Loneliness is one of the most miserable feelings a person can experience. Sometimes you may feel that nobody loves you, that nobody even cares if you exist. You do not even have to be alone to feel lonely; you can feel lonely in a crowd. It is not the number of people around you that determines your loneliness; it is your relationship to them. In the urban world that we now live in, people have never lived closer together, and yet they have never felt farther apart.
Can you be wealthy and lonely? Ask the late aviation and movie tycoon Howard Hughes. Can you be beautiful and lonely? Ask the late actress, Marilyn Monroe. Can you be married and lonely? Ask the people who marry because of loneliness and then get divorced a few years later for the same reason.
Everyone experiences loneliness at one time or another, but there are distinct causes and distinct cures for it. Sometimes we bring loneliness on ourselves, but other times we find ourselves in situations that are inevitable and uncontrollable. That is the condition in which the apostle Paul found himself as he wrote his second letter to Timothy. Paul was a dying old man as he wrote from a prison in Rome to his good friend Timothy and urged the younger man to visit him because he was lonely.
What Causes Loneliness?
There are four basic causes of loneliness.
The first case is the transitions in life. Life is full of transitions and stages. Growing older is a series of changes, and any change can produce loneliness. You are lonely when you are born, and you cry until you are cuddled. The first school you went to was a lonely experience. Getting a job is lonely. Changing jobs is lonely. Retiring is lonely. The death of a loved one is lonely.
Any new experience we have to deal with can be lonely. To make things worse, we tend to isolate people who are dying. Seventy percent of people in rest homes never get a visit from anybody!
Paul was in the final transition of life, and he knew that his time was short – and he was lonely. He said, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure” (2 Timothy 4:6). He was saying, in effect, “My time is short. I know it. I may be martyred by Nero very quickly. If not, I will die just from old age.” As Paul spent his last days alone, he wrote, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness”
The second basic cause of loneliness is separation. Being isolated – apart from your friends, apart from your family (because of career or military service or something else) – causes loneliness. Solitary confinement is the most devastating form of punishment, because people need people. We need interaction; we need acceptance.
Paul wrote to Timothy from prison, “Do your best to come to me quickly”. Then Paul mentioned his best friends, but none of them were with him except Luke. Paul was in prison in a foreign country, and he told Timothy, “I miss these people.” These were Paul’s best friends, his previous traveling companions. Paul was a “people person”; he loved to be among people, and he never went anywhere alone. But now, at the end of his life, he was experiencing the loneliness of separation because his friends were in other countries.
Today you can just pick up a phone and call someone, but in those days Paul couldn’t just “reach out and touch someone,” as is the famous AT&T ad put it. It took a long time to get in contact with somebody.
Twice in this passage Paul asked Timothy to “Come,” and then he said, “Do your best to get here before winter”. Why did he say this? Because time was running out. He was saying, “Timothy, I may not be around much longer. And I really want to see you. Come and see me.”
Whom do you need to call? Whom do you need to write a letter of appreciation to? You need to do it now, while there is still time. You can help relieve someone’s loneliness of separation by making that contact you have been putting off.
The third basic cause of loneliness is opposition. Paul says, “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm”. In other words, “Not only am I getting old and sitting here alone in prison, but I have been attacked.” We don’t know what Alexander had done to Paul. Maybe he slandered Paul’s name or attacked his reputation. Maybe he was turning people against Paul.
Some of the meanest things can be said by children on the playground. Do you remember when you were a little kid and everybody ganged up on you? All of a sudden during one recess the fickle finger of popularity turned, and everybody was against you: “You’re not our friend anymore!” You felt opposed, and you felt alone. It is a lonely feeling to go through a painful experience like this, to suffer rejection while everyone else is having fun. It is a lonely feeling to be misunderstood, to be embarrassed, to be humiliated. The temptation when this happens is to draw yourself into your shell and build up walls. But doing that only makes you lonelier.
The fourth basic cause of loneliness is the most serious one in that it causes the most pain. It is the loneliness of rejection. It is when you feel as though you have been betrayed or forsaken – abandoned in your time of need by those closest to you.
Paul felt this way; he felt deserted. He said of his trial before Nero, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me”. You can almost hear the pain in Paul’s voice: “When things got tough, everybody left me. When the trial warmed up, nobody was there.” Nobody spoke for his defense; everybody copped out.
Rejection is one of the most difficult things for a human being to handle. That is why divorce is so painful, and that is why God hates adultery: it is a betrayal, and it hurts lives. It is an act of unfaithfulness, an abandoning, a forsaking, and it is a very painful experience. God says that every human being has an emotional need for acceptance, and when that need is violated, it is a serious sin.
Dealing With Loneliness
There are both good ways and self-defeating ways to deal with loneliness. One self-defeating way is to become a workaholic. You spend all your time and energy working, working, working. You get up in the morning and work all day until finally you flop into bed exhausted at night. But eventually that takes its toll on you physically and emotionally.
Some people try materialism: they buy everything they can. “If I can just get a lot of things around me, I will be happy.” But things do not satisfy. If you were put on an island and told, “You can have anything want except human contact,” how long do you think you would be happy? Not very long, because things do not satisfy. You can’t purchase happiness.
Some people have an extramarital affair because of loneliness. Others turn to alcohol or drugs. Some people do nothing – they just sit around and hold a pity party
So what did Paul do? Paul did four things to combat his loneliness, and they are just as appropriate today as they were when he went through his days of loneliness. The four things for getting through those times are utilize, minimize, recognize, and empathize.
The first way to deal with loneliness is to utilize your time wisely. In other words, make the best of your bad situation. Resist the temptation to do nothing. Loneliness has a tendency to paralyze you if you just sit around and do nothing. Resist that – think of a creative way to take advantage of your lack of distractions.
As the saying goes, “If life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.” Whatever you do to combat loneliness, do it. This is what Paul did: “I sent Tychicus to Ephesus” (2 Timothy 4:12), and “When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments” . Paul refused to sit around and mope. He did not say, “Poor me, poor me.” He did not complain, “God, is this what I get for thirty years of ministry? Is this my reward for starting lots of churches, for being the person most responsible for the spread of Christianity in the Roman world? Is this what I get – to die in loneliness in a damp prison in Rome?”
No pity party for Paul! Instead, he said, “If I am going to be lonely, I may as well be comfortable. I am going to make the best of a bad situation. Bring my coat so at least I will be warm.”
Often lonely people do not take care of themselves. They do not eat right, they do not exercise, and they ignore their personal needs. But Paul said, “Bring my coat and my books, and I will capitalize on this lack of interruption; I will use it for writing and study time.” This was a great change of gears for Paul, because he was an activist, a church planter. More than anything else, he wanted to be in the Colosseum preaching instead of in prison studying. But sometimes God can use loneliness for good. If Paul had been in the Colosseum, he would have been preaching, but God left him in prison and we got part of the New Testament instead!
Probably the only way that God could get Paul to sit still was to put him in prison. And Paul’s response was, “If I cannot be where the action is, I will create action right here.”
The second way to deal with loneliness is to minimize the hurt. Play down the loneliness. Do not exaggerate it or rehearse it over and over. Do not allow resentment to build up in your life. Paul said, “No one came to my support, but…may it not be held against them”.
Paul had much time on his hands, but one thing he didn’t have any time for was to become resentful. He knew that resentment would only make him lonelier and build a wall around his life. Resentment locks us in a self-imposed prison and drives people away, because nobody likes to be around a cynic – a person who is always bitter and complaining. Paul said, “I want to be a better person, not a bitter person, so I will utilize my time and minimize my hurt.”
The third way to deal with loneliness is to recognize God’s presence. Paul said, “The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength” ). Where is God when you are lonely? He is right next to you. Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18) – “I will not leave you comfortless”. God said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
There is no place where God is not. He is everywhere at all times, and you can constantly talk with him. As long as you understand this, you are never really alone. Prayer is a fantastic tool that you can use in lonely times. Talk to God, and let him speak to you. David learned that fellowship with God is a tremendous antidote to loneliness. He would cry out, “God, I am so lonely! King Saul is chasing me, and I am alone in a cave. But then I turn my thoughts to you. Where can I get away from your presence? If I go up to heaven, you are there. Anywhere on earth, you are there. I can’t get away from you” (Psalm 139:7-8 paraphrased). David learned that loneliness is a signal that it is time for us to become better acquainted with God.
Singer Amy Grant recorded a great song that goes, “I love a lonely day. It makes me think of you…It chases me to you. It clears my heart.” In effect, she is saying, “It gives me a chance to really focus on you, God.” So what should you do? Do what Paul did. Don’t mope around; don’t give in to the temptation to do nothing. Focus on God. Make your time count.
The fourth way to deal with loneliness is to empathize with other people’s needs. Instead of focusing inward on yourself, focus outward on other people. Instead of looking at yourself, look out to other people. Start helping other lonely people. That is what Paul did. His whole goal in life was an outgoing ministry – serving others without focusing on himself. As he said, “The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2 Timothy 4:17). Paul was lonely and at the end of his life, yet he never forgot his life’s goal: to help other people.
When Corrie ten Boom was a young woman in the Netherlands, she fell head over heels in love with a young man. But he broke off the relationship and married one of her good friends. Corrie was devastated. Nothing hurts more than being rejected and having somebody else chosen over you. When Corrie got home, her dad said something very wise to her: “Corrie, your love has been blocked, and he has married somebody else. Now, there are two things you can do with a blocked love. You can dam it up inside and hold it all inside and it will eat you up – or you can rechannel it to something or someone else and can focus on other people’s needs. You can live a life of love, meeting other people’s needs.” Corrie chose to do the latter, as we know from her captivating book The Hiding Place.
Consider the couple in agony who really want children but can’t have them. What are they going to do with that love that they would have had for their children? They can hold it in, or they can rechannel it. There are many children in the world who need love. This couple can focus on the needs of others.
We need to stop building walls between us and others and start building bridges. We need to stop complaining, “God, I am so lonely,” and start saying, “God, help me be a friend to somebody today. Help me build a bridge instead of building a wall.”
Love is the antidote to loneliness. Instead of waiting to be loved, we need to give love; then love will be given back to us in abundant measure.
Filling The Vacuum
What does God have to say about your loneliness? What does he offer to fill the vacuum? The first things he says is, “I understand. I really understand.” The Son of God knows what it is like to be lonely. In Jesus’ darkest hour – the night before he was crucified on the cross – he was in the Garden of Gethsemane and all his friends fell asleep. When the soldiers came and took him to the trial, all his disciples fled. Then peter denied him three times. When Jesus took the sins of the world on himself on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
Jesus understands loneliness. He says to you, “I understand how you feel. I care about you, and I want to help you.” Let him help you conquer your loneliness as you turn to him in prayer and reach out in love to lonely people around you.
Putting Thoughts Into Action
- What was a lonely situation for you, and how did you overcome it?
- Think of one person in your church or neighborhood or workplace whom you know feels lonely, and consider some specific way to help him or her dispel that loneliness.