There has never been a time in human history when it was good for man to be alone, even before the fall. As image bearers of our triune God, relationships are fundamental to what it means to be human. Consider the documented cases of children raised by wild animals. Even after being rescued and placed back into society, many never learn how to speak, and most experience social impairments to varying degrees. God designed babies to need constant interaction with their parents in order to develop properly, and this need for human interaction is something we never grow out of. This is why solitary confinement is considered such a cruel form of punishment.
While these extreme examples of isolation are uncommon for the majority of humanity, only a minority of people experience community and relationships in a measure that God intended. Particularly in the West, the air we breathe is marked by disconnect and self-sufficiency. The isolation caused by the recent pandemic has only added gasoline to what was already a raging fire.
For some, this detachment is a daily agony that paints even the sweetest moments of life as unsatisfying. Others settle comfortably for shallow relationships that allow them to know many people, while being truly known by no one. Some welcome isolation as a friend and protector, while others see it as their greatest enemy. These two scenarios describe many of our brothers and sisters in Christ. But within the DNA of the body of Christ lies hope for deeper relationships that are centered around our intimate union with Jesus Christ.
Whether you are a pastor, counselor, spouse, or friend, you know people who struggle with isolation. Or perhaps isolation is a deep source of pain and longing in your own life. It can be difficult to know how Jesus and his body minister to us in this area. To find out, we’ll look at two examples of isolation. Let’s call them “Welcomed” and “Unwelcomed” isolation.
In 21st century Western society, we are relationally malnourished, yet we believe we are full. We settle for online relationships and sporadic texting because we prize comfort and efficiency over genuine fellowship and meaningful connection with others that requires sacrificial use of our time and energy. This counterfeit experience of relationships has many settling for something far less than what God has created and redeemed us for.
What is behind this relational neglect? How does God’s Word diagnose the heart of one who willingly isolates himself? Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” This reveals the motivation and consequence for willful isolation. We isolate ourselves primarily because of selfish desires for comfort, protection, and self-rule. In a world where you are accountable to no one, you are free to do whatever you want, whenever you want. You don’t have to answer for how you spend your time or your money. You don’t have to work on the rough edges of your heart and mind. In a word, isolation, for many, is comfortable. And instead of challenging this false comfort, our churches often respond to this lifestyle with tacit approval.
When was the last time you received a faithful wound from a friend at church? Do others know the ways you struggle to love your family, steward your resources, and deal with the suffering and stress of life? More importantly, if they do know, do they have a way to follow up with you? Are they able to track progress in your life? Or instead, do most people in your church only know your favorite sports team, perhaps your favorite theologian, and how the most recent home renovations are coming along?
This is a dangerous situation for the believer. It paints a deceptive picture in which others fully approve of our lives because they don’t know enough to challenge us. The result is the façade of a successful Christian life. Behind closed doors we are breaking out against all sound judgment. This is often why many Christian leaders fall prey to sexual scandals. No one knew them. Their one-directional experience of Christian community largely buttressed the lie that their private life had no impact on others. And this points to the other foundational motivation for welcomed isolation: protection.
Genuine relationships require vulnerability. To experience friendship as God intended requires giving others the power to hurt us. This is why we need to choose our friends wisely. Even though there are trustworthy people in our churches, many are unwilling to risk being truly known by anyone. But with no risk, comes no reward. If you are unwilling to be known in the dark places of your life, you forfeit the comfort and security of being loved in those places you are convinced make you unlovable. God is pleased to show us his love through the love of others. If you haven’t been loved by others in the shameful, guilt-ridden areas of your life, it is hard to imagine that you have truly known the love of our heavenly Father either. It is no wonder that so many Christians live as orphans. Self-protection leads to self-deprivation.
What does someone living in welcomed isolation need? God often breaks patterns of self-imposed isolation through exposure of secret sin or suffering. He wants better for his children than to suffer alone, and if we are unwilling to bring our sins, struggles, and sufferings into the light, then he will reveal them. When we are united to Christ, we are united to his body as well. Just as a complex machine cannot work properly unless each part is functioning, so too Paul says that only when every part of Christ’s body is working properly, can “the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:16) Exposure gives opportunity for others to speak the truth in love into those areas that have long hindered the body from “grow[ing] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15)
While painful exposure can be one way that God shocks the church into giving needed attention to an isolated member, we must also seek out proactive ways to draw out people from the shadows. Throughout Scripture God is described as a lavish host who invites the lowly and outcasts to an extravagant feast. Your church can be a community that sets an exquisite table of genuine fellowship for all who come through your doors. This might look like inviting others to share their struggles by first admitting to your own. You should seek to model appropriate confession and inter-dependence on others. If confessing sin would make someone feel like an outlier in your church, then they have no reason to believe that you will speak the truth in love into the most sensitive areas of their lives.
1 John 1:8 exhorts us that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We make John a liar if we live with others as if we have no struggles. But for all in Christ, we have a firm assurance that our standing before God is secure in Christ our advocate (1 John 2:1). Christians should be the most willing to live transparently with others, because we have been justified through Spirit-wrought union with Christ, and our boast is found only in him.
Other brothers and sisters in Christ are desperate for human connection. Loneliness constantly attacks their sense of worth and identity. While many live for the weekends, some dread the loneliness of another Friday night spent alone in their apartment. But unwelcomed isolation is not only felt by singles, married men and women can also experience profound loneliness. Many enter into marriage expecting to spend most evenings in deep connection with their soul-mate, only to experience the disappointment of living with a spouse who could better be defined as a roommate.
Loneliness, like any suffering, can be a breeding ground for temptation. We struggle to wait on the Lord and bring our suffering to him. Instead, we run to self-sufficient solutions that typically afford us the luxury of walking by sight instead of faith. Our flesh operates with an over-realized eschatology that seeks to create a world already free from the curse. How is this manifested in those struggling with unwelcomed isolation?
Typically, we look to other people for rescue. This might be a co-dependent relationship, that may or may not turn sexual. It could be a self-centered focus on your own needs to the neglect of the needs others, that only seeks out life in taking from people, but never in serving them. It could be a deep-seeded anger at those around you. All of your problems stem from outside of you, and your unhappiness is everyone else’s fault. Or this might look like increasing detachment from reality. Living in a fantasy world via technology allows people to dull the pain of unwelcomed isolation.
How can you minister the love of Christ to someone in your life who feels desolate in their isolation? First, before anything else can be said, we must guard against the temptation to simply tell someone to be warm and well-fed, while not providing for their needs. The isolated need your time. They need fellowship. They need you to enfold them into your community. They are a part of the body of Christ, which means you need them too!
At the dinner table, on a shared vacation, in the early hours of the morning or late into the night, you have the privilege of showing an isolated brother or sister the empathetic love of Christ. Jesus willingly entered into a life that culminated not only in isolation from his closest friends, but also in bearing the wrath of his Father, a relationship that had only been marked by perfect fellowship. You are never without an empathetic friend in Christ. God has chosen to reveal himself to us as the God of all comfort in the context of our afflictions. Your loneliness is laced with the entreaty of your savior who invites you to rest as you bring your burdens to him.
Second, while God does want us to his body as a genuine remedy for loneliness, there may be times to challenge our hurting brothers and sisters about looking to the wrong savior. No person or community can give you what only Jesus can. Sometimes we can be more excited to see other people at church than to meet with the living God! We forget that God himself is our “blessedness and reward.” (WCF 7.1) In worship, instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with our collective gaze fixed on Christ, we turn from Christ to one another believing that in the creature is found everlasting life. Seeking in others what only Christ can give will ultimately lead to death. But when, by faith, we feed upon the bread of life, we find grace to love others, to enjoy the blessings of corporate life, and the wonder of being a part of his family.
Lastly, encourage your brothers and sisters to serve others. It is so easy to believe that our fundamental problem is that others haven’t served us enough. But it is more blessed to give than to receive. Jesus wants to fill you with his joy that comes from laying your life down in love for others. The only way we are able to serve with that kind of sacrificial love is to abide in our savior’s love! Genuine attempts at serving others is the best teacher in the school of humble, constant dependence upon Christ, because you will see how unloving and impatient you are apart from his grace.
For all those in Christ, the pain of isolation is not only an experience of groaning for the consummation, but it is also a platform for growth in grace. We weren’t made for isolation, but we also need to guard our hearts against seeking in others what can only be found in God through Christ. Fellow pilgrims, do not lose heart. As you sojourn through the wilderness longing for a better city, you are not only given fellow citizens of heaven to walk alongside of you, but you are indwelt by the Spirit of the Man of heaven, who promised to never leave you or forsake you.