Loneliness and the Holidays

Loneliness and the Holidays

We all feel alone at certain times. It’s common to human experience. Even if we aren’t alone, we feel it. And when we feel alone, we run to the wrong things, things that destroy us. What is it for you? Is it the chemical version? The relational version? The internet version? Or some other version? Do you see how it’s ruling you? How it dominates you, even threatens to destroy you? We need to run to Jesus. How do you do that? Next time you feel alone, instead try praying, try your Bible, try worship, try fellowship with other believers. God hasn’t given up on you; don’t give up on him.

As you likely know, the holidays, which are a time of joy, feel like a curse for so many—because during a time of celebration, many people are never more aware of feeling alone. Whether from memories of lost love ones, regrets of things that have happened, feelings of abandonment—those or many other things—depression spikes, loneliness hits, and sadness reigns instead of joy. Have you experienced lonely seasons among the crowd? Have you found yourself there, hoping that maybe showing up at church will help? Truth is, even if you’re not suffering holiday depression—whatever time of year you’re reading this piece, you and I can understand and feel the loneliness. Pretty much everyone feels alone at some point, because being alone and feeling lonely are two different things. Loneliness is a subjective feeling, so it can happen even if you’re not socially isolated. In fact, often people are most lonely when they’re anonymous among so many people. New York is one of the loneliest cities in the world—all 11 million people of it.

But the irony of being connected but alone isn’t isolated to big cities. Despite internet connectivity—Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and 15 new startups that we haven’t even heard of yet—we’re connected like never before and yet more isolated than ever. We can reconnect with high school classmates, but we feel less known and connected with those who live across the hall. And the worst can be when you’re in a relationship, but that person’s not really with you—loneliness in marriage, loneliness in family, a college student out on your own, with roommates but not really known, a mom or dad home dealing with young kids. Here are the news headlines, sampled from a Google search: “Loneliness is a modern-day epidemic.” “Loneliness is a threat to public health.” “Widespread loneliness is killing people, and we need to talk about it.” According to one BYU researcher, Julianne Hold-Lunstad, the negative impact of loneliness on our health is the equivalent of 15 cigarettes per day.

In the end, we all feel a need for someone to really be with us, and in the Bible Matthew 1 works with the text of Isaiah 7 to remind us that in Jesus we have exactly that.

Way back in the year 734 AD, Ahaz, the king of the land of Judah, was in a terrible spot. He was diplomatically and militarily alone. His land had been invaded by a coalition of nations that included the kingdom of Israel up to the north and most all of modern-day Lebanon and Syria. In other words, he was facing an enemy about 40 times his size and power. It wasn’t a fair fight. And that enemy coalition had conquered pretty much his entire land and had Jerusalem, the capital city, under siege. They intended to conquer the last bit of Judah, forcibly annex it to their coalition, kill Ahaz, and install a puppet king in his place. Ahaz’s options were few—alone, surrounded by an enemy army that would settle for nothing less than destroying him.

In that situation, God sent the prophet Isaiah to king Ahaz and said, “Trust me, and I will deliver you.” I know it looks like you’re alone, but you’re not. I will save you. But you have to trust me, not anything else. And Isaiah was about to get married, in fact, but his wife was still a virgin. And Isaiah said to the king, “Look, by the time I get married, and my new wife has a child, and that child grows up to be a young adult (which to them was probably more like a teenager), God will have destroyed this whole coalition that is threatening you. The name of the child will be Immanuel—God with us—because God will be with us in this terrible, threatening situation. God will be with us to deliver us from peril.”

1 In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it. 2 When the house of David was told, “Syria is in league with Ephraim,” the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. 3 And the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. 4 And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. 5 Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, 6 “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,” 7 thus says the Lord God: “ ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. 8 For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. 9 And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.’ ” 10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. – Isaiah 7:1–16 (ESV)

But Ahaz didn’t trust in God with him. The prophet warned him to stand firm in faith, but Ahaz decided that another, more visible answer, was far superior to trusting God. Way off to the north and east, on the other side of that huge coalition, was a mighty empire, called the nation of Assyria. And 2 Kings 16 tells us that Ahaz decided that trusting the emperor of Assyria was a safer bet than trusting the God of Isaiah. He sent a message to that emperor saying, “You come save me from these people who want to destroy me.” Ahaz’s answer to being diplomatically and militarily alone was to call for the king of Assyria, not to trust God. He preferred the visible answer of a human military power, not the invisible trust that God would be with him. And before we’re too hard on him, how well does the invisible hold us?

Well, the sad end of that story is that Ahaz’s call was answered. The king of Assyria did come and destroy that attacking coalition. But he also subjugated Judah. The king that Ahaz called for to end his loneliness ended up ruling him. And, a couple decades later, when Judah rebelled, that same nation of Assyria ended up destroying the entire nation of Judah except Jerusalem itself. Ahaz ran to the visible answer, the king of Assyria, and that answer ended up ruling him and then destroying his land.

And then we realize that we’re just like Ahaz. When we’re lonely, we run to the wrong things. And those things then rule us and eventually even destroy us. There’s the chemical version, where we run to something because we’re feeling lonely again, or a failure, or don’t know how to relate well. That drink seems to save us at first. It loosens us up, or it dulls the pain. It gives the buzz. But before long it starts to rule us—we need it, and we no longer have control. And eventually it doesn’t just rule us, it destroys us.  Or there’s the relational version, where we run to that person that we think will meet all our needs, will fix all our loneliness, will make us feel loved and accepted and connected and secure. But he or she ends up ruling us, controlling and distorting us, and the relationship that we hoped would bring fulfillment brings only toxicity. Or there’s the internet version. Lonely singles run to the dark places of the internet, because for just a moment those videos or pictures give the feeling of intimacy, even if it’s false. And lonely spouses run to the same places, or to the message boards that make it seem like someone will listen to us and accept us.

So, what do you run to? After four years of management consulting and 70-hour weeks, completely burned out, I took a two-month leave of absence and spent the first month of it in California with only a rental car and a plane ticket back a month later. I woke up each morning and followed my nose until I found the day’s fun. That meant is I spent almost a whole month alone. There were whole days where the only person I talked to was the grocery store clerk or the campground attendant. And for me the introvert, of course, it was glorious. But when you spend a month alone, you learn what you obsess about really quickly.

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