Divorce, widowhood, or celibacy are just a few of the faces of loneliness, an experience which Christians also deal with at some point. Those who have often crossed paths with it, say that loneliness is truly a flowering wilderness: a place that is isolated but where deep spiritual lessons are learned.
Nestled in her chair during a night flight, the writer Elizabeth Elliot is trying to fall asleep. The plane is surrounded by darkness, with the exception of two or three dim lights. Beside her, a couple appears to have already fallen asleep, but, at some point, the woman starts searching for something in her purse, and the man stands up a little to use the lighter, which lights up his fingers for a few moments. A familiar image for a smoking couple—this gesture has been repeated dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times.
For Elliot, who travels alone—a widow for more than a year now—this tender gesture stands out. She begins to weave an entire story around the couple. She feels a wave of loneliness rise inside her, almost sweeping her off her feet. It is the same wave she faced hundreds of times since her husband, Jim, a missionary killed by members of the Auca tribe, passed away. Fifteen years later, after a short second marriage, she is once more a widow. This time, she is a middle-aged one, who in recent months went through the devastating experience of seeing cancer slowly disfigure and kill her second husband.
Loneliness is a wilderness, says Elliot, underlining that no matter how bitter this experience might be, it bypasses no one—it strikes Christian and non-Christian alike.
But it will certainly change the person who is not looking for a shortcut out of this narrow space, and who understands that loneliness may, eventually, bring blessed fruits to one’s life.
She confesses that none of her losses made her collapse, because she received grace and peace to be able to bear the separation. However, there are still occasions when, unexpectedly, she is overwhelmed by a wave of loneliness and pain. These are common occasions in which nothing remarkable happens, but a gesture, a word, or an image revives memories which cause so much pain that she ends up sobbing.
The Bible offers many examples of turning loneliness into worship and service that lifts up not only those suffering from loneliness, but also those in their sphere of influence.
The loneliest man on Earth
“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces” (Isaiah 53:3). Even if this prophetic description of Jesus corresponds perfectly to what happened in His last hours of life, it might also depict, to a certain extent, what had happened years before this moment, writes author Jon Bloom.
“In a certain way, it possible that He was the loneliest man in history”, says Bloom, analysing each of the stages of Jesus’ life.
Jesus has certainly been the most misunderstood man on Earth, because no one seemed to realise what His true mission was, nor the suffering sin inflicted on the One who “knew no sin”. If Lot “day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul” because of the iniquity in Sodom, how much more must Jesus have been pierced by pain to see the sinful lives of the ones He had come to save, says the author.
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him”. This is how the apostle John summarises the rejection experienced by Jesus. For many, He remained just “the carpenter’s son”, raised in a city from which nothing good could come. The disciples themselves were caught up in disputes about hierarchy, while He was preparing for the biggest humiliation our universe had ever seen. They did not understand His mission or the sacrifice He was making for them. They even agreed with Judas when he claimed that the myrrh poured on Jesus’ head and feet, at the feast in Simon’s house, was a waste.
“For even his own brothers did not believe in him”, recounts the apostle John, thus completing the image of absolute loneliness.
No one can possibly comprehend the depth of this loneliness, precisely because He drained the bitter cup that was in front of him that night in Gethsemane. Only Jesus is able to fully understand loneliness, in all of its shades. But, He also offered the antidote to it. Through His sacrifice, we are no longer alienated from God, but “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (Ephesians 2:19). Until the day we will see Him face to face, He remains the “father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalms 68:5) and the One who “sets the lonely in families” (Psalms 68:6). One by one, he pulls the lonely together into families, so that they can then help the ones who are even lonelier than them.
The loneliness of widows from times gone by
Only through God’s grace is one able to go through the loss of a life partner, writes Julie Barrier, author of several books and blogger for the Christian website Preach It, Teach It. Widowhood changes the whole scenery of normal life. “Many women tell me that losing a mate is like losing a limb. They have to redefine who they are and how they relate to others”, says Barrier, reminding us that, according to The Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, 50% of women lose their husbands by the time they are 65.
The Bible tells the stories of many widows whose lives gained new meaning after an irreplaceable loss, and their experience gives us valuable lessons, writes Barrier.
Ruth, who lost her husband at a young age, decided to remain faithful to her mother-in-law and especially to her God. She decided to face an uncertain future with faith, to give up worshiping the false god Chemosh, and to serve the God she had yet to know. This God certainly set in a family one that is far from ordinary: Ruth is one of the few women who appear in Jesus’ genealogy.
Anna, the prophetess mentioned in the Gospel according to Luke, must have had a very harsh life. She became a widow after only 7 years of marriage, and decided not to leave the temple. She chose a life of fasting and prayer—a lifestyle that she remained committed to, even in her 80s.
Anna might have endured deprivations and might have had mornings when she did not want to get out of bed, but, at the end of her life, God offered her a glimpse of the reward she is to receive in the future, says Barrier. She was allowed to see the Messiah, in the person of a baby brought to the temple, and she rejoiced at this, prophesying about serving Him and His kingdom.
Tabitha, another widow mentioned in the New Testament, dedicated her time to “doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36), instead of wallowing in self-pity. She is one of the women who turned loneliness into a bridge to minister to the needs of the most oppressed. Tabitha becomes part of a big family of widows who have worked with generosity. Her resurrection represented—beyond the miracle an entire community rejoiced over—a signal of hope for all those who turn their loneliness into a gift for those who need help and companionship.
A slalom between losses and unfulfilled hopes
Sabrina Beasley, who writes for The Family Room, recounts how unpleasant it is to be left out, especially when you seem to be left outside of a sphere as exciting and fulfilling as intimate relationships. Several times a bridesmaid, never a bride, while her friends and colleagues were getting married one by one, she started to wonder whether there was something wrong with her, and to fear that she would remain single for the rest of her life.
The more unclear the prospect of her getting married became, the more hurt she felt, until she decided to bring her pain before God, exhausted by the burden of her unfulfilled hopes. She started reading the Bible with a new perspective, focusing only on the love story between herself and the Everlasting God. Her study of Psalm 139 convinced her that, although imperfect, she is loved by the One whose eyes saw her even when she was but an “unformed body”. Finally, Sabrina chose to focus on learning how to be more like the One who already loved her, instead of focusing on finding a man to fall for her.
Her choice came after she realized her life did not have to revolve around her own wishes—even if they were perfectly legitimate—but around revealing God’s love to other people.
Loneliness offered her a generous budget of time, which she spent supporting women who faced the rejection, loneliness, and feeling of inadequacy she was so familiar with. Free time is a luxury married people (particularly those with children) seldom enjoy. Therefore, if she could go back in time, Sabrina would once again choose to share the blessings she received in her lonely moments with those who need those blessings.
After a divorce, people desperately need hope, writes Samantha Keller, talking about the questions with which she overwhelmed her counselor after finally separating from her husband. She wanted to know how she would cope as a single mother and wondered whether she would ever have a happy marital relationship. When our attention shifts from “chasing people to chasing God”, then He can start building from the bricks of our ruined lives a project that will delight us and Him alike, says Keller. Hope becomes firmer as you let other people’s needs occupy your attention, and, in a Christian community, there are countless opportunities to serve and build friendships. But it all starts with a choice informed by hope—the hope of focusing on something bigger than the pain we feel, says Keller.
“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) is a promise anyone can hang onto in times of loneliness.
We have been created for fellowship, but sin and death have perverted the Creator’s initial plan: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). We start managing loneliness in a healing and empowering way only after we understand that, no matter how many storms we have to face, we are never alone. As Christian author Timothy Keller wrote, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God”. We need this experience more than anything else, because it “liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us”.
Lessons on the path of loneliness
Five wives, and nine children under the age of 7, were waiting in Shell Mera, Ecuador, for news from the missionaries who had left for the territories of a hostile local tribe which had offered only a few frail signs of friendship. Elisabeth Elliot, one of the wives waiting for a sign from the rescue teams, was writing down a Bible verse in her journal, which would later become the motto of the hard years of widowhood. “Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts” (Isaiah 26:8).
One of the lessons learned in loneliness was just that—waiting. When you are in a wilderness, your only wish is to find a way out. But Elliot says she learned how not to look for the easy ways out, but to remain in the space she was in by God’s will.
We must learn obedience from the One who was obedient to death: Where “He seems obscure or frightening, where He is not doing what we expected Him to do, where He is most absent. (…) If faith does not work here, it will not work at all.”
Widowhood was also an opportunity to discover that she could do something with her suffering. It was what she calls “the lesson of the cross”: Jesus was willing to endure all that human iniquity could devise and throw upon Him. Because He died, we are alive, and the cross offered us the opportunity to transform our suffering, and not to avoid it. The widow in Zarephath turned the handful of flour and the oil she had left into an offering for God. In the same way, we can turn loneliness into blessings, with God’s help.
From a human perspective, this gesture seemed as though it would hasten the death of the widow and her son, but God received this meagre gift and turned into enough food to last them throughout a whole famine. We should not draw closer to God trembling with fear at the thought of what He might ask of us, but understanding that with Him there is no loss we can suffer after which He will not abundantly give us far more than we have lost. Widowhood helped Elliot understand that our focus must not be on the loss, but on living out each experience as a gift God is capable of turning into something better than we can ever imagine.
In the end, her suffering (which she considers small on the scale of human suffering) taught her she must not have an agenda of her own. At every turn we can expect major changes, although it may not be a divorce or the death of one’s partner.
Elliot talks about the loneliness she still occasionally feels. When she realises that her grandchildren are thousands of miles away, meaning that she will miss out on precious moments of their childhoods, she feels it. She also recalls the case of a newlywed friend who was stunned to find that her husband had decided, without warning, to let her pay all the bills, considering himself a guest whose host could afford to pay for the room, board and basic needs.
There are many types of loneliness and the fact that we will meet it in one of its forms is inevitable. But this just means that we have been created for God, and that our hearts find complete rest in communion with Him alone. One day, the curtain separating us will fall and we will see His face—the most blessed experience of our planet’s history. Loneliness and failed dreams will be but a memory, and eternity will unfold before us. We will feel joy after loneliness, experiencing “what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.