I have a lot of experience with breakups.
Granted, most of them are not my own. But when you lead a small group of college girls, breakups come as part of the package of discipling this age group. In fact, my girls have had 25+ breakups in the past six years (for an average of 4-5 breakups a year), so I now keep chocolate and tissues on hand for such a time as this.
While loneliness as a result of singleness or a recent breakup is where my familiarity with this particular emotion lies, loneliness simply involves the presence of pain in our lives. Pain from loss. Pain from suffering. Pain from feeling left out or misunderstood or alone. Maybe you’re in a season of ministry or leadership where it doesn’t feel like you have support or close friends. Maybe you’re married and feel alone in your marriage (for whatever reason). Maybe you feel like no one understands what you’re walking through. Maybe you want to be married but find yourself single while the rest of your friend group is pairing off.
We feel this pain because there is sin in the world. Think about, when Adam was in the Garden naming the animals, he was alone but not lonely. There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is aloneness without pain, but loneliness occurs because of pain’s presence.
Suffering is God’s Megaphone
Whether physical, emotional, or relational, pain is a form of suffering, and God uses our suffering as a megaphone. He uses it to get our attention. How many times have you said or thought, “I want to know God more. I want to know Him better than I do. I want to go deeper in my relationship with Him”? If we ask to know God and things happen in our lives, aren’t we, in a way, getting what we ask for? Let me explain…
I was on a road trip driving back to Birmingham one Sunday afternoon in April listening to a podcast when the teacher read the beginning of Hebrews 11:6, which hooked its talons into my soul: “And without faith it is impossible to please him [God].” God considers my faith - my dependence, reliance, and trust - in Him to be of utmost importance. In fact, I cannot please Him without it. So if my faith in God is so important to Him, it means that He will work in my life to grow my faith in Him.
You see, our faith is like a muscle. It either grows or atrophies. It’s one or the other. For my muscles to grow, they have to be put under stress. It’s when I’m lifting weights that my muscle fibers are damaged and new, stronger, and more numerous muscle fibers grow in its place. But my muscles have to be put in those situations of tension. The same goes for our faith.
This is why, in my own life, my toughest times have been the seasons of drawing nearest to my Heavenly Father. I grew in my understanding of Him, in my closeness to Him, in my dependence on Him in a way that I hadn’t before, in a way I wouldn’t have when everything was hunky-dory in my life. Part of this indicates my own sinfulness and not recognizing how dependent on God I truly am until my life falls apart. So your pain - your loneliness - is an opportunity to know God in a way that you never would otherwise.
The “Why” Question
When His sovereignty conflicts with my desires, I have to learn to trust Him on a whole new level.
I went through a difficult season when I was in seminary, and there was one night where one of my professors had our class over to dinner at her home. She said something that night that stayed with me and ministered to me in that particular season. The counsel? “To make friends with your unanswered questions.” God doesn’t always answer all of my questions. He doesn’t always fill me in on His purpose, on why such-and-such happened.
But I have to trust God, even if I never know why He permitted certain things to happen. I have to trust Him when I have questions but no answers. I think sometimes God doesn’t tell me why because it’s part of how He grows me. I like the known. I like having a plan and a purpose. I don’t like living with ambiguity, not knowing what will happen or when it will happen or why it will happen. For me, unanswered questions are a weight to help my faith muscle grow.
So when I feel lonely, I need to look at why. I need to identify the pain that I’m feeling. I also don’t need to just accept the loneliness. Sometimes how I feel doesn’t match up with my reality, and I just need to remind myself of what is true. Elisabeth Elliot defines loneliness as the pain of “wanting what we don’t have” (Finding Your Way Through Loneliness), so if I feel lonely, I need to identify what it is I’m wanting and evaluate whether or not I have submitted that desire under the Lordship of Christ.
Desires are tricky things. It’s so easy to let a desire become something I focus on, and the more I dwell on it, the bigger it gets, the more consumed I am with it. Do I want the desire fulfilled more than I want Christ? If so, it means that I don’t truly grasp the goodness of God. I don’t truly trust His sufficiency and His sovereignty in my life. It means that I have made an idol out of that desire. So ask yourself who am I truly worshiping? There’s what I say I believe, and there’s what I functionally believe. My functional belief system shows itself in how I live. Do my actions and emotions line up with what I say I believe?
Having written all of this, I sense the need to continue the conversation on loneliness. So stay tuned for a part two on this topic and, in particular, what to do when you feel lonely. Click here to read part 2 on "The Fruit of Loneliness."