23. The Loneliness Phenomenon
In the 1950s, about one in every ten households had only one person in them. These were primarily widows. But today, due to the three D's of social statistics (death, divorce, and deferred marriage), about one in every four households is a single person household. And if current trends continue, sociologists predict that ratio will soon increase to one in every three households. Many may not even be conscious of their loneliness and isolation which a changing society has thrust upon them. In his book The Hazards of Being Male, Herb Goldberg asked adult men if they had any close friends. Most of them seemed surprised by the question and usually responded, " No, why? Should I?" . People today seem to value above all else mobility, privacy, and convenience. But these three values make developing a sense of community almost impossible. In A Nation of Strangers, Vance Packard argued that the mobility of American society [in various ways] contributed to social isolation and loneliness. People these days rarely do the same job for long; accommodation often changes frequently. It’s the same in almost every country and society, rich or poor. Loneliness is a number one complaint within our community; isolated believers earnestly wish for more fellowship; others complain of feeling ‘lonely in the crowd’ at Bible Schools or established ecclesias; and others speak of the loneliness they feel within their marriage or ecclesial or family relationships. Loneliness is more a state of mind than it is a social situation. Thus people who find themselves trapped in a relationship may be more lonely than a person living alone.
As we lay awake at night looking up at the lamp fitting, or stare out from the balcony at the city lights, there must have been within each reader a deep sense of this clawing, intrusive loneliness. That search for ourselves, that inner despair, that fear of standing so totally and essentially alone in this world… And I have reason to believe that these kinds of struggles are more common amongst Christians than amongst many others. For we have been separated from this world unto the things of the future Kingdom; there is a deep and natural sense of our ‘separation’, yet frankly we often don’t know how to handle it. We can end up like Jeremiah in Jer. 15:17, almost resenting that separation: “I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me..." . Our essential loneliness, and recognizing it, is what leads us to faith in and relationship with our true Father. The Lord Jesus will not leave us alone as orphans- He will come to us (Jn. 14:18). He does this through “The Comforter”, the Spirit of Christ. What this means is hard and controversial to exactly define. But let it be said that if we seek to live life in the Spirit of Christ, ever asking what He would do, how He would speak and deport Himself...we will feel His presence as if He never left this world. And sensing His personal friendship will be absolutely and totally enough.
Salvation, as Robert Roberts so frequently said, is an individual matter. It is not a collective affair. Compare two passages within the Lord’s teaching, which each use the same Greek words: “I am come to give…division. From henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three [i.e. sometimes they would be 2:3 and other times 3:2- there would be a series of disagreements over various issues]... a house divided against a house falleth” (Lk. 12:52,52 cp. Lk. 11:17). What are we to make of this? Every divided house or Kingdom will “fall”, i.e. be condemned at judgment day (s.w. Mt. 7:27; Rom. 14:4; 1 Cor. 10:12; Heb. 4:11; James 5:12). And yet Jesus inevitably divides ‘houses’. Surely the Lord is teaching that every Kingdom and family will fall, because it will be divided, and therefore the only hope of salvation is purely individual. This was radical thinking in first century Palestine, where the destiny of the extended family was held to be uniform; i.e., you would end up in the last day wherever your extended family did. But the Lord is cutting through all this, and teaching that salvation is a personal matter. No single extended family will, as a unit, avoid being divided by the result of the judgment. The Lord’s teaching surely has some relevance to some Christian cultures which can likewise give the impression that large, well established Christian families will almost automatically all be saved.
The Need For Personality
The Lord’s teaching places a huge value on the importance of the individual- He is the unusual shepherd who will leave the 99 in the wilderness and go searching for the one lost sheep. Yet His parable of searching for one sheep is clearly based upon a similar one in Ezekiel 34, where we read that God [in His Son] will ‘seek out his flock’ (Ez. 34:12). Perhaps Jesus meant us to understand that for Him, one lost sheep is as good as the whole flock; so important is the individual to Him.He made no effort to start an organization; rather did He focus upon the conversion and radical transformation of a group of individuals. We were each uniquely created in order to manifest some specific aspect of the Father’s glory. I therefore want to demonstrate Biblically that loneliness, as we may perceive it, is not something to necessarily lament. For this simply has to be, if genuine personality in us as individuals is to be developed as God desires. I have long pondered why it is exactly that the Catholic and Orthodox churches are so popular. The answer, it’s seeming to me, lies in the way that the individual is submerged beneath a collective consciousness. It’s the same explanation for the temporary success of every political movement, from Fascism to Communism. We can escape from ourselves, from the burden [and yet the God-intended joy] of being you, by signing up to a uniform position- and delegating out the huge weight of your personal responsibility to an organization. Perhaps there is an element of this in our natural dislike of loneliness, our desire to be within a circle of thought and other believers rather than being alone. Yet within such a system as those just described, and which so many humans have signed up for, you have to do what you are told; and what you personally think, feel or believe becomes unimportant. And for any who stray too far into being themselves, there has to be elimination from the system; and so there had to be Belsen on the extreme right, and the Gulag on the extreme left. And in religious terms, there is excommunication from the Catholics, fatwahs [death warrants for heretics] from Islam. And in many a Protestant group there is likewise dissociation or excommunication for those who dare to be themselves. In the very end, though, we are personally responsible before God. Here is the biting relevance of the Biblical doctrine of responsibility. We cannot pass our responsibility on to others. You and me personally will be in God’s Kingdom, with our arms around each other in the rubble of Jerusalem. We will personally be there. We will see Abraham there (Lk. 13:28); as Job says, with our own eyes we will behold our Lord, and not through anyone else’s eyes (Job 19:27). Our eyes shall behold the King in the beauty which we personally perceive in Him (Is. 33:17).
And so it has to be that in this life we forge that same personal bond with the Lord whom we shall one day [soon] meet in person. We have a totally personal responsibility to Him now which we will give account for then; and the Lord likens it to a talent, something precious, given to us each one to do what we can with. I feel I need to sound a word of warning about how things can tend within our own community. Brothers and sisters are baptized in isolation, and live very closely with their Lord. More converts are made, and, quite rightly, ecclesial life develops. As in any society, submission to each other is required in the spirit of Christ. Yet if we’re not careful, our natural tendency to hide behind organizations, committees, group positions…can erode our being the unique son or daughter of God, glorifying Him in a totally unique way, which we were created to be. We will end up in a position where, as we once were out in the darkness of this world, what we personally think, feel or believe is unimportant. We must be so careful that the 2nd stage of our preaching work- the building up of new converts into living ecclesias- does not result in the converts stumbling disillusioned back into the world. According to the parable of the sower, they will do this because they have no “root in themselves”. I take this to mean that they have no deep, individual, enduring spiritual personality. Unity is not the same as uniformity; and community is not the same as conformity. The unity between God and Jesus is the model for our unity as believers, and also the unity between man and wife. But that unity involved the will of the Son being different from that of the Father, even if He submitted His will to the Father’s. What the Father and Son desire so eagerly is genuine human personality, re-formed after their image. They want us as persons. God has a specific plan for each of us, and we should exist as ecclesias and organizations to inspire the individual growth and expression of each individual member according to the pattern of Christ Jesus. In Paul’s figure, the body makes increase of itself, developed by what every member supplies (1). In Christ there is an untold freedom for the human person. For freedom Christ set us free; where His spirit is, there the heart is free (2 Cor. 3:17).
The Lord’s Loneliness
It can be no coincidence that the Lord Jesus is described as being “left alone” only twice in the New Testament, and they are both within a few verses of each other: “They which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst” (Jn. 8:9)... “Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things. And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him” (Jn. 8:28,29). He was not alone because the Father confirmed Him in the judgments He made (Jn. 8:16).
What is the meaning of this connection? As the peerless Son of God stood before the repentant sinner, with all others convicted by their consciences to one by one slink away from His presence, He was left alone with His perfect Father as well as the repentant woman. Jesus saw in that scene a prefiguring of His death on the cross. There, lifted up from the earth, He was left alone with the Father, a repentant sinner [the thief], and again, one by one, the condemning onlookers smote their breasts in conviction of their sin and walked away. The cross was “the judgment of this world” (Jn. 12:31). There men and women are convicted of their sin and either walk away, or take the place of the humbled woman or desperately repentant thief. This alone should impart an urgency and intensity to our memorial services, when through bread and wine we come as it were before Him there once again, facing up to the piercing reality of our situation as sinners kneeling before the crucified Son of God. One aspect of the loneliness of the cross was that simply the Lord’s righteousness set Himself apart from humanity- and He so intensely felt it: “Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me” (Jn. 16:32). Yet it was the loneliness which drew Him to the Father. For the isolated believer, the loneliness of being in some sense more righteous living that e.g. your alcoholic husband, your atheist daughter, the materialistic women at work...is a burden hard to live with. Yet in this, we are sharing something of the cross of our Lord. And if we suffer with Him, we shall also share in the life eternal which He was given. Being “left alone” with the Father and your humbled, repentant brethren is a sharing in the cross of the Son of God. This is the gripping logic, the promise of ultimate hope, which is bound up with the sense of spiritual loneliness which is in some ways inevitably part of the believing life.
Loneliness is a part of sharing in the crucifixion life. The Lord hinted at the loneliness of the cross in saying that the seed falls into the ground and ‘dies’ “alone”- but then brings forth much fruit as a result of that alone-ness (Jn. 12:24). The High Priest entered alone into the Most Holy place with the blood of atonement (Heb. 9:7). Any stepping out of the comfort zone is an inevitably lonely experience, just as the crucifixion life of Jesus was the ultimately lonely experience. For nobody else knows exactly how you feel in e.g. turning down that job, giving away those savings, quitting that worldly friendship, quietly selling something... .
On the other hand, we’re not called to be martyrs in the sense of glorying in our sufferings, e.g. loneliness. One of the first heresies that assailed the early ecclesia was the idea that the real opposite of the spirit, or spirituality, was the body. The body came to be seen as evil; it had to be covered up and even physically abused to compensate for its sin. But the real antithesis to spirituality is the Biblical devil, the sinful thinking of the mind of the flesh. We are intended by our creator to be happy with who we are. There’s nothing wrong with a girl dressing to look pretty, with young men combing their hair in the mirror and kidding themselves they look so cool. It’s part of life, part of our God given humanity. It’s how it all is in this wonderful world of human types and personalities in which we move. And so. To get to the bottom line, it’s no sin to be glad you’re alive, and to seek to live a fulfilled and happy life in Christ. There is such a thing as feeling lonely when we needn’t. Elijah is an example of this; he felt that he was “left alone” faithful in Israel- even though there were another 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal (Rom. 11:3). The Hebrew in 1 Kings is hard to translate. It could mean that God reserved 7,000 of Elijah’s brothers and sisters who potentially would not bow the knee to Baal. Yet Elijah didn’t want to see the potential of his brethren. He set himself in a league above them, like the Psalmist, saying in his haste that all men are liars (Ps. 116:11).
In the final analysis, we will meet Jesus alone. There will by God’s grace be a moment when we will even see the face of Almighty God- alone. This was the light at the end of Job’s tunnel- he would see his redeemer for himself “and not another”. There are many examples of where God and man are portrayed as being in some kind of mutual relationship. Consider Jn. 4:23: “The Father seeketh such to worship Him”. The Hebrew / Greek idea of ‘seeking’ God implied to worship Him [Strong’s lexicon gives this interpretation of the Greek word used here]. Understanding that, albeit through the mask of translation, we see that the Father is seeking seekers. We seek Him, He seeks us; and thus we meet.
The more we let this reality sink in, the more apparent it is that if we are truly in touch with ourselves, we cannot be half hearted in our relationship with the Lord. We will want to give our whole self to Him. Let His words sink in to you personally: “He who is not with me is against me…he that is not against us is for us” (Mt. 12:30; Mk. 9:40). We may think we are not against the Lord’s cause, even if we’re not as committed to it as we might be; many an unbaptized young person has told me this. But to be ‘not against’ Jesus means we must be with Him. Nobody can be passively ‘not against’ Jesus. If we’re not whole heartedly with Him, we’re against Him. That’s how His demanding logic goes. A relationship with Him demands the whole person; you, your very heart and essence. You can’t hide behind your family, your ecclesia…it’s just you and Him in the end.
To fear loneliness, being left alone with ourselves, can be a result of simply not facing up to our own personality and our own very personal relationship with the Father which we ought to have. We would rather turn the radio up loud, so we don’t have to think... than reflect upon how we stand utterly alone before the Father and Son. Self-examination brings us face to face with our essential loneliness in a healthy way: “For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself. But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another” (Gal. 6:2-4). It is possible to have rejoicing in ourselves alone when we know we have a clear conscience before the Father. But this can only come through being genuinely in touch with oneself; the person who is subsumed within an organization, who is totally co-dependent rather than an individual freely standing before the Father…such a person can never reach this level of self-knowledge. The N.I.V. says: “Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else”. We are treading a terrible tightrope here, between the deadly sin of pride on the one side, and the sin of devaluing our own God-formed personality on the other. Only a person in touch with him or herself can have the rejoicing or pride in one’s clear conscience [cleansed, of course, by grace in Christ] of which Paul speaks here. Paul seems to have in mind the words of Job when he speaks of how he will in the very end behold God with his own eyes, “and not another” (Job 19:27).
The Strength Of Fellowship
We forsake all human relationships to follow the Lord Jesus (Mt. 19:27-29). And He promises to compensate for this even in this life. But it depends to what extent we are willing to accept and perceive it. Through meaningful fellowship with our brethren we will find those relationships which we have given up compensated for, even if we aren’t physically close to our brethren. In reference to Israel’s deliverance from Egypt we read: “God setteth the solitary in families: he bringeth out those which are bound with chains” (Ps. 68:6). To be set in a new family is paralleled with being brought out from slavery. Part of the process of our redemption is that we are set in a new ecclesial family. This must be a reference to how Israel were brought out on Passover night, where the families and lonely ones had to join together into households big enough to kill a lamb for. The implication of Ps. 68 could be that it was in these family groups that they travelled through the wilderness. The N.C.V. reads: “God is in his holy Temple. He is a father to orphans, and he defends the widows. God gives the lonely a home. He leads prisoners out with joy...”. The very house / family of God becomes the house / family of the lonely. Hence the ecclesia is the house of God (1 Cor. 3:16). We find true family in the new family of God. By baptism we are “added together” with those others who are likewise saved in Christ (Acts 2:47 RVmg.). We will live together eternally with the other members of this new body and community which we enter. The links between us within that new family are even stronger than those with our natural family; and hence any division amongst the family of God is the greatest tragedy. What this means in practice is that we must fellowship each other. Even if we are isolated from other believers, one can always write letters, make phone calls, invite others to visit them, attempt to meet others… And if you have no idea where your nearest fellow believer is, by all means contact us.
So loneliness isn’t at all a bad thing. Paul tells the Thessalonians how desperately he wanted to physically be with them, but God stopped him “time and again”; and so he concluded in the end that it was better for him to be left at Athens alone (1 Thess. 2:17-3:1). He “could no longer forbear” that loneliness in Athens, just as many readers likewise struggle with their loneliness. But looking back, he realized that that aloneness in Athens had actually been for his spiritual good, even though he so longed to be with his brethren. And here those who so bemoan [understandably] their spiritual isolation as they live out their Christian lives in ones or twos can take comfort. It was whilst left alone in Athens that Paul’s conscience was stirred within him and he began an incredibly successful preaching campaign (Acts 17:16-22). The image of that wonderful man standing alone on Mars Hill taking Christ to the masses there for the very first time is inspirational; but he only stood up there and did it because he had been left in Athens alone by a loving Father. His loneliness led to his spirit / conscience being stirred within him by the need of the humanity around him. His loneliness made him see how unique was his relationship with God Almighty and His Son. And for this reason so many isolated Christians, grasping the awesome reality that perhaps they alone have any Hope of salvation as they live amidst their atheistic or Buddhist or Moslem societies...are inspired by their consciences to take the Hope of Israel so powerfully out into their societies.
The Loneliness Of Prayer
If the Lord's words dwell in us, we will ask what we will, and it will be done. Yet only if we ask according to God's will can we receive our requests (Jn. 15:7 cp. 1 Jn. 5:14). The implication is that if the word dwells in us, our will becomes that of the Father, and therefore our requests, our innermost desires, are according to His will, and are therefore granted. The word of the Gospel becomes “united by faith with them that hear it” (Heb. 4:2 RVmg.). Through the medium of our response to God’s word, our will becomes united with His. Therefore the word was what directed and motivated David's regular daily prayers (Ps. 119:164); they weren't standard repetitions of the same praises or requests, but a reflection of his Biblical meditation. He asks God to hear his voice in prayer, using the very same words with which he reflects upon how he heard God's voice as it is in His written word. In successful prayer, therefore, our will merges with that of the Father. His will becomes our will; and vice versa. By this I mean that our will can become His will in that He will hear us and even change His declared will [Moses several times achieved this during the course of his prayer life]; prayer really does change things. Our will becomes God’s just as His becomes ours. There is an awesome mutuality between a man and his God as he kneels at night alone, praying and asking for the very things which are now God’s will.
If I were to ask you what are other words which might describe the will of God as revealed in His word, you’d likely come up with the word “spirit”. And this is Biblical. Romans begins with Paul talking about praying through God’s will to come and visit them; and the letter concludes with Paul writing about his prayer for this through the Spirit (Rom. 1:10; 15:30-32). We can be filled with God’s will “in all wisdom and understanding of the Spirit” (Col. 1:9; 4:12). What we think of in our self-talk as we walk down the street, this is our “spirit”, and it is this which must be conformed to the Spirit of the Father and Son. We read several times of praying at all times in the Spirit (1 Cor. 14:15; 2 Cor. 12:9; Eph. 6:18), for the need to struggle in prayer “through the love of the spirit” (Rom. 15:30). In prayer, we address God as Abba, Father- precisely because “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). I take these passages to refer to the way successful prayer involves the spirit / will of a believer becoming united with the Spirit / will of the Father and Son. Gal. 4:6 says that it is the Spirit of Jesus who prays to God “Abba, Father”; but Rom. 8:15 says that it is us of course who pray to God “Abba, Father”. We are not slaves but God’s very own dear children. The spirit / will / mind of the Lord Jesus is therefore seen as the mind of the believer. And thus Paul could write that it was no longer he who lived, but Christ who lived in him (Gal. 2:20). The whole of the new creation groans or sighs in our spirit; and Jesus, the Lord the Spirit groans in prayer for us too. God’s Spirit is to dwell in us, right in the core of our hearts (Rom. 8:11; Gal. 4:6).
All this was foreshadowed in Ezekiel’s vision of the cherubim, where the spirit of the living creatures in the Heavens was the same spirit in the wheels, God’s people who operationalize God’s will here on earth (Ez. 1:20). That vision was then immediately demonstrated in practice when the Spirit of God entered into Ezekiel and he was sent to preach; just as the Spirit of the living creatures had been in the wheels, and they were sent to and fro in the earth (Ez. 2:2). And thus Ezekiel sees the hand of a man coming to him , just as he had seen it associated with the cherubim in the vision (Ez. 1:8 = Ez. 2:9). And surely Ezekiel is addressed as “son of man” in this context because the living creatures have the “likeness of a man” (Ez. 1:5); Ezekiel, God’s man on earth, alone and separate from his brethren, was merged with the huge Heavenly system above him, because God’s Spirit was in him, and he was willing to do God’s will. Just as the cherub “stretched forth his hand” to direct another Angel, so God’s hand was stretched forth [s.w.] upon Ezekiel and he likewise was sent to do God’s will (Ez. 2:9; 8:3; 10:7). Knowing that we are part of this huge Heavenly system of working, identified with the Angels and the very cherubim of glory above, can eclipse to a large extent our human feelings of loneliness.
This is where personal Bible reading and reflection are so important; for there the individual finds the essence of God’s will and strives to make it his or her very own. This is how we can come to understand Rom. 8:16, which says that in prayer, God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirit that is within us. Thus even although “we do not know how to pray for as we ought, the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:26). The Spirit of the Father and Son speaks in us when we pray (Rom. 8:15), if our will / spirit is theirs. To put this in more technical but I think very telling terms: “The subject-object scheme of ‘talking to somebody’ is transcended; He who speaks through us is he who is spoken to” (2). It’s perhaps the thought behind Mt. 10:20: “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you”. This is why Paul can thank God that he finds himself praying constantly for Timothy (2 Tim. 1:3)- because he recognizes that not only can we influence God by our prayers, bur He influences us in what we pray for. Joachim Jeremias mentions that " according to idiomatic Jewish usage the word amen is used to affirm, endorse or appropriate the words of another person [whereas] in the words of Jesus it is used to introduce and endorse Jesus' own words...to end one's own prayer with amen was considered a sign of ignorance" (3). Thus Jesus was introducing a radically new type of speaking. But He did so because He wanted us to realize that if our spirit is united with God’s, then our words to God are in a sense God talking to Himself; hence we say ‘Amen’ to our own words, when ‘amen’ was usually a confirmation of God’s words. Jn. 16:26 fits in here, where in the context of speaking of the unity of the believers with the Father and with Himself, the Lord says that He will not need to pray for the believer, but God Himself will hear the believer. I take this to mean that Jesus foresaw that the time would come when our prayer would be His prayer. It’s not so much that He prays for us, but rather prays with us and even through us.
These ideas are brought together by a consideration of the prayers offered for Zion’s restoration at the time of the captivity in Babylon. Prior to this, Isaiah had prophesied that God would not rest until Zion be restored. Watchmen would be set upon Zion’s walls who would give Him no rest until the walls be rebuilt (Is. 62:1,6,7). At this time, Zion was felt by God to be the “apple of his eye” (Zech. 2:8). This prophesy started to be fulfilled straight after the Babylonian invasion when Jeremiah urged the desolated people to pray: “O wall of the daughter of Zion, let tears run down like a river day and night: give thyself no rest; let not the apple of thine eye cease” (Lam. 2:18). The prayerful remnant gave themselves no rest; and thus was fulfilled the prophecy that God would have no rest. Sincere prayer according to God’s will meant that there was a strange mutuality between the Father and those who prayed to Him. Both He and they considered Zion to be the apple of their eye; and thus the prayers were ultimately answered and Zion was restored.
Our spirit and His are united. All this speaks of an incredible personal bonding in prayer between the Creator and each, specific one of His creatures. These passages have nothing to do with miraculous gifts of the Spirit, or of men having their own will overpowered by irresistible bolts from Heaven. Only through our will, our essential person and spirit, becoming united with God’s can it be possible to live a life of prayer, whereby we are praying without ceasing, constantly, every moment (Rom. 1:9; 12:12; 1 Thess. 1:2; 5:17; 2 Thess. 1:11; 2:13; Phil. 1:3; Col. 1:3; 2 Tim. 1:3). Our life, our person, our spirit, our being, is read as a prayer to God.
All this is why ‘being yourself’ is so vital; your very own essence, your unique mind / spirit / desires / will, have to become united with those of the Father. This is not at all a suppression of self or elimination or resignation of human personality. It’s the very opposite. I am saying that only if we are in touch with ourselves, if our faith in Jesus Christ is our very own, not the living out of anyone else’s expectations, not mere membership of a group, not simply enmeshed in others’ views about God and ‘the truth’, for whom ‘the truth’ is not just a bought position, a package received…only then do we have a spirit / personality / desire / will that can be uniquely bonded with that of the Father and Son. And there is no lack of evidence that God uses the experience of human loneliness to bring this about. But it’s a loneliness, as I and many others can tell you, that leads you closer to the Father and Son, to that experience of kneeling alone praying when you know and feel that indescribable personal bond with the God who is above. Rising from such prayer there is the confident sense in even the most humanly abandoned soul that now, nothing else matters- with God on our side and ‘with us’ in such a profound way. The Son of God kneeling in Gethsemane against the Passover moon is the most sublime picture of human and Divine will becoming one, with all the struggle that our humanity puts up against it. No wonder He has been depicted there with a halo around His head- not that personally I like that kind of art. The Father works in many ways to seek to bring us to this. It may be through the loss of loved ones, physical isolation, unfair and inexplicable rejection by our brethren, depression, events that shake our belief system to the core, being surrounded by a non-Christian society, living with a partner or family who simply cannot understand you… Believe me, because I truly have seen it in so many Christian lives, all these things have played their part. All things truly work together for our eternal good; for the Father seeks only to do us good in our latter end.
And this is why, in the very end, we are faced with the crucial need and value of our loneliness. It’s why it has to be. For it is who we essentially and uniquely are that God is concerned with; not with our deeds of righteousness, not with our placing within a society or family; but the real, naked, you or me. Prayer, therefore, in one sense has to be a lonely experience. This is all surely why the Lord Himself is frequently pictured by the Gospel writers as making an effort to be alone in prayer to the Father (Mk. 1:35; 3:13; 9:2; Mt. 14:13,23; 17:1; Lk. 6:12; 9:28; 22:39,41). This is all some emphasis. Be it rising in the early hours to go out and find a lonely place to pray, or withdrawing a stone’s throw from the disciples in Gethsemane to pray…He sought to be alone. Jn. 6:15 emphasizes this repeated feature of the Lord’s life: “He departed again into a mountain himself alone”. The fact He often [“again”] retreated alone like this is emphasized by three words which are effectively saying the same thing- departed, himself, alone. Much as we should participate in communal prayers or in the prayers of our partner or our children, there simply has to be the time for serious personal prayer in our lives. And I have to drive the point home: Are you doing this? Putting it in other terms- are you alone enough?
In essence, then, these are lonesome days for each of us as we wait for the Lord’s return. They simply have to be, as the Father seeks to forge true personality within us. Loneliness is part of being human; to be unduly fearful of loneliness is actually a running away from our own person. To seek to remove ‘loneliness’ from our human experience can come close to removing our essential independence as persons; to abdicate our responsibility as uniquely created individuals, who each have a specific contribution to make to the Father’s glory. This said, there is a tremendous power in true Christian fellowship. We are members of the one body, and regardless of geographical isolation, there is an often untapped source of belonging and identity here. Yet in the ultimate analysis, we still stand alone before the Father and Son. Ultimately, our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son. This standing alone before them is not something to resent; it is something to value and develop, for it forms the basis for our present and future relationship with them which is what the eternity of the Kingdom is all about.
Walking With God
God has structured human life so that we each experience loneliness, at least in life “under the sun”. No matter how deep your relationship with your parents, in the usual course of events the time comes when they must die, and you must live on- knowing that nobody can empathize exactly with your memories of childhood, the smell of your early home, the colour of the kitchen door... And no matter how intimate your relationship with your partner, he or she wasn’t in your life until you met them and cleaved unto them in marriage. No matter how close your relationship with your children, they also only personally knew part of your life. If you were to find a wonderful friend, a companion on life’s road, and spent hours of conversation with them over endless late night coffees, you’d still be frustrated that you could never exactly share with them all the memories, the scenes, the situations, that resulted in the personality you are. Many of those things you’ve forgotten, or misremember; the passage of time changes perceptions of reality in any case. And were you to spend weeks explaining your recollections to somebody, they still could never hug you and say with legitimacy: “Yes, I know exactly”. Nobody has personally travelled with you over all the roads you’ve taken to what can appear to be, humanly, the unusable last equilibrium of who “you” as a person really are at this moment. This is how human experience is. We are left crying out for someone who was there, to whom we can say “You were there [then]... you were then [then]... through those years... through that moment... you were there”.
The simple truth is, that there is such a Companion, “my comrade all the journey through” as a hymn expresses it. Life in Christ is about a personal relationship with Him as friend, Master, companion, Brother; and likewise with the Father. This is a reality of colossal import. Learning Bible teaching, baptism, preaching, good moral family life, working in the ecclesia... all this can be performed for decades without knowing Him as this daily, hourly, minute by minute witness, comforter and friend. Wisdom surely consists of turning that knowledge into a felt reality.
“I will be...”
An oft overlooked component of the promises to Abraham which are the core of the Gospel is that “I will be your God”. Land and eternal life in the future, blessings... these are indeed wonderful. But the King of the Cosmos is my God. Oh how rich the promise. So often we read that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I take this to mean that He was there for them, through every moment, He was their God, He alone is without beginning and has immortality in Himself. This continuity in God over history is therefore an encouragement to us that He likewise is the continuous One in our lives too. Israel in captivity felt God had forgotten them; and so they are comforted that they are individuals “which have been borne by me from the belly, which have been carried from the womb: and even to old age I am he, and even to grey hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; yea, I will carry, and will deliver” (Is. 46:3,4). Note how God, who is presented as male, likens Himself to a woman here. As He carried us in the womb, so He will carry us when we are old and grey haired. True to human parenting experience, the baby is always the father’s little baby, even in grey hairs. And this wonderful comfort is so simply because “I am he”. This is an evident reference to God’s Name, YHWH. The mystery of the Name is partly because the declaration of it in Ex. 3:6 implies grammatically that He is, was, and shall be. This was intended to be a great comfort to Israel in Egypt, who again had felt that God was somehow distant, looking the other way, leaving them in their aloneness. The same Name, the promise of God’s abiding presence and purpose with us, provides comfort to every one of His people.
So many of God’s children have come to exemplify the truth of what we’ve written above.
Job in his depths came to know God as his “witness in heaven” (Job 16:19); in his former life, “when the eye saw me, it gave witness [s.w.] to me” (Job 29:11). But Job was brought to learn that the only ultimate witness in life is God, and it is His testimony and not man’s which is meaningful.
David frequently expresses his aloneness, and the comfort He therefore finds in God. But this had to grow over time. His earlier Psalms reflect his fear of loneliness: “Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth… when I am old and grayheaded, O God, forsake me not” (Ps. 71:9,18). Is. 46:4 seems almost to be in answer to David’s fear: “even to old age I am he, and even to grey hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; yea, I will carry, and will deliver”. He evidently loved his parents and expected their passing when he wrote: “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up” (Ps. 27:10). But David wasn’t begging God to not forsake him; he was now confident that God wouldn’t. Ps. 56:8 demonstrates the intensity David arrived at: “You number all my wanderings; put my tears into your bottle; are they not in your book?”. Tear bottles were kept by mourners at funerals; they put their tears in a bottle which they then kept in memory of the deceased. But David says that his tears are in God’s bottle. The idea was that your tears went into your bottle. But David was so intimate with God that he perceived that his tears were in fact God’s; and vice versa.
God With Us
And so the awesome truth dawns: that man is not alone. For God is with us. Pushing relentlessly deeper- How, in what sense, is God with us? The answer is: ‘Emmanuel’. God is with us through the Lord Jesus. But again- what does that mean? Putting meaning into words, we could say that God is “with us” in that the Lord Jesus so suffered, so shared in our humanity, that there is no human being who can legitimately say “Nobody knows how I feel”. Maybe there isn’t anybody on this earth. But there is One who is now in Heaven, who does know. This is one window onto the old question of ‘Why the cross? Why did He have to suffer so much, and so publically?’. For our redemption could’ve been achieved any way God chose; His Son didn’t have to die. To say that He had to die to fulfil the Old Testament types only pushes the questions a stage further back- but why, anyway? Why not to give a profound speech and then drink hemlock surrounded by His friends and followers, the classic parting? Why the awful intensity and utter abandon of the cross?
Whilst the answer is multi-factorial, it’d be true to say that one of the reasons was so that none of us could ever legitimately think: “Nobody understands what I am going through”. I have met radical feminists who tell me they need a female Jesus, one like them; and radical black theologians for whom Jesus had to be black; and to an extent, I can see what they mean. They want Jesus to be like them. Just as I want Him to be like me. A study of Jesus in art teaches us the same. Italian painters have Him with Italian features; the Spanish masters present Him in Iberian-style villas; the Scandinavians as a blue-eyed blonde; the Africans as a negro. And yet the wonder of it all is that Christ is indeed “for every man”; the unique structure of His life and personal experiences was such that He can legitimately know the feelings of the black man, the white woman, the disabled, the deaf, the Arab, the Chinese... Nothing can separate our life experience from His understanding and ability to identify. Is. 53:7 speaks of the Lord in His time of dying: "as a sheep before her shearers is silent". Yet the Passover Lamb, so evidently typical of the Lord as He approached death, was to be male. Why such an obvious contradiction? Was it not because the prophet foresaw that in the extraordinary breadth of experience the Lord was passing through, He was made able to empathize with both men and women?
Meanings For Us
In the final analysis, we will meet Jesus alone. There will by God’s grace be a moment when we will even see the face of Almighty God- alone. This was the light at the end of Job’s tunnel- he would see his redeemer for himself “and not another”. Paul possibly expresses the same idea of an unenterable relationship in 1 Cor. 2:15: "He that is spiritual discerneth all things (about God), yet he himself is discerned of no man". Our real spiritual being is a "hidden man" (1 Pet. 3:4). The Spirit describes our final redemption as our "soul" and "spirit" being "saved" ; our innermost being, our essential spiritual personality, who we really are in spiritual terms, will as it were be immortalized (1 Pet. 1:9; 1 Cor. 5:5).
Anyone faced with the trauma of forgiveness, of seeking reconciliation with another, will know that an agreed version of events between opposed parties will never be arrived at. Yet we hanker for this, we long for justice in the eyes of men and women, that they might accept our history, our reality, as the true one. Because of this, so often forgiveness and reconciliation remain unachieved. For nobody can exactly empathize with us. Nor with the opposing party. Vague sympathy there may be, but there can’t be true empathy, total fellow feeling with another because we have been exactly where they were and are. For we are not God; we’ve not been there with that other person. And nobody else has been with us in that way either. But for those who know the Father and Son as their personal witnesses, who believe that justice is with God and not men, this crying need for an agreed version of events presses less heavily. God knows. Jehovah-Jireh- He has seen, and will therefore provide. Even if there’s no justice, the wonder of a personal relationship with our Heavenly Father will keep us going. Those who lose their “faith” because of fallouts in the ecclesias, personal offence... haven’t know the wonder of this personal companionship of the Father and Son. It’s so wonderful that really whatever happens on earth, be it betrayal, injustice, sickness, even death itself... nothing shall separate us from the love and relationship of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. And the response to this can only be praise: “For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother's womb. My praise is continually of you” (Ps. 71:5,6).
(1) “Fraternal gatherings…become sources of
evil if allowed to acquire a legislative character in the least degree.
Ecclesial independence should be guarded with great jealousy…to form ‘unions’
or ‘societies’ of ecclesias, in which delegates should frame laws for
the individual ecclesias, would be to lay the foundation of a collective
despotism which would interfere with the free growth and the true objects
of ecclesial life. Such collective machineries create fictitious importances,
which tend to suffocate the truth. All ecclesiastical history illustrates
this”. Robert Roberts, The Ecclesial Guide (1989 ed., p. 32).
(2) Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology
Vol. 3 (The University of Chicago Press, 1963) p. 192.
(3) Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers
Of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964).
Note: I openly express my deep and perhaps it
will be eternal indebtedness to my beloved brother John Stibbs for his
input into my thinking in this study. His insight into the human condition
and the person of the Lord Jesus I have found remarkably helpful.