Ep. 077: Understanding Loneliness
Loneliness can affect us all to some degree – whether you’re a mature Christian, a new Christian, or a non-Christian. The question is, How should we, as Christians, understand loneliness? How can we make sense of it, and help ourselves out of it? Author and speaker Lydia Brownback has recently written a book called Finding God in My Loneliness, where she dives into this relevant issue. We have the privilege of chatting with her this week, asking her some of the relevant questions around the topic of loneliness. “What do I do with my loneliness?” “Was it meant to be this way?” “I’m single and lonely, what do I do?” are some of the questions we answer during this week’s conversation.
Who’s Our Guest?
Lydia Brownback (MAR, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as a senior editor at Crossway in Wheaton, Illinois, and an author and speaker at women’s conferences around the world. Lydia previously served as writer in residence for Alistair Begg and as producer of the Bible Study Hour radio program with James Montgomery Boice. You can find her blog here.
Lydia’s book is called Finding God in My Loneliness.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is author and speaker Lydia Brownback. Lydia serves as a senior editor with Crossway Publishing, and at least through Crossway she’s written about nine books or so – maybe she can correct that, but thanks for being with me today Lydia.
I’m glad to be here Isaac.
Before we jump into our topic/issue today which is loneliness, why don’t you just first tell us who you are a little bit – what you do, and also if you could, how you met Jesus.
Well, we could take the whole interview with just that. I work at Crossway books; I’ve been here for about a decade. And before that I worked for a pastor named Alistair Begg in Cleveland, Ohio. And then I worked for James Montgomery Boice years before that, producing his radio program called the Bible Study Hour.
Along the way I started writing, and I’ve been doing that ever since. And that’s sort of where my passion is – I love to write, to communicate God’s Word and truths about God’s Word, to help women especially connect with God more fully and more truthfully. So that is my great passion.
But any way I can be working in the Word of God, whether it’s through my vocation or through my writing, that is exactly what my joy in life is.
And how did you meet Jesus?
Well, I was a teenager at the time. My parents had split up, and it was a very lonely time for me. And my mother became a believer as a result of that difficulty in our family. So through her faith I was led to know Jesus.
Now, last year you wrote a book called Finding God in My Loneliness, a provocative title. Before we dig further into that, what are you referring to here as “loneliness”? I feel like it’s an ambiguous term, what do you mean by that?
This book was not something I even thought about writing. A fellow writer and speaker suggested to me several years ago that I write on this topic, and I remember, at first, initially, I didn’t want to do it. I thought “Why? You’re just asking me or suggesting that because I’m single and you think I’d be a good one to write about that.” So I resisted the idea.
But then as I thought about it and began looking around I realized,
“No, it’s not just a singleness issue, it’s a universal issue, everybody it lonely to some degree.”
So, as I started thinking about it, there is kind of a need to address this. And I think people can feel lonely or be lonely and not even know that that’s what’s going on, because it’s not something we talk about commonly, and it’s not even easy to identify in ourselves all the time.
Well, even just you saying that, you don’t hear a lot of people telling a close friend, “I’m feeling kind of lonely,” you don’t hear that! It’s almost – it feels a little embarrassing to even say that, or awkward.
Yeah, it does. I think, for men especially maybe, but if you think about the fact that God, way back when He created man and woman, He created man and said, “It is not good that the man should be alone,” so even before the Fall, there was an aloneness and a loneliness. So what does that day?
It says that it’s part of our creation – God created us with that void.
So loneliness in and of itself can’t be all bad. Because God created us that way before the Fall. So what does that tell us? I think it says that it is a human, it’s part of creation, it’s part of how God made human beings too have that capacity for loneliness, because apart from that we wouldn’t reach out for one another, and more importantly, we wouldn’t reach out for Him. We wouldn’t recognize that we’re incomplete apart from Him.
I want to get to that a little bit more, in just a moment, you gave us a little teaser. But I want to pull back a little bit more, and just think about our culture.
Many of our listeners are young adults, there in their 20s, 30s, and, I mean, we’ve grown up with this internet. It’s native to us. So, it’s just second nature to be communicating with our friends and family through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – all these different things. And all of this social media – our culture just boasts of this social connectivity that we have. But from your study of writing this book, has loneliness increased? And if so, why do you think it has increased even with this social connectivity everywhere?
You know, I think it’s definitely increased with social media. And a lot of it, in a sense, it’s not real. You know?
We think we’re having relationships, but they’re not face-to-face, so they’re not the same thing.
And so we actually sometimes can stay our virtual relationships, actually keep us from physical, real, tangible relating to people. Yet we’re under the illusion that we’re connecting, it’s just not as deep. So there’s this pervasive loneliness that goes along with that.
I think also, social media gives us the opportunity to create a “do it yourself” identity. I think about how, young women I know will look at a Facebook page or an Instagram photo and see these happy photos of family scenes on the beach and joyful occasions, and they realize that that’s fake news! That’s not real! That is the image that people want to project, it’s not necessarily who they are. We don’t know that that happy family scene on the beach wasn’t preceded by a big fight. No one posts that! So if you’re looking at someone else’s newsfeed and you think that is their life, your life doesn’t look very good.
And you think about selfies. How many photos did a young woman take before she got the one that sets her off to the best advantage? And then puts it up there? So, that’s not real.
So, if we look at other people’s social media pages we think something’s wrong with us, when in reality,
nobody is their social media page.
That is nobody. That’s not real.
It’s kind of sad because, you know, if I’m flipping through my Instagram and I’m seeing these guys with their families and maybe they’re out doing their trades and their jobs, and if I’m just sitting at home not doing anything, I’m starting to feel lonely – like, I don’t have this life they do. But it’s a false feeling, because they might not even have that life. It’s just put on.
Right, exactly. And you think about what’s become common at Christmas time, everyone mails out a letter of their year in review. You know, “Little Johnny got a big award, and my husband got a promotion and my daughter got accepted to this college,” and, you know, we see all the highlights of the good stuff, and everybody does that.
But you think about it, why? Why? And you can’t be, you’re not going to say, well, don’t list the bad thing, “My child got into a lot of trouble,” you know, nobody does. So we have this superficial pose in front of each other. And especially on social media. And so that’s an isolating, lonely thing for people who are viewing that and mistakenly believing that they’re missing out on the good life.
Alright, now to piggyback back to what you were saying before. I find it really interesting when you were talking about the fact that when Adam was created, he was created with loneliness and that was an aspect of the good creation. So I want to just talk about this for a little bit.
So you do say in your book,
“God created human beings with the capacity for loneliness so that we would yearn for and find our all in Him.”
And you even just said a couple minutes ago, that, not only Him but also others as well. So, what do you mean exactly by this if we could just jump a little deeper into it? And what does it look like to find, connect, and have a relationship with God?
Well, when you see that God put Adam in the garden and He said that it was not good for the man to be alone, so therefore He created him with the very thing He calls not good. So it can’t be evil in the sense that we think of it. It’s not good in the sense that He meant incomplete. So he was designed as incomplete. So first, He creates a wife for him, and so that is God’s earthly remedy for our loneliness, but even then that’s not meant to be an end in itself. That was meant to point us to the deeper, richer companionship we’re meant to have with the Lord Himself.
Practically speaking, how does that play out? It’s not necessarily marriage, but it is human companionship.
We were designed to have companionship with others, and ultimately that points us to where our greatest, most ultimately fulfilling companionship is found, which is in the Lord Himself.
So we don’t have to believe the lie that loneliness is evil in and of itself. It’s not!
You know, you brought up the fact that you used to work with Alistair Begg which is awesome. I recently had a conversation with one of the pastor and counselors at Parkside Church. Anyways, he wrote a book on biblical friendship, just a year or so ago. He brings up the same point where even with Adam in the garden – Adam and Eve – it’s not so much a marriage thing, it’s even just a friendship thing. Like, He’s brought in this companionship that we so desperately need.
And the fact that in heaven marriage is not a thing, it’s just communing with your brothers and sisters in Christ, worshipping Jesus, it means that biblical friendship is the one thing that really does go from earth to heaven. Which I find so fascinating.
Exactly, yeah me too. That’s why we don’t have to feel like if- and this is such, especially for young people, they get up in their twenties and they start to panic if they don’t have a significant, romantic relationships. You know, they think that they’re incomplete without that or that something’s missing, and the panic that sets in can be brutal. And in reality what you just said is true. It’s not necessary for fulfillment. It’s a God given yearning and it’s wonderful to pursue it, but there’s nothing wrong with you if it’s not happening right now.
I want to come back to that as we finish up. But firstly, I want to ask: if someone’s listening right now and they understand what we’re talking about, loneliness, but how would they know if they’re lonely? What are some indications that would tell someone that they’re in a place of loneliness? Does that make sense?
Yes, it does. And it can be different for everybody. I think people can feel depressed, they can start to question what’s wrong with them, and sometimes it’s just this nebulas sense that something’s missing and they can’t quite define what it is. And so, I think that one of the biggest problems when that happens, if we can’t put our finger on it and say, “I am lonely, I was created with this hole in me and it’s meant for the Lord and for companionship with people,” and it’s okay to name that for what it is. But if we resist that, that’s a practical thing – don’t resist it. Acknowledge it, it’s okay.
It’s not a shameful thing to admit that you’re feeling lonely. It’s actually positive, because then you’re going to do something about it.
And practically, we lean into the Lord and acknowledge it, and say, “I’m lonely, this is part of how I’m made as a human being, so what do you have for me here? Where do I go? What do I do?” You lean into Him and just live in it. And then you reach out for others. They’re so basic, but that’s really what that ache is meant to do. But so often, if we’re ashamed to acknowledge that we feel lonely or that we are lonely, what we do is we either try sinful remedies to try and fix it and we latch on to an unwise relationship or activities or things just to dock those feelings. Or escapism. That’s a huge way we try to cope with that, when in reality, just naming that for what it is is the beginning of finding the answer for it.
This is obvious, but I just wanted to get it out there. But if you feel lonely, it’s not because you’re sinning. It’s not a sin to be lonely.
No, definitely not. And that’s one of the lies of loneliness, “I must be doing something wrong, there’s something wrong with me, I must be in sin,” and certainly there is sin that comes into play, but you know, honestly, I think sometimes when we’re being most obedient we can be in touch with loneliness, whereas sin, escapism and all those things we do to try and take control of our lives away from God, we may not feel and be in touch with out loneliness then, but we’re actually more lonely than ever because we’re moving away from the Lord.
Feelings of loneliness are not an indicator of sin or of something being wrong with us.
So, because it’s not a sin and because Jesus- it says in Hebrews that He is acquainted with our ways and that He’s been tempted every way that you have been tempted, in order to help you. I think back to, I forget which gospel it’s in, I think John, where it says that Jesus didn’t connect Himself with any man because He knew the heart of man. Do you think Jesus felt times of loneliness?
That’s one of the things in the book – there’s a whole chapter dedicated to how He sympathizes with that weakness in us.
I think He was the loneliest man who ever lived.
He was abandoned by His friends in His hour of need, they left Him, and they couldn’t stay awake with Him one hour when He went to pray. He was rejected, He was misunderstood, especially because- and think about the loneliness in this:
He offered Himself in love to people He knew were going to reject Him, and that is the loneliest feeling on this earth – when we offer love and it gets rejected.
And He dealt with that every single day. And then right up to the cross where He felt abandoned by His Father, and He was, to pay for our sins. So, I don’t think it gets any lonelier from what Jesus experienced.
You know, I think you brought up a really good point there. Because I feel like- there are a lot of people that are lonely, and I can just sense this objection they would give if I told them, “Why don’t you talk to people, say it for what it is and go become friends with people,” they would say, “Well, it’s not going to be real.”
People have this pessimistic attitude toward- especially our culture today where there’s not this sense of vulnerability between people, and there’s not this honesty between people. How would you- maybe you could even speak from your own life.
You mentioned even in your testimony that when your parents split up that it was a very lonely time. How did you take some steps to get out of that place of loneliness, or, as your book says, find God in that loneliness?
You know, I think at the time, I was a teenager, so I wasn’t really in touch. I was just angry and bitter. But I think one of the things I learned from that, is that if we try to pretend that everything’s okay, it’s not going to get us anywhere – it’s going to make things worse.
Honesty, that’s the genuineness that solves loneliness. It’s truthfulness, honesty, and openness.
When we’re battling with something like this- we can also feel shut off from people because of anger or grief or other emotions given in the circumstances of our lives. And so we don’t be real about that. Have you ever noticed when you are going through something difficult, or say you have a sin struggle or you’re tempted by something, isn’t the best thing that heals loneliness and aloneness, isn’t the best thing to put it out there to someone else? Just be truthful. And you find in return that they then open up. But someone has to go first.
And so if you’re honest and open about you’re struggles, you don’t try to sugar-coat your life and sort of put on this spiritual front for everybody, just be real about who you are and your struggles. That annihilates loneliness, and it’s in its face. It says “no” to that.
And I think about Proverbs 18:1, “A man who seeks his own desire isolates himself, he rages against all wise judgement.”
When we’re centred on ourselves, we’re going to isolate from other people because we want our own way. And that takes us away from wise judgement.
Isolation is anti-wisdom. It’s folly in biblical terms. That’s part of the problem. So honesty about our struggles, our temptations, our failings, our pains, our griefs. And not some emotive degree, you know? We can over do it. But too often we go the other way and we want to put up a spiritual front, and that doesn’t help us or other people.
The temptation to isolate when you feel lonely- I mean, it’s hard for people to get out there and start talking about it, and make it known. How can someone get back from that? It’s hard, it’s difficult. People just want to isolate themselves from the church, from family, and friends when they feel lonely.
As a friend, Lydia, what would you tell people if they’re in that place of “I don’t want to go out, I don’t want to do that.”?
Well, I think I’d say the same thing to them that I say to myself when I get in those modes. And I think it’s to say, first of all why? Why do I want to isolate? And if we ask ourselves why we want to perpetuate the very thing that’s upsetting us in the first place, you know, why do we want to isolate?
I think one of the reasons is pride. We don’t want to humble ourselves and acknowledge that we’re in a bad place, and that we are in need of other people.
And we also are scared that if we do acknowledge it we’ll be rejected. So, it’s this thing that makes us put a barrier up. But at the root of that, I mean, like Jesus did, there’s vulnerability in reaching out and if we’re going to have real relationships with people, we have to be vulnerable and that means that sometimes we’re going to get rejected and it’s going to hurt, but Jesus did that all the time and He put Himself right back out there.
It’s funny, trying to protect ourselves from loneliness actually perpetuates the very thing we’re trying to protect ourselves from.
Lastly, I just want to spend a little bit of time here. We think about singleness. When people are lonely in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and so on, they’ll point to their singleness as the reason for why they are lonely. You know, especially when they start seeing friends and family members start getting married, having children, and so on. So for those who are struggling with this loneliness and they see it because of their singleness, what do you say to that?
I speak a lot on singleness, because I’ve always been single. I’m now what they call an older single, and when I go speak to young groups of women, especially, I always see that some of them are guarded, they cross their arms and they look away. They don’t really want to listen to me. And that’s because they’re afraid that if they listen to me they’re going to catch what I have. They don’t want to end up in their 50s and single.
And what I’ll first say to them is, “Well, marriage is God’s normal ordering. So, women like me are the exception. It is most often God’s ordering for people to get married.” And that’s not just for Christians, marriage is a creation ordinance, not just for Christians. He put that in the beginning too. Before He even called a special people to Himself.
God loves marriage. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to be the one that get’s married. So what do you do with that? We can either spend all our energy trying to get married and seeing singleness as a problem to solve, or we can get busy and say, “This is very likely a season in my life,” but either way, if it’s a lifetime or another month, what are we going to do with it? Are we going to use it for the glory of God? Are we going to get out there are find the advantages we have for being single today and maximizing that, so that we don’t look back later and say, “I wasted it.”?
What are we going to do with our singleness?
If we see it as a problem to solve, we panic because we feel left behind when other people are getting married, we have to change our perspective and say, “God is sovereign over our marital status, He can change our marital status any time He wants to. And if He’s kept some of us single a little longer than others, what a special privilege to be set apart for that extra time with Him.” Not everybody gets that. You know? That’s a privilege. So what are we going to do with it?
Think about the people who are able to follow Jesus, and even the women, they were able to do that because they weren’t home caring for families. And that’s wonderful if you get to care for a family, but look at the advantages you have when that’s delayed.
I think also, a long time ago, I read someone say, “Don’t do something about your singleness, do something with it.” If you’re lonely, then there’s someone lonelier than you. Go out there- you know, outward and upward.
If our focus is outward and upward, we’re going to be able to weather the painful seasons and not just weather them, not grit our teeth to get through, we’re actually going to find them fulfilling and rewarding. And I think there’s a willingness to say,
“God you choose for me. Your timing, Your plan, and Your will, Your way.”
And when we can get our heart to that place and say that to the Lord, we’re going to find fulfillment and joy and that rich companionship with Him. And we’ll be able to look at it like the psalmist in Psalm 73 who says, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth I desire besides You.” Whether we’re single or not. Either way then – because then we can still want to get married. But we won’t need it to be okay, we don’t feel like we need it to be okay.
Thank you very much Lydia, that was just great to hear from you. To our listeners, if you’re interested in Lydia’s book Finding God in My Loneliness, which obviously gets into more of what we’ve been talking about (we’ve just scratched the surface), you can just go to crossway.org and type it in there and find it, or you can always just Google it and find it that way, but you can also check out lydiabrownback.com where Lydia blogs and all her books are there as well.
And as always, I will put the links to her book and her blog up on the episode page. But again, Lydia, thank you so much for your time and your wisdom, and I hope to have you back on the show again soon.
Isaac, it’s been a delight to talk to you this morning. Thank you so much.