Four years ago, the media reported that loneliness was reaching epidemic proportions in the UK, with researchers estimating it was suffered by one in four people. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, many people have felt increasingly lonely and isolated as a consequence of lockdowns, social distancing and other restrictions.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is a state of mind, an unwelcome feeling, when there’s a mismatch between the quantity and quality of relationships we have and those we would like. This gap between expectation and reality can result in pain and feelings of loneliness. Loneliness isn’t the same as being alone. People can be alone yet not feel lonely, or surrounded by people and feel lonely. Many of us have experienced both of these! During the first lockdown of 2020, I was physically alone but well connected to friends and family by phone and Zoom, and didn’t feel lonely. A few months earlier, when living and working at a children’s centre in Uganda with a large team of foreign and national staff, at times I felt lonely. Here are some things that helped me when I felt lonely.
Bible verses have been really precious and helpful, reminding me of God’s presence, and his grace and comfort. One morning, as I sat in a doctor’s waiting room in Kampala, physically alone and slightly apprehensive, God spoke to me through Isaiah 43, promising to be with me even in the deep waters, because I am his. It was no coincidence that I stumbled across those verses that morning. That afternoon, in the hustle and bustle of the Kampala market, I heard the hymn ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ being played over a tannoy. It felt like a tannoy from Heaven, reminding me to bring my trials, cares and sorrows to my precious Saviour in prayer.
Jesus knew the depths of loneliness and isolation on the cross, and he understands and sympathises with me in my weakness and loneliness. In his book, Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund writes:
Christ’s heart for us means that he will be our never-failing friend … He offers us friendship that gets underneath the pain of our loneliness. While that pain does not go away, its sting is made fully bearable by the far deeper friendship of Jesus.
God’s Word also challenged me. Loneliness can perpetuate negative thought patterns. At times, I’ve needed to take my thoughts captive and ensure that what I was thinking was true, right and pure (Phil. 4:8).
What truths or verses do you really need to remember or could you use to encourage someone? Could you write them on a card? Put it somewhere you will see the verses often!
A few verses that have helped me are: Romans 8; 2 Corinthians 9:8; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Hebrews 13:5-6; Joshua 1:9; and Hebrews 4:15-16.
The verses underpinning the project where I worked in Uganda were Psalm 68:5-6a:
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.
Being welcomed into families, and treated like an Auntie has helped me, especially when I’ve been far from my own family. When I’m around others, feeling accepted and that I belong, I don’t feel lonely. I’ve been blessed by friends who have welcomed me into their homes and lives, and by inviting and welcoming others into mine too.
Who can you reach out to, and welcome into your home or family? Who could you invite to join you for a meal or day out?
Loneliness has a tendency to make me more self-centred and self-pitying. In contrast, serving helps me to think of others. This has been in church, voluntary organisations, or more informally by writing an encouraging email or making a meal for a busy family.
How could you serve or encourage others? Could you write a card, phone a friend, make cakes, or visit someone?
The Bible, family, and serving others all come together in the local church. I’ve been encouraged and blessed to be part of church families in different cultures and contexts, where there is mutual care and concern, opportunity to serve, and to hear gospel truths clearly taught and explained.
How does or could your church help those who are lonely?
Although these things helped, some were only temporary solutions. I recognised that for me, contentment was a deeper issue. It’s easy to feel envious of other people’s circumstances and that their life is easier. Another temptation is thinking a change of circumstances is the answer, maybe getting married or a new job.
Last year, I came across a quote by Elisabeth Elliot, where she said, ‘The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.’ Without Christ in me and at work in me, my loneliness and discontentment would have continued even though I moved back to the United Kingdom, to a new town and job. Instead I’m thankful that God has brought me to a position of increasing contentment and quiet acceptance, where feelings of loneliness are much rarer. I’m also thankful for the friends and family he has given me, for deepening relationships, and for a loving Christ-centred local church.
The move towards contentment didn’t come suddenly, but gradually through a shift in perspective. I needed to truly trust God’s sovereignty and control over every circumstance of my life. I needed to really believe that God has lovingly given me everything I need, and that what God hasn’t given me, I don’t need. I made an art-piece about my identity in Christ, which reminds me that I am God’s handiwork, chosen, loved, accepted, forgiven, adopted and treasured by him. I still sometimes have wobbles, but have been able to grow in contentment with God’s help and strength, remembering his lovingkindness, sovereignty and goodness.
There are so many situations where people can feel lonely. There are those who live alone, the single, widowed and divorced. There is the wife whose husband isn’t saved, and the husband whose wife has dementia – both longing for a ‘normal’ or spiritual conversation with their spouse. There is the mother whose children have left home, who waits and longs for them to visit. Whatever our circumstances, the secret for each of us is ‘Christ in me’. Loneliness may be a temporary and fleeting feeling, or it may be chronic and seemingly unending, but if Christ is in us, we can look forward to a future completely free from loneliness, and filled with fullness and joy far beyond what we can imagine. Hallelujah!