“Loneliness irritates me like a broken nail,” says a line in a Romanian poem. The truth is, loneliness stings, pulls apart, and resembles the coffee dregs left at the bottom of the pot in which joy and love once brewed. Although the fear of loneliness is natural, we can choose to see solitude as something more than a “flowering wilderness” and embrace it as a gift. This is the atypical message of the writer Elisabeth Elliot, who met the pain of widowhood at an early age, and in terrible circumstances.
Two intertwined hands, one fragile, a woman’s hand, the other vigorous and protective, a man’s hand. This is an ordinary image, but one that can pierce a heart that still mourns its lost love. The Path of Loneliness, a letter sent to those stabbed by the knife of isolation, begins with a slightly different image, but one which conveys the same message: a couple’s gestures, even ordinary ones, trigger hundreds of waves of loneliness in others, overwhelming those who can barely remember the last time they nestled their hand in the hand of their other half.
Although they may cause outrage, Elisabeth Elliot’s opinions on what loneliness is, and especially on what we can do with it, were formed by someone who took on this difficult path, feeling all its bruises and unevenness. “Thy will be done” had been the leitmotif of her prayer life since childhood, and the answer had come, quite early, in the form of disrupting her deepest desires.
She became a widow two years and three months after getting married, when Jim Elliot, her husband, was killed by the Auca Indians. She had already lost five years of her life waiting for God to reveal His plans for a possible marriage to Jim, the one she loved and who loved her, but who dedicated himself to a hard, unpredictable missionary life. Then, almost a decade and a half passed before she met someone to call husband again, but four years later, aggressive cancer would rob her of her second husband, the theology professor Addison Leitch.
“Thy will be done” had been the leitmotif of her prayer life since childhood, and the answer had come, quite early, in the form of disrupting her deepest desires.
Despite the pain that separation—whether unexpected or in stages, but just as agonizing—can bring, Elliot believes that her widowhood was a gift received in a world where everyone experiences the consequences of sin.
In the perfect world of the Garden of Eden, the relationship between mankind and God, like the relationship between spouses, was defined by harmony. But sin altered everything. It distorted God’s plan for people—”It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18)—and now loneliness overwhelms us in many different ways, each with its own burden of suffering.
We cannot comprehend everything about eternity, but the author is convinced that God’s mercy accompanies and embraces any loss, any agony, any moment or season of loneliness. In widowhood, divorce, unwanted celibacy, or loneliness in marriage, God remains with us and offers Himself to us, which makes every loss a gift-like experience, which He will always use to build something better.
How can one walk the path of loneliness? Elliot’s answers are not comfortable. Acceptance. Placing all of your soul’s desires before Him. The belief that no matter how shaken your inner world is, “we are still under the same Auspices”. It is not about capitulation, fatalism, or resignation, but about an act of faith. We must surrender in the arms of Someone who loves us and knows everything about our past and future.
Finally, this risky surrender is assumed in people’s relationships, because love is exactly the same. It is a risk to hand over the power to hurt you, as no one else can, to your husband, wife, close friend, or child. Although we realize this to a greater or lesser extent, most, if not all of us choose to love despite the risks.
This risky surrender is assumed in people’s relationships, because love is exactly the same. It is a risk to hand over the power to hurt you, as no one else can, to your husband, wife, close friend, or child.
Discipleship means surrender, and it will eventually lead to some form of suffering. Jesus made that very clear, Elliot concludes. On this narrow path, on which we accept His will to prevail, He walked as well, long before us, when He “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) and willingly gave His life which no one could take by force.
Surrendering in the arms of this “Man of Suffering,” whose love still remains misunderstood, does not guarantee that we will not feel the bite of loneliness, but what is promised and will be given to us, is, besides from grace and peace, the favourable context for our change and others who enter our sphere of influence.
What we make of our losses is, in the end, a choice, the author concludes. The Word of Scripture guarantees—and experience confirms this—that God will quench our deepest thirst. Contrary to our beliefs, the deepest thirst we have does not revolve around a relationship, no matter how legitimate and fulfilling it may be.
Life is not filled and emptied by receiving good gifts and losing good gifts, but by the presence of the One who can satisfy any need.
After admitting that in the five years Elliot waited for Jim she was “starving” for him, after crossing the valleys of widowhood, she points out that it is only in our heads that the emotional thirst is the deepest of all—after it is satisfied, we discover that there is still a void in us. Life is not filled and emptied by receiving good gifts and losing good gifts, but by the presence of the One who can satisfy any need. This is the powerful message of Elisabeth Elliot’s book.
In the end, loneliness in all its forms can become the way God captures our attention, draws us to Himself, and shapes us in a way that we would not have been willing to let Him in other circumstances. Self-pity, obsessive searching for answers, or comparisons with those who “deserve even less” of what we have already lost, are limiting patterns of response, which make it difficult for us to mature and flourish.
Our losses become gifts when we look at them through the eyes of faith, and if some consider this epilogue thrilling, the author surprises us even more by confessing that when she looks at her losses in the light of sunset, she sees that her sufferings are few, when measured on the scale of human pain.
And this is not because human memory is fragmentary, not because time heals the deepest wounds, but because the author of The Path of Loneliness shares the apostle Paul’s conviction: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” After all, Elliot and the apostle Paul speak the same language—that of hearts convinced that whenever they give to God whatever they have, all that is His becomes theirs.
Carmen Lăiu is the editor of Signs of the Time and ST Network.