Only the Lonely!

Most of us Western world “Baby Boomers” readily and fondly remember the 1960 hit song written and sung by Roy Orbison entitled “Only the Lonely. It’s the tale of a broken heart produced by a jilted lover. One verse cries, “There goes my baby, there goes my heart, they're gone forever, so far apart. Only the lonely know the heartaches I've been through. Only the lonely know I cry and cry for you.”

Unfortunately, this is the theme song being sung by millions of young Americans today. Although they are seldom alone, they are ever so lonely.

The recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, prompted me to write this blog on the issue of loneliness. Dr. Murthy said in a report given a few days ago, “There is an epidemic of loneliness in the United States and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to a new advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General.

He went on to report: “In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic cut off so many of us from friends, loved ones, and support systems, exacerbating loneliness and isolation. Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling - it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day,4 and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity. And the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished.”

Across age groups, people are spending less time with each other in person than two decades ago. This is most pronounced in young people aged 15-24 who had 70% less social interaction with their friends.

Murthy said that many young people now use social media as a replacement for in-person relationships, and this often meant lower-quality connections.

Sherry Turkle gets to the heart of why the most active in the use of social media are among the loneliest: “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk” (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together).

Loneliness may be more pervasive at the present than in previous years, but it is nothing new. In fact loneliness is the first thing that God said is, "not good!" (Genesis 2:18, Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”)

The Psalmists said in Psalm 102:6-7, I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am like an owl of the desert. I lie awake, And am like a sparrow alone on the housetop.” These two verses contain what might be the most poignant metaphors for social isolation and loneliness in the Old Testament. The picture of his isolation is hammered home by the portrait of a pelican of the wilderness, an owl of the desert, and a solitary sparrow on a rooftop.

Many years ago, the late Dr. Paul Tournier, the noted Swiss Psychiatrist, said, "Loneliness is the most devastating malady of this age."

The noted, agnostic historian, H. G. Wells, was a man with a brilliant mind. On his 65th birthday he said, “I am 65 years old and very lonely."

There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. Loneliness is not isolation, nor is it solitude, it’s the insulation that comes from being cut-off from healthy and meaningful relationships with other people.

Crowds of people only enhance loneliness. If you have ever been by yourself in the Atlanta-Hartsfield International airport – the busiest in the world – you know what I am talking about.

Henry David Thoreau said, "A city is a place where hundreds of people are lonely together."

Loneliness is a common human experience. All of us, whether single, married, or widowed, whether for a short period of time or for an extended season, deal with loneliness.

What is the solution for the massive problem of loneliness?

The solution can’t be bought. The prominent English poet, Rupert Brooke, was boarding a ship from Liverpool to New York. While masses of people had loved ones standing on the dock waiting to wave and blow kisses to their departing loved ones and friends, Brooke’s had no one to see him off and was overwhelmed with a sense of loneliness. Hoping to relieve his loneliness, he went down to the gangplank and offered a little boy a six pence to wave goodbye to him as he left.

The answer for Non-Christians, and for Christians as well, is found in the gospel.

The ultimate reason for what has been described as “cosmic loneliness” is alienation from God! Perhaps you have heard someone talk about a certain locale as a being a "God-forsaken place?"

The good news of the gospel is that although all non-Christians are alienated from God, there is only One was ever "God-forsaken" in this life and that one was God Himself on the cross in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ died on the cross in our place, receiving the transfer of our sins upon him, God the Father turned His back on God the Son. Jesus cried out, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" And because God the Father forsook God the Son as our sin-bearer, we don't ever have to be God forsaken.

If you are alienated from God today, that is not His choice. It is your choice. Alienation from God brings great loneliness in the life of a person.

However, many Christians experience loneliness as well. What is the answer for them? They need to learn how to daily preach the gospel to themselves.

Knowing from her personal experience of loneliness, the late Elizabeth Elliot offers wise scriptural insight in dealing with the problem as she writes, “Loneliness is a wilderness, but through receiving it as a gift, accepting it from the hand of God, and offering it back to him with thanksgiving, it may become a pathway to holiness, to glory and to God himself.”

“The wilderness is that season of our lives where God, through our loneliness, teaches us that his will is to do something in us, not merely do something for us. That is, by walking by faith and not by sight, he works in us a stronger faith, leading to a deeper worship that results in a greater joy. If you’re lonely, offer it to God as a gift in worship.”

Pastor Paul Matthies adds additional insight for the Christian to fight loneliness with as he draws a distinction between loneliness and aloneness: “Loneliness is seeking to run from the presence of people and the pressures of life, and to withdraw from reality, but aloneness is experiencing the reality of God’s presence, running into the hiding place, not so you can just escape, but so you can enjoy God’s presence.”

“The hiding place can be viewed as that place or season in our lives when we run from people and circumstances, feel that the world is against us, and embrace loneliness only to encounter God, learn that he is for us, and therefore experience true aloneness.”

“Learn how to fight for community. God does want you to intentionally commune with him, but he also wants you in an intentional community. You can’t just stay with him forever. He’s not just calling you to be a monk. He’s also calling you to go out and make disciples and to get back into community.”

Loneliness is common to all of us, but because of Jesus it is not nec­essary that any of us remain lonely. You may be alone or lonesome, but you do not have to be lonely.

This old hymn gives great encouragement in overcoming our loneliness:

"I have seen the lightning flashing;
I have heard the thunder roll;
1 felt sin's breakers dashing,
Trying to conquer my soul.
But I have heard the voice of Jesus
Telling me still to fight on,
He promised never to leave me,
No, never to leave me alone
No, never alone, no never alone,
He promised never to leave me,
Never to leave me alone."