Navigating Loneliness

This is a topic that I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, but I have struggled to articulate my thoughts until recently. I believe that our world is currently going through one of the loneliest seasons in human history and therefore the topic of loneliness is more relevant than ever before. The global pandemic is stripping away many of the social supports that people have depended upon. It’s driving people into isolation and disconnectedness. And whenever I ask people about how they’re doing, loneliness seems to be the strongest emotion that surfaces.

Loneliness is such a universal experience. In his book Together, an incredible book about the power of human connection, author and former US Surgeon General Vivek Murphy describes 3 circles of loneliness. He writes:

“Intimate, or emotional, loneliness is the longing for a close confidante or intimate partner—someone with whom you share a deep, mutual bond of affection and trust. Relational, or social, loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support. Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.”

-Vivek H. Murphy

Murphy’s theory is that if even one of these circles of connection is missing, we feel lonely. This perspective makes so much sense to me. It explains why someone can be happily married, but feel lonely because they don’t have quality friendships. Or someone else can have close friendships, but feel lonely due to a lack of community.

I believe that it’s even possible to be lonely while with other people. In fact, I think that this is the most painful type of loneliness. It’s possible to feel lonely in a crowd, lonely while with friends, and even lonely in a marriage. We are wired for connection— to know and be known. However, since we live in a fallen world, our connection with others is riddled with misunderstandings. We regularly miss each other’s hearts and even our best moments of connection fall short of the perfect intimacy God designed us for.

As a result we’re lonely.

However, I’ve noticed that we often avoid admitting our loneliness. In his book The Restless Heart, Ronald Rolheiser describes this phenomenon.

“Most of us are reluctant to admit our loneliness even to ourselves. All of us tend to have a congenital need to deny that we experience loneliness and that it is, in some way, responsible for many of our feelings, actions, and pursuits… We admit that we are lonely only with feelings of shame and weakness. Also, most of us feel that loneliness is not something that should affect normal, healthy persons.”

-Ronald Rolheiser

We tend to dance around the word “loneliness”, saying that we feel “sad”, “disconnected”, and “confused”. But I think that at the core, many of us feel just plain lonely. However, I think that there’s a social stigma around loneliness that keeps us from admitting this to ourselves and to others.

I believe that naming our loneliness and facing it head on is what limits its power over us. Loneliness can be a destructive force in our lives. But it also can be used by the Lord in beautiful ways if we’ll let Him. I want to share some strategies God has taught me for navigating loneliness when it pops up in my life.

Honesty with God: We never have to pretend with God. He knows our feelings and emotions before we even know them ourselves. When I feel lonely, I will simply tell God, “I feel lonely right now.” And the best part is that Jesus understands. We have a High Priest who understands our weakness. On the cross, Jesus took upon Himself all the loneliness in the world. When He said, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Jesus experienced the deepest possible loneliness— separation from the Father. He understand loneliness in a way that no one else can.

Refusing distraction and busyness: When I feel lonely, I tend to throw myself into a flurry of activity and distraction. I try to have every weeknight scheduled and I make plans for a busy weekend. However, when I notice myself becoming flurried and frenetic, I need to slow down and ask God several questions: Am I feeling lonely? Did you ask me to do these things? Or am I just avoiding being alone? If I realize that loneliness is the root, I need to take that to Jesus and ask Him to fill my loneliness.

Pursuing intimacy with Jesus: This is by far the most important step. if we don’t look to Jesus first, then we will look to others to fill our emptiness. This puts a pressure on our relationships that they weren’t intended to bear. When I feel alone, the thing my heart needs most is quality time with Jesus. He knows us in a way that no human being can. Psalm 139 beautifully illustrates this truth. It reads:

“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.

Psalm 139:1-4

Prioritizing relationships and community: Not only does God bless us with His presence, but He also invites us into the blessing of community. It is a beautiful gift to have tangible people in the flesh to walk beside us in life. When I used to feel lonely, I would isolate myself even more from people. However, this past year, God has been teaching me to reach out. I can spend time with my roommates, I can call a friend or a family member, or I can be intentional with my church community. Loneliness is a reminder that we need one another and aren’t meant to walk through life alone. Our loneliness can propel us into deeper connection with the people in our lives.

Noticing others who are lonely: I believe that the most painful experiences in our lives can be transformed into gifts when we allow God to use them. Seasons of loneliness increase our sensitivity and empathy for others who feel lonely. When I feel lonely, I ask myself, “What can I do to lessen someone else’s loneliness right now?” In times of loneliness, it’s so easy to get lost in ourselves and in self-absorption. However, God invites us to look out and see the people around us, to make them feel noticed and cared about.

God can transform our loneliness into a deeper understanding, compassion, and empathy for others.

And that is a beautiful thing.

The Power of Listening

Covid has slowed down the frenetic pace of so many of our lives. While it can be disorienting to have more time on our hands, it also is an incredible opportunity. During this season, I believe that God is inviting us into deeper intimacy with Him. Our lives are a lot quieter than they used to be and I think that the quiet place is the best place to hear God’s voice.

Learning to hear God’s voice is an exciting adventure. However, just like any valuable relationship, it also requires consistency and intentionality. I want to share with you several things that God has been teaching me about listening to Him. I hope that these principles encourage you if you want to hear Gods’ voice, but are not sure where to start.

Setting aside a time and place: I think that the biggest barrier to hearing God’s voice is that we just don’t take the time to do it. I’ve found it so important to establish some rhythms in my life that create space to hear God’s voice.

For example, each morning I try to spend 10 minutes just being quiet and listening. This isn’t a time to journal my thoughts, prayers, or feelings. Rather it’s a time to leave space for God to speak. Sometimes I’ll hear something very specific. For example, He might prompt me to call or reach out to someone that day. However, other times God simply reminds me of who He is and how much He loves me.

The last couple of months I’ve been experimenting again with taking a weekly Sabbath. This is such a powerful practice for me because it forces me to slow down for one whole day a week and just be. I find that it’s easier to hear God on these days because my soul is less hurried and frenetic. On my Sabbath, I try to take a more extended period of silence. During this time, I will look back on the previous week and notice the ways that God was at work. I will also seek God’s direction about the upcoming week.

This past year, I’ve also taken a couple of weekends away to seek God for a more extended period of time. Although sometimes I find myself avoiding this time alone, I need it so desperately. This is an important time to seek God with the big picture questions in my life. I always find that I feel so much more centered and clear about what He has for me in the upcoming season after these times away.

Letting go of expectations: Often times I come into solitude with specific questions that I want God to answer directly. However, nine times out of ten, God shares with me something completely different. I’ll have a surface level question about a decision I’m trying to make, but He wants to address something deeper in my heart. This is why it’s so important to let go of expectations. God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. He may share with us things that we don’t expect, but that’s part of the adventure of listening to Him.

Surrendering my will to His: This is a hard one for me. I am a deep feeler with strong emotions. Sometimes it’s very difficult to distinguish God’ voice from my personal feelings. In His book Walking With God, John Eldredge talks about the necessity of surrendering our will to God’s. He writes:

“Am I willing to hear whatever it is God wants to say? That is absolutely critical. If I can only hear an answer that agrees with what I want to hear, then I am not in a position of surrender to God’s will, and it will be hard for me to hear Him at all. Sometimes I will even say as I’m listening, ‘Lord I will accept whatever you say to me.’ It helps bring my soul to a posture of quiet surrender.”

-John Eldredge

I think that it’s best to initially practice listening to God about simple things that I’m not emotionally invested in like how to spend my day, who I should reach out to, or even silly things like what to have for dinner. Listening to God in these low stake decisions is helpful because it makes me more attentive to His voice without the confusion of my own personal feelings.

If I do realize that I have a strong will about something, I will simply be honest with God about that and ask Him to align my will with His. In times like these I need to focus on His goodness and His character. It’s easier to surrender my will to His when I remember that He has my best interest in mind

Writing down what I hear: About a year ago I started keeping a journal of God’s words to me. I usually record several things God has spoken to me each month. These might be pictures, Scriptures or even simple phrases from the Lord. It’s so encouraging to go back and re-read through this journal during times of discouragement or confusion. Each time, I feel re-aligned with God’s truth and secure in what He’s spoken. I also start to see the broader themes and patterns of what God is teaching me.

Looking for consolations: When I’m trying to discern God’s will in something, I look for a feeling of His peace and presence. In her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton describes this feeling of peace as a consolation. She writes:

“Consolation is the interior movement of the heart that gives us a deep sense of life-giving connection with God, others, and our authentic self in God.”

-Ruth Haley Barton

When I think I’ve heard God’s voice, I ask the following question: Is this truth or action bringing me closer to Jesus, closer to others, and closer to my true self? In contrast, I know that it’s the voice of the enemy if I feel disconnected from God, isolated from others, and I’m tempted to live out of a false self.

Seeking wise counsel: Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned the value of having wise counsel confirm the things that God is speaking to me. I need people in my life who know me deeply and are familiar with my tendencies and struggles. When I’m trying to discern if I’ve heard God’s voice, these people can be a helpful sounding board.

Even more importantly, I need to check what I’m hearing with Scripture. The following questions are helpful to ask: Does this match the character of God? Does this align with the greater story He is telling in the Bible? It’s so important to spend regular time in the Scripture because this is one of the most powerful ways that God speaks.

Acting in obedience: In her book Radical Gratitude, author Ellen Vaughn recounts the story of Corrie Ten Boom, a woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp. Many years later, Corrie Ten Boom was speaking at an event when a concentration camp soldier who had helped kill her younger sister approached her and wanted to shake her hand. In the simple act of shaking this man’s hand, God healed Corrie Ten Boom’s bitterness and released deep forgiveness in her heart. In her book, Ellen Vaughn writes:

“When we show even a shred of faith, the smallest action of obedience, He’ll bring us the rest of the way. For Corrie Ten Boom, He didn’t demand that she manufacture an emotion that she could not. He nudged her to do what she could: just lift that arm. He did the rest. Willingness is expressed in obedient action, however small.”

-Ellen Vaughn

This is a challenge for me, but something God’s been really stretching me in the past year. When I’m clear He’s spoken, I try to act as quickly as possible. I call the person He’s laid on my heart, send the text He’s asked me to send, or do the thing He’s asked me to do. If it’s really not possible to act in that moment, I will set an alarm for later in the day or put it on my calendar so that I don’t forget to act. God works so powerfully through our practical action. Additionally I’ve noticed that when I’m struggling to hear God’s voice it’s often simply because I haven’t obeyed the last thing He told me to do.

Receiving God’s grace: Something that used to really trouble me was the fear that I would hear God wrong. And the truth is that I have heard Him wrong many times. But that’s ok.

God is so gracious to us, even when we hear wrong. Just like a baby learning to take his first steps, we will sometimes totter and fall as we seek to discern God’s voice. However, as our perfect and loving parent, God picks us up when we get it wrong and encourages us to keep seeking Him. Our human struggle to discern God’s voice is actually a gift. It deepens our intimacy with Him because we have to lean in even closer to hear His voice.

And I think that’s the best place we can be.