Loneliness "is the most desolate word in all human language. It is capable of hurling the heaviest weights the heart can endure. It plays no favorites, ignores all rules of courtesy, knows neither border nor barrier, yields no mercy, refuses all bargains, and holds the clock in utter contempt. It cannot be bribed; it will not be left be hind. Crowds only make it worse, activity simply drives it deeper. Silent and destructive as a flooding river in the night, it leaves its slimy banks, seeps into our dwelling, and rises to a crest of despair. Tears fall from our eyes as groans fall from our lips but loneliness, that uninvited guest of the soul, arrives at dusk and stays till dinner." *
Who among us have not had an affair with this seductive siren of solitaire?
For many years I felt like the lady love of loneliness whose long visits left me in despair and suicidal. Not even the golden rays of the Son of righteousness that shone into my life and dramatically changed me were able to seep into the dark emotional wounds and consuming anguish caused by an ever-present sense of loneliness. It haunted every moment of the first few years of my ministry, especially when I lived in denial, pretending that pastors are not plagued by this intruder. It was difficult to deal with these feelings in a denomination in which a majority of the pastors are men who seem to be happily married with their carefully groomed 2.5 children. These feelings were exacerbated when I was isolated by my peers who protested against women in ministry or were uncomfortable with a woman of color breaking into the traditions of a White male-dominated organization.
One is the loneliest number
The primary meaning I am giving to the word "loneliness" is a lack of companion ship that results from being single or friend less. In the beginning God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone," and although He has called me to the pastoral ministry as a single person, I must confess I have finally admitted He is right and that one is definitely a lonely number, especially as a pastor. I have, however, learned to function as an amputee. I use that metaphor after learning that when one loses a limb, the brain often forgets, and insists on normal functions from that part of the body. Hence an amputated arm may still try to reach for and pick up objects.
As a divorcee whose ex-husband is deceased, I am intimately acquainted with loneliness. While journeying through the crises of loneliness, I placed undue stress on myself by pretending to be whole when I was really suffering from the realities of being a single parent and pastor who was alone and sometimes lonely. There were times I wished I could be real while counseling people through their pain when my heart was over come by similar fears, or express my desire for a companion with whom I could share joys and sorrows without seeming desperate. At times I would go to pastoral meetings longing for a sense of belonging, collegiality, and approbation only to have no one attempt to hold a meaningful conversation with me. I soon became accustomed to eating alone and living in my head.
It would not be fair to suggest that these were my first or only encounters with loneliness. I've always been alone and for most of my life, until God healed my brokenness, suffered the shame of being abandoned by all the men in my life. First, my father left me to be raised by a series of strong women. I had no male role models from whom to draw understanding of true companionship. Second, childhood memories were marred by recollections of sexual violations by relatives. Only the impact of Christ in my life put an end to the cycle of mental and emotional shame that was my legacy. As a result I was unable to trust, and chose partners who continued the abuse or friends who betrayed and left calluses of loneliness that nothing seemed able to shake.
Fig leaves of work and success
As a nonbeliever I sought comfort from drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. This created a vicious circle of shame, low self-esteem, and a deep sense of loneliness that not even marriage or other human relationships satisfied. As a sanguine/choleric I needed attention, but also had to be in charge of relationships. I hated being alone, but often rejected the attempts made by others to get close to me. In spite of the outward happiness that accentuated my life, I was very paranoid in relationships. I welcomed Christianity and the promise of salvation from all the pain of the past. I was sure that I would be immediately cured of that old empty feeling, but to my dismay, it seemed to intensify as my relationship with God increased. I thought since I had committed my life to God, feelings so strongly associated with sin would disappear. They did not. As time passed, I felt more insecure about sharing them with anyone, fearing rejection. The vicious cycle of shame and loneliness was overwhelming. I thought I was the only person in ministry who felt this way, not realizing that many others had learned to cloak and disguise their issues just as I was doing. The fear of discovery caused me to isolate myself in a cocoon of pretentious piety that sometimes even I believed was authentic. I became guilt-ridden and fearful that others might discover this weakness. I felt that my only recourse was to hide be hind the fig leaves of work and success in ministry. I was like a drug addict in attitude and actions. I neglected my son, whom I had raised as a single parent, by rationalizing that my accomplishments would be good for both of us. In the end I drove him from the God whom I professed to love so much. Fortunately, that relationship has been restored, but I can't help wondering if this may not be a significant factor in the alienation that pastor's children experience.
Most of the time I could cope with my loneliness. Spring was the exception. I lived on the east coast of the United States where there were several months of dreary winter when people sheltered themselves indoors, and spring was a time of bountiful beauty that I welcomed with a sweet, yet sickening sense of being, but not belonging. Seeing people with their mates joining the birds and bees in the grand ritual celebration of spring while I was always and still alone sometimes choked the breath out of my body and left me numb to the vibrancy of life around me. I really don't know how I survived those seasons. That's why I treasure God's intervention that curtailed the loneliness.
Secrets are the source of shame and suffering
A few months after I became pastor at the Boston Temple, our church had a renovation and rededication of the sanctuary attended by more than 700 participants. I was exhausted from the work, but exhilarated by the success of the project when something happened to throw me over the edge of despair.
I had invited the popular New England group, Epic Brass, to present a worship in music. Their leader suggested that at the end of a certain movement of the Bach piece being performed, there would be a noticeable pause at which time I would say the benediction and dismiss the congregation. I was exhausted, but more so, because I'm not a musician, I was secretly afraid of embarrassing myself before an audience of which most of the people were either graduates or students at the New England Conservatory of Music. Fifteen minutes into the presentation I heard a pause, jumped up to the platform, prayed, and dismissed the audience. Al though the leader of the group was com passionate when he pointed out my error, I was devastated. I was sure that my members would reject me. I went home and curled up in bed, numbed to the core. All the shame of my past, all those well-guarded secrets, haunted me. I became ill, yet no physician could find the cause of my increasingly failing health.
Two weeks later, feeling isolated from God and people, I left for a silent retreat. As I sat down on one of the huge rocks jutting above the beach with the sound of water crashing against it like the waves of loneliness breaking over my heart, I wanted to die. Thoughts of suicide were like the longed for sweet nothings of love and acceptance that never came. I cried out to God, accusing Him of not caring enough for me, not providing me with a mate, not helping me through the isolation, not protecting me from embarrassment or healing the history of abuse and its evil ramifications. I cried until there were no tears, no voice left to shout in anger. I lay on the cold stone for hours, feeling as if I had melted into it. Al though my health became immediately better, my heart still felt as though it was being pierced by sharp shards of pain as my old companion, loneliness, seemed even more reluctant to leave.
Then one day I discovered that God had indeed healed me, and the little child in side clamoring for attention and reconciliation was integrated into my chronological maturity. From that day I have not had the usual despair of loneliness or keen sense of being disengaged from my world, my friends, and especially from my God. I began to truly love myself, God, and neighbors, as Jesus urged in Matthew 22:37-39.1 stopped looking for someone or something to make me happy and found fulfillment in my own life, accomplishments, and relationship with God. I finally accepted my self just as I am and stopped the comparison with others.
There'll be no loneliness in the new earth
The popular interpretation of Matthew 22:23-32, that there would be no marriage in heaven, has always concerned me. For some whose marriages are difficult, such a promise maybe a welcome respite from the cycle of emotional estrangement, but for those of us who have committed ourselves to a life of celibacy for the kingdom of God (cf. Matt. 19:11,12), whether because of the death or divorce of a spouse, this is indeed a hard saying.
Relief came when, on closer examination, I discovered the subject under discussion was not marriage but the resurrection, in which the Sadducees did not believe. In their attempts to trap Jesus, they used an illustration of a marriage custom that was popular in their time. Jesus, who does not answer what He isn't asked, pointed out that they had no understanding of what would happen "in the resurrection," not events or activities related to the afterlife in heaven. He did not discuss what would happen in heaven because (a) that was not what the Sadducees asked Him and (b) it would have been pointless to speak about what would happen in heaven to a group who did not even believe in the resurrection, which precedes the "in heaven" experience.
The reference to being "like angels of God in heaven" has led some to extrapolate that since angels are not married, this is what Jesus meant. Scriptural evidence attests that angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner re stored to Christ (cf. Luke 15:7). In the same way, they will also joyfully reunite families "in the resurrection."
How I've overcome loneliness
First, I have dedicated myself to a devotional life that is not part of my pastoral responsibility. I took Isaiah 54:5 literally and let God be my husband. I entered an incredible level of intimacy with God, sharing all joys and concerns, even talking with Him about the food I ate and clothes I wore. Nothing was or is too small or great for me to discuss with Him. I not only seek and value His opinion, I listen to His voice.
Second, when I am feeling particularly lonely, I try to think of someone who is also lonely, especially a colleague in ministry, and get in touch with that person. I make sure that it is not a "misery loves company" kind of contact by avoiding conversations that are melancholy. I try to find things of mutual interest from which we can learn and laugh two of the cheapest and best medicines for the blues.
Third, I avoid denial or sublimation of feelings of loneliness. Keeping the secret of loneliness from others is not healthy. And pretending to be well adjusted when one isn't, especially for pastors, can be very destructive. The lives and careers of many lonely pastors who have been destroyed by sexual impropriety attests to this conclusion. I am painfully honest with myself and God, who knows exactly where I am and what's happening in my life. When the enemy at tempts to overwhelm me with loneliness, I write God very explicit letters about my feelings. Almost always, before I am even finished, I experience praise and thanksgiving.
Fourth, I have discovered that every pastor needs a pastor. I found a partner in faith, a colleague in ministry, who is also single and with whom I could be authentic. She was willing and able to tell me the truth about myself without embarrassing or judging me. Even though it is a long-distance relationship and most of our conversations are by telephone and e-mail, we developed a strategy of accountability that has been a rich blessing.
Finally, I take very seriously the injunction to cast all my anxieties on Christ, for He truly cares for me (1 Peter 5:7). I also remember that Jesus said, "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." We are never alone when His perfect presence and love casts out all fear and the folly of loneliness.
* Charles R. Swindoll, Growing Strong in the
Seasons of Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub.
House, 1983), p. 156.
Continuing education exercise
Questions for reflection:
A vibrant, authentic relationship with God is the best way out of
loneliness. Reflect on the following questions and see how you fare.
1. When am I the loneliest, and what is it that triggers this
2. Do I have a trusted pastor or peer to whom I can honestly relate
3. Does loneliness cause me to participate in unusual actions
4. Do I feel abandoned by God and/or isolate myself from people?
5. What resources do I have or choose when loneliness overwhelms me?
Chambers, Oswald. Not Knowing Where. Grand Rapids. Discovery
House Publishers, 1957. An insightful exposition of Genesis and a
study of the patriachs' reactions to claims of companionship and
fellowship with God. A spiritual classic that deals with the cost of
friendship with God.
Deere, Jack. Surprised by the Voice of God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1996. A practical, entertaining book that deals
with the biblical reality that God still, speaks to people in our modern
world. Shows how to develop a relationship that will enable one to
hear God's voice.
Evans, W. Glen. Don't Quit 'Til You Taste the Honey. Nashville:
Broadman Press, 1993. A "feel good" devotional that addresses
life's overwhelming concerns and complaints by urging endurance
and trust in God's abundant resources. Focuses on spiritual realities
in God's Word as a means of overcoming loneliness and other
crises in life.
Williams, Hyveth. Will I Ever Learn? Hagerstown, Md.: Review and
Herald Pub. Assn.,1996. A personal story of journey through life's
crises and God's incredible miracles that not only ended the terror
of these crises but also catapulted the author into ministry.