper and greater than our feelings and thoughts can capture. We might think of these two kinds of loneliness as two forms of blindness. The first blindness comes from the absence of light, the second from too much light. The first loneliness we must try to outgrow with faith and hope. The second loneliness we must be willing to embrace in love. When Jesus came close to his death, he no longer could experience God’s presence. He cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But he held on to the truth that God was with him and said: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”
I have asked the question, “Are there ways that our loneliness can be fuel for actions that propel us into the world in good ways?” I think that embracing the “second loneliness” moves me to relieve the loneliness in positive ways. It makes me seek to connect more deeply with the Lord, to seek to discover what gifts and mission he has given me, and to seek to know who the people are who will walk with me in living out the things God is giving to us to hold in common.
Some other responses:
“Loneliness can propel me to pray for others, to reach out to others, to notice them and let them know I do. Pain is a road walked alone in many ways, yet a club for many who did not ask to join but who nonetheless find themselves in it….so I pray and look for others in my club.” Barbara Burge
“Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.” Becoming Human by Jean Vanier
“Loneliness has exercised my gift of being able to companion others; reminded me and affirmed my own identity that became lost in loneliness. And I have opened myself and my feelings of loneliness to others allowing them to begin companioning me. One day at a time, one interaction at a time.” Connie Smith
“In the lonely place Jesus finds the courage to follow God’s will and not his own; to speak God’s words and not his own; to do God’s work and not his own. It is in the lonely place, where Jesus enters into intimacy with the Father, that his ministry is born.” Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen
The Contest for an Antonym
The following words or phrases were all excellent. They all contain Rick’s original thought that the resolution of loneliness is to be totally known and totally loved. Several of the words were suggested by more than one person. Here is the list:
- Belonging to God and to people
- Known and Knowing
- Love – received and given
- Relentless Surrender
- Souljourners — companions on the way
- Solid-tude and friends
Any one of these (well almost) could have been winners but since I have to choose I have chosen the submission by Barb Burge because she captures the same ideas and it is done with a clever invented word. Barb wrote:
The antonym to loneliness could be “KNOWNLINESS “. Knowing I am fully known and loved by God and being fully known and accepted by another.