Mother Teresa: “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
On January 6, 2019, The Week had a feature article titled “An Epidemic of Loneliness.” In that publication the study noted that nearly half of all Americans feel lonely. They cited a study of 20,000 people by the health insurance company Cigna, where 47 percent of respondents reported often feeling alone or left out. Thirteen percent said there were zero people who knew them well. The article is quick to point out that this epidemic is not limited to the United States. In England, 41 percent of Britons say that a pet or television is their main source of company. The country has established a cabinet level position to combat the growing problem of loneliness. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy once said, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes, it was loneliness.”
What are the effects of loneliness? An interesting study published in 2010 by Brigham Young University titled “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-Analytic Review” concluded that loneliness shortens a person’s life by 15 years. It equated the effect of loneliness with being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The study concluded that there was also a connection between loneliness and heart disease, strokes, and cancer. And, of course, loneliness leads to depression, obesity, isolation, and disconnection.
If loneliness can have such devastating effects on our physical and emotional health, what is it doing to our soul? Mother Teresa once said that “the most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
I discovered early in my ministry that a person can be surrounded by people and still be very lonely. Loneliness exists as much among married people as single. We may have thousands of friends on social media but be isolated and disconnected from any meaningful relationship. People of faith can be lonely as well as those who have no faith or religious belief. The person to whom we are married, work or live beside may be headed down a path of loneliness. Loneliness is a pervasive problem. In fact, we may even be experiencing a time of loneliness ourselves.
So, how can we serve and care for someone that is in a spiritual desert? How do we assist that friend that is walking through a dark valley and feels all alone? How does the church speak to the issue in our culture?
First, be an authentic community of faith where those who are broken can find love, acceptance, and friendship.
People in our families, neighborhoods, and churches are struggling with complex issues, guilt, shame, broken relationships, and rejection. Where can they go that is a safe place to be honest, vulnerable, welcomed, and loved?
Chances are that the individual battling loneliness the most is least likely to come to our church. We should pray for “eyes to see” others and discover our friends, work associates, and schoolmates in need of friendship and reach out to them and offer genuine hospitality. Look for ways to connect.
Those visitors that walk into our church building on Sunday morning are taking a risk. Ensure that if your church believes that “whosoever will may come” that whosoever comes is welcomed. Be a conduit of God’s love.
Henri Nouwen once observed that people would talk about going to parties where everyone was friendly but no one was real or genuine. He described that party as a place “where everyone is welcome but nobody is missed if they do not come.” Could the same be said of our churches?
Second, don’t try to give people a quick fix. It is easy to want to fix people and offer them simple solutions. If you would just pray more, read the Bible more, get involved in a small group, etc. then you wouldn’t be so lonely. It may just be that they already blame themselves for feeling the way they do – so this only heaps more guilt and shame upon them. Instead of trying to fix them, be with them. You are the hands, feet, ears, and voice of Jesus. Be present with them and give them the gift of empathy and compassion.
Finally, be a friend and find a friend. None of us is immune from loneliness. There are times that I feel alone and want to isolate – and most likely you do, too. God knew that loneliness would be a part of the human condition. He created Adam and Eve because “it was not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God provided Hur and Aaron to stand beside Moses and hold his arms up when they became tired at the battle with the Amalekites at Repihidim (Exodus 17:8-16). Jesus chose disciples to be with him and proclaim the gospel. Jesus shared life with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus as friends. Jesus established a community of believers called the Church, and He left his Holy Spirit as our comforter.
The friend I call in the tough times is Jim. He and I met in a clinical residency while both serving in the Navy. We know the good, the bad, and the ugly about one another. We have laughed, prayed, and cried together through some difficult times. Whom do you call? Whom do your friends call? It is my hope and prayer that we are, and have, “a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).
Build a bridge of friendship!