Next Sunday when you gather together to worship with your church, I want to challenge you to do something. Pause and survey the sanctuary. There will probably be people who are smiling, shaking hands, praying, and sharing stories. Maybe there will even be some who are radiating with laughter that expands and fills the room. What you don’t see are the statistics: more than half of these people are just like you, lonely.
Loneliness is not only an inescapable fact in a fallen world, but it is also an increasing reality in a post-modern world. And though it sharpens its knives and licks its lips, hungrily seeking to devour your faith, relationships, and even your church, I want you to know a secret.
You do not have to waste your loneliness.
It is possible to see that loneliness, in the hand of God, will not destroy you. This is the faith by which one of the saddest facts of a fallen world, loneliness, is subverted and used by God for his own purposes: he grips it and raises it above his head in the heavens, and swings it like a hammer that nails his people together even more close-knit in the church. It can bond us rather than break us.
There’s a magic moment of empathy at the end of a Shel Silverstein poem that illustrates this. It’s worth remembering. For now, only read, giggle, and weep:
Said the little boy, 'Sometimes I drop my spoon,'
Said the old man, 'I do that too.'
The little boy whispered, 'I wet my pants.'
'I do that too,' laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, 'I often cry.'
The old man nodded, 'So do I.'
'But worst of all,' said the boy,
'it seems Grown-ups don't pay attention to me.'
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
'I know what you mean,' said the little old man.
In the spirit of gathering you into the company of lonely people, I want to introduce you to the writer of Psalm 102 (pause and read the Psalm in whole). Scholars are somewhat scatter-brained about the original authorship, but whoever he is, one fact about the text looks back at us while we look down at it: his lot is a darker shade of loneliness than what will ever fall to us.
Most of the Psalm is a meditation about his loneliness. He likens himself to an owl of the waste places, a lonely sparrow on the housetop. As his heart continues to unspool itself towards God, it melts into a puddle of sad descriptions: his days pass away like smoke. His heart is struck down. He can’t sleep. He doesn’t eat.
And towards the end of the Psalm, beginning at verse 23 to be exact, something stunning happens. God rips the lid off the Psalm, and this meditation about God upwardly bends into conversation with God. The Psalmist cries out, “take me not away in the midst of my days!”
He doesn't want to die alone. He wants to be like the birds of heaven in Psalm 104, lifting up chirps of praise. He doesn’t want to die like the lonely owl, hooing Hank Williams’ “I’m so lonely I could cry.”
My God, who on earth is this lonely man? Was it King David? Was it written by an Israelite prophet during Babylonian captivity?
One of the most shocking passages in the New Testament is the forwardness, the blunt confidence, with which the writer of Hebrews reveals the identity of the Psalmist. He quotes the Greek translation of Psalm 102:25-28 and he prefaces the quotation with the phrase: “Of the Son [God] says.”
Did you catch that?
The New Testament views the conclusion of Psalm 102 as a word that God speaks over Christ. Here’s the significance: in the imagination of the author of Hebrews, the lonely man in Psalm 102 is none other than Jesus Christ.
This matters. If the God of creation was lonely within creation, like a lonely sparrow on the housetop while on the cross, then all of loneliness’ weapons are repurposed and reforged into hammers that God uses to build his people together. Here are two lies that this truth debunks:
The first lie: Good Christians don’t get lonely. When you read Psalm 102 as a Messianic Psalm, the plain truth is that no matter how severe our loneliness might be, it can never surpass the loneliness of Christ crucified. Without this knowledge, when we experience loneliness we involuntarily, almost reflexively, run a list of “I should be” statements through our heads:
I should be a more charming, then I wouldn’t be so lonely.
I should be smarter, or funnier, or holier, then I wouldn’t be so lonely.
I should be more ______, then I wouldn’t be so lonely.”
These lines are precious and dear to the enemy. It is not difficult to imagine demons rehearsing them, as if chanting an unholy liturgy. It is not hard to envision the enemy storing these little statements in his dilapidated heart in order to rehearse them over us in seasons of loneliness. This is why loneliness so often feels like shame, and this lie lends itself nicely to the next.
The second lie: Good Christians believe that their feelings don’t matter. Your emotional life makes up most of who God has designed you to be. Your conscious life that processes things intellectually is only the tip of the iceberg of who you are. That may be an overstatement. It’s more like a small snowflake on top of the tip of the iceberg. In every moment of your life, there are one or two thoughts occurring in your brain and one or two trillion affections bouncing around in your heart. To believe that your feelings don’t matter is to believe that the image of God doesn’t matter.
Did you know that the captain of the Titanic avoided contact with the tip of the iceberg? As it was cruising through an oceanic minefield of ice, it appeared that the ship evaded it. The problem is that most of the iceberg, around 90% of it, is hidden in the depths.
Take note: what was underneath the surface is what sunk the Titanic. The emotions we do not bring into prayer. The emotions we refuse to process with trusted friends. The emotions we tell ourselves aren’t important. Underneath the surface is where loneliness plots, smiles, giggles, and eventually wreaks havoc on churches, where it darkly blossoms into bitterness. After sucking all of its nutrients out of your subconscious, one day in church or at small group, the loneliness within you sees others shaking hands, sharing stories and laughing and your heart, rather than ascending to them in joy, stomps its feet in bitterness.
This is how you waste your loneliness. Let me suggest a better way forward.
The next time you feel alone, read Psalm 102. If your emotional bioavailability is similar to mine, then reading one Psalm one time probably won’t get into your bloodstream. I suggest reading Psalm 102 five times in a row in one sitting. When you do that, something beautiful happens. The border between you and the Psalmist begins to dissolve. The voice in your head begins to sound less like the Psalmist’s voice, and more like your voice. And the prayer of the Psalmist becomes less the prayer of a stranger, and more authentically like your prayer.
Then, I suggest reading Psalm 102 another five times in the same sitting. Sometimes, something even more beautiful happens on the ninth or tenth reading. Your voice begins to disappear, and you begin to hear Psalm 102 in Jesus’ voice. You begin to envision Jesus praying it on the cross. And if you’re bearing a cross of loneliness, there is no sight sweeter in the world than to catch a glimpse of Christ bearing his cross of loneliness, and to see him smile back at you in solidarity.
The gospel, after all, is not the good news that if you believe in Jesus, you will be spared from loneliness. Loneliness discriminates against nobody. You can rip Psalm 102 out the Scriptures and sand down the edges of the cross if you wish to believe that nonsense. The gospel is better. It is the good news that if you believe in Jesus, then Christ will be present with you in your loneliness.
Here’s a humble, little adaptation of Silverstein’s poem to illustrate that truth for you:
Said the little Christian, 'It seems like people don’t like me',
Said the lonely man, 'we make a good team, don’t we?'
The little Christian whispered, 'I sometimes feel all alone'
'I’ve been there,' said the man from his throne.
Said the little Christian, 'I often cry.'
The lonely man nodded, 'Yeah, so do I.'
'But worst of all,' said the Christian,
'it seems like people don't pay attention to me.'
And he felt the warmth of a nail scarred hand.
'I know what you mean,' said the crucified man.