In this writing my purpose is to reflect upon those forces in our urban/suburban way of life which mitigate against community and exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness, and which pull unceasingly against the reality of New Testament Christian community. I would like to comment on ways to keep community a reality even when forces work against it. Finally I would like to address directly that common human experience of loneliness and alienation, and how such experience actually can hinder us in our goal of becoming people who love.
Modern urban/suburban life is fractured and compartmentalized and beset by the consequences of mobility and privacy. As individuals we are engaged in various spheres of life which do not significantly intersect naturally and relationally with each other. That is, the people who I know in my work are generally not the same people I know in my neighborhood, school, or church, or extended family. Thus we feel the impact of being pulled in various and many directions, and the simple process of getting everywhere creates stress and weariness. In addition, the increase in mobility has given relationships in all of these spheres a sort of tentativeness and shallowness. We may have “friends” at work for example, but we know that they — or we — may be gone at any moment. Our neighbors move in and out faster than we can get to know them. For-stay-at home moms things are no better. Neighborhoods are empty during the day. Isolation is a common experience. All of this creates a friendship or intimacy deficit with many people. We remember that special quality of relationship with high school or college friends. We may even have a few “bosom friends” spread far and wide, most of whom we came to know when we were young, and we long for the same bond or connection in our everyday relationships now. Not only do the above factors mitigate against relationships, but we find that as we get older that we have less leisure time to “hang out” and ”play” with our friends. Relationships develop best when surrounded by a certain amount of non structured leisure, and thus this subjective desire for “connection” is harder to experience. The result of all of this is for many a sense of emptiness and loneliness. This is an almost universal issue.
The Christian naturally looks to his or her local church to meet much of this relationship deficit. But again, factors work against the experience of “connection.” For most people in a local church, their daily lives outside of corporate meetings of the fellowship do not normally or naturally intersect with the daily lives of others in the fellowship. My extended family is in no way connected with your extended family. My work is in a different place and with different people than your work. My neighborhood is not your neighborhood. Thus we all have our lives out there and they generally do not overlap or intersect. This means that apart from the corporate meeting of the fellowship, we will likely not see or talk to one another unless we make the special effort to do so. Given the general energy and time deficit issues and full schedules, we may fail to take this necessary effort. Taking initiative can be a problem when a person is experiencing loneliness or alienation or depression, for he or she may tend not to want to work at or toward relationships. There is a desire that a “connection” will just happen somehow, sort of the friendship version of “falling in love.”
I want to say that I sympathize and empathize with these experiences and feelings. Relationships are one of the casualties of the “success” of our modern economy and mobile way of life. Friendship — that special “clicking, connecting” kind of friendship is a blessing of human life, one of those common blessings for which we praise God in For the Beauty of the Earth, yet an elusive blessing for many today
But what we do with the deficit we experience, the need that seems unmet for special connecting relationships? And what does this have to do with our relationships within the local church fellowship? How do we approach this problem?
First, we must recognize that as blessed as these special relationships are, and as real as the need for them may feel, they are in fact special blessings, or extras if you will. We have to be very honest about the fact that when the Scripture calls us to love others, this is not a call to have or find or seek out “special friendships,” but a call to seek the good of and to do good to and to befriend others, whether there is any expectation that we will derive blessing from doing so or not. Biblical love is a giving thing. How often we expect people to bring blessing to us, and although we may ask God to grant the blessing of positive relationship experiences, our responsibility is to focus upon our biblical duty to love others regardless. The Scripture doesn’t say “Be loved, and be upset or disappointed when you’re not,” but “love others as Christ has loved you.” I consider those special relationships that we sometimes have in life to be special gifts. They come usually by surprise, are usually unsought, and are always not demanded. They are like the joy we might feel one day after a hard day’s work, when the sun is setting and we are hot and tired, and the breeze against our sweaty body brings gladness – unexpected, undemanded, even unrequested. Just an extra. That’s what “connecting” is. That’s what “clicking” is.
Second, I stand by the adage that to have a friend we must be a friend. Be a friend, and over time you will have a friend. Be a blessing, and over time you will experience blessing. My friend Richard made a decision to befriend me and disciple me, and from that point in time he had a close friend in me. Not all of the folks he befriended turned out to be good friends. But some did, and some generally do. But we don’t befriend and love with an expectation of what we will get in return. We do it because it is right to do, because it is God’s will. Oftentimes, we will pour our lives into another person and they turn on their heels and walk away, usually because of some real or perceived failure on our part, and we feel hurt, disappointed, or betrayed. We think, “Why bother?” This is the risk we take in loving another person. We always risk investing ourselves in another’s’ life only to be rejected or fail to realize some expected benefit or to end up thinking that we had wasted our time. This is the risk of love. Given that we may already feel isolated or lonely or disappointed it is understandable why we might shrink back from taking that risk. We do so because it is right to do so.
Third, as we befriend others (with the goal of getting to know and being a friend to them, not with the goal or hope against hope of “connecting” being high on our motive list) the practical way we relate reflects our goal. Sometimes I hear people say things like “I don’t seem to have anything in common with so and so,” or “I wouldn’t know what to say to so and so,” or “I wouldn’t know what to talk about.” My advice? Talk about the other person when you are with them. Ask them questions about all the different aspects of their lives. Instead of trying to find things you have in common with them in order to make some sort of connection, show interest in all the aspects of their lives – their work, their history, their extended family, their children if they have any, their interests. If on the surface the person seems not to have a lot in common with you, think of the fact that knowing that person gives you a window into an experience of life unknown to you. Make it your interest and business to understand them and where they are coming from. Think of the way this will expand your own horizons and understanding of others. And always ask them how you may pray for them, and then when you are alone do pray for them, and remember to follow up on that prayer matter later.
Fourth, seal the intent of your befriending with the little special things which mean a lot to others. One of the kindest little ways to encourage another person is through that short little note of appreciation or that unexpected phone call or e-mail. These mean so much to me. Just when I am in a funk and thinking I’m all alone in the world (so to speak) and nobody cares or understands, there is that unexpected little card or call, and my day is brightened. Someone had a thought to do that, sat down, took the time to write a note, address an envelope, put on a stamp, and get the note into the mail. For some of us an enemy to love is simply a lack of organization. Sometimes being able to love well in a given moment may come down to having planned to have stamps or stationary. I have really struggled with this in my life. Sometimes my life has seemed like a string of good intentions. How many times have I thought of a person and said,” I need to drop them a line or give them a call,” and then, because of lack of organization or poor planning or laziness or forgetfulness it just doesn’t happen. For me, I have had to address the practical barriers my lack of discipline places in the way of my loving, and look at those barriers as things I need to get over.
Fifth, remember to look at the public gathering as an opportunity to love. Many of us desire to have a certain “experience” associated with worship, a certain frame of mind and heart encouraged by the worship environment. It may be an experience of reflective and awe-filled quiet. It may an experience of exuberant celebration. I can really relate to the desire for both of these. But when I look away from what I want or what I like and I look to the Scripture, I see a slightly different emphasis placed on the corporate gathering. There is much more said about how we are to be and what we are to bring to one another in the corporate gathering of the community than is said about whatever worship experience we are to desire. So, minimally, I must conclude that mutual ministry and encouragement and service is a central part of the public assembly of the saints and should not be discounted. So take advantage of the public meetings as a place of opportunity to love, to reach out, to befriend, and to help. Preparing for worship means preparing for the praise of God and preparing for the service of others. Even in worship, we go to give, to God, and to others. As you prepare for worship and think ahead about the public gathering, be thinking about how you will serve others, what encouragement you will bring to so and so. Anticipate the opportunity to welcome a new face. You know, this is one of the main reasons to be very regular and dependable in worship attendance, the opportunity that such regularity brings for us to be a faithful and dependable blessing to others.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:23-25).
Sixth, desire to be such a steady and dependable and faithful presence of love that you allow others to take you for granted in the good way, and risk them taking you for granted in the bad way. One of the greatest gifts God gives to me is His promise that He will abide with me and persevere with me, that He will never leave me or forsake me. I don’t have to wake up each day wondering, “Is God going to love me today.” This is the same sort of gift I give to my wife and children. My girls assume that each morning they wake up, barring death or disaster, I will be there. Susan knows that even if she has been cranky or irritable (well, maybe I should reverse the illustration here!) I will be there, I will be faithful. Without this there is so much insecurity in the relationship that it cannot be fruitful. This is a gift I am to give to others in my local assembly. As we befriend others we aren’t on a trial run with them, waiting until we decide we like them or not, walking away from them if we don’t like them so much. This faithfulness of love is one of the most wonderful gifts we can give in this life.
Seventh, realize that you are going to mess up or fail along the way. Sometimes circumstances are such that we drop the ball and fail to love. I do this, and have done it recently. This gives me ample cause to continue to turn, repent, confess, and be renewed by the Lord. I believe that becoming people who love, becoming people who are others-oriented, others-concerned, and others-interested, (others including God Himself) is really God’s main sanctification agenda for us. This is a particularly keen problem for my generation trained from day one in the fine art of self-orientation. And we tend to be concerned with so many other less important things. But even if we are properly concerned with God’s desire to change us into people who love self forgetfully, even if we are aware of the way our hearts scream in defiance and selfish objection to love, even if we are aware of the biblical priority of our becoming people who love, well, it’s still not so easy, and we are in fact learning and growing, succeeding and failing. Our failures to love can become growing and learning experiences. This helps us be patient with ourselves when we fail others, and with others who fail us, if we are learning to turn our failures into lessons for loving better.
Eighth, sometimes we cannot love others as we would like because we don’t have enough of ourselves to go around. And so we sometimes have to make momentary decisions that will leave someone unloved. Or we have to make structural decisions that will leave us loving only a more limited number of people on a regular basis. When we are faced with this, when we can’t be everywhere at once, we can be more devoted to intercessory prayer for others we can’t be with. But we must be careful not to let this principle of setting priorities and making time management decisions be an excuse for simply protecting our disinterest in loving others or our belief that we just don’t have the energy. The verse says “do not grow weary in well doing.” The intent of this verse is not “don’t overdue it, don’t continue in well doing to the point that you are weary.” The intent is the opposite. “Press on in well doing even if you are weary, until you have exercised your love muscles and grown in your ability to accomplish even more well-doing.”
Ninth, each of us should address those personal issues that hinder our ability to love and bring blessing to others in relationships. Over the years I have has to deal with my shyness with groups of people I don’t know, my tendency to think people don’t like me and who therefore wouldn’t want me to project myself into their lives, my tendency to be sleepy and droopy faced which makes people think I’m angry, my tendency to walk right by people because I am preoccupied with some task, my playful and sometimes sarcastic banter which can be hurtful, my critical nature that can bring people down. I realized at some point that I can’t say, “well, I’m shy so the onus is on them.” That may have been OK in Junior High School, but now I’m an adult, and I can’t hide behind the limitations of my temperament. I can’t say, “well, I’m just not an initiator,” or “ I’m shy,” or “I’m just too tired to love others,” or whatever. And if I am bound up inside to the point where I simply cannot reach out and love, where I’m frozen by fear or depression or anxiety or whatever, then I must take the steps needed to work toward wholeness — not just for my own sake, but for the sake of those I am called to love.
Tenth, remember that there is an element of separation and relational block endemic to the created order since the fall. Our experience of alienation or loneliness is often determined as much by our inner psychic “separation of being” — because of the fact that we are broken persons in a broken world — as it is determined by others we are in relationship with or by the structural/cultural matters which contribute toward alienation. There is a certain level of loneliness and alienation that comes simply from being a fallen human being in a fallen world.
Eleventh, the choice to love, the choice not to “seek our own,” is a choice to embrace a certain measure of loneliness. No one walks in my shoes but me. No one bears the private issues and struggles I bear but me. By choosing to focus on others rather than on me, I am choosing a measure of loneliness. I am choosing that my feelings or needs will not drive my relationships. I am choosing that my loneliness and need for friendship will not drive my relationships. This means that I am choosing to have my needs unmet. This places me by choice in the wilderness, which, as I have said before, is where we are left with when we choose by God’s grace to be obedient to him.
Twelfth, and most important, let the aloneness of being — the lonely and insecure place of being a broken person in a fallen world — be a force which drives you back to your most primary relationship — your relationship with God, who alone can fill the void within you. Once we come to grips with the fact that other people will not ultimately fill us or satisfy us or meet our intimacy needs, we are more likely to embrace Him in all that He desires to be to us. Then, letting Him fill us with good things, we are more able to go forth to love others. This sounds like Jesus, alone on the mountain, communing with and praying to His Father in heaven. Jesus was a real human being (do you believe that?), and he communed with his Father as real human beings do. There were no tricks, no shortcuts for him. And then he went out and gave and gave and gave, eventually even his own life.
Thirteenth, the bar has been set too low for too long. We talk about being like Jesus. We say that being remade into the image of Christ is a primary goal of God’s grace at work in us. We say that we are justified to be sanctified. But then we reset the bar to the ground and satisfy ourselves with self oriented mediocrity. My generation has redefined existence as that process of finding or coming into self fulfillment and happiness. Then we Christianize this godless process, baptizing it with a few verses here and there. We redefine God’s purpose for existence as helping us find realization and fulfillment. “Certainly God’s will is that my need for ‘connecting’ be met.” No wonder my generation doesn’t like Jesus very much, for Jesus said things like
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you (John 13:13-15).
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:34-37).
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me (John 12:23-26.)
Fourteenth, though I could go on and on and on with these verses, let’s notice the last Scripture. Jesus is facing his trial and death. He is facing that moment when he will pour out his life to the uttermost for his people. Is this a time of failure? No. This is a time of glory. The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified. The glory of Christ mirrors the glory of the Father. The cross reveals the full glory of the mercy and grace of God. The cross is to the “praise of His glorious grace.” The way of Christ is the way of love. It is the way of self denying sacrificial love, driven not by a desire to find friends or connect or be fulfilled, but by the good that will be realized for the other. This is the way of the cross. This is the glory of Christ! This indeed is the mystery of the kingdom, that God would bring his kingdom into the world in just this way.
The life and death of Jesus then defines what is to be our modus operandi.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35)
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12).
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).
Fifteenth, and finally, we will in fact be fulfilled, in His way and in His timing — even now in this life — in unexpected and delightful ways. This is the paradox of happiness. Elusive when sought, it sneaks up and delights you when unsought. Living for others, we come to know and experience God in new and exciting ways not planned and not expected. One of those persons we befriend, well, lo and behold, they become a delightful part of our lives. Here and there, unexpectedly, blessings erupt. But even when they don’t erupt as often or in the way we were hoping, have we forgotten that our reward is yet future?
Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free (Ephesians 6:7-8).
Do you believe that a day is coming when you will be made whole and placed in a renewed heaven and new earth with no curse and no sin and no alienation and loneliness, with no separation between you and yourself, you and others, you and your environment, you and God Himself? The veil will be lifted. You will see him as He is and will become like Him. Do you really believe that? Believing that should impact your daily life and your ability to love others simply and only because it is right to do so. So go, do God’s will, and your reward will be very great indeed.