Loneliness –It's an Epidemic
Over fifty years ago, Harry Nilsson wrote and recorded a song called, "One". The song was known for its opening line, "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do."
Now, fifty years later, "one" is a major societal issue. So widespread is the problem of loneliness that the UK government in 2018 appointed a Loneliness Minister, named Tracey Crouch, to help combat the country’s chronic loneliness problem. This was the first Minister ever appointed by a government to address the problem of loneliness.
In the U.S., loneliness has been labeled an epidemic worthy of a public health intervention. A survey of 20,000 Americans revealed that young adults ages 18 to 22 are the loneliest generation of all.
But loneliness doesn't just affect the younger population either. Data from The Canadian Census shows that 24.6% of seniors aged 65 and above, now live alone with no family or friends. Socially isolated seniors are also more at risk of negative health behaviours including drinking, smoking, being sedentary, not eating well, having a higher likelihood of falls, and have a four-to-five times greater risk of hospitalization.
But you might be thinking, "How could anyone be so lonely in such a connected world like ours?" We have emails, posts, tweets, likes, comments and pictures that keep us constantly plugged into modern life and with each other. Surely these things can prevent loneliness.
But a rigorous study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that the more people use social media, the less healthy they are and the less satisfied with their lives. They discovered that using Facebook was tightly linked to compromised social, physical and psychological health. And, in another study they found that social media increased feelings of isolation.
In a widely publicized University of Pennsylvania study, they found that students who limited their use of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to 30 minutes a day for three weeks had significant reductions in loneliness and depression as compared to a control group that made no changes to their social media diet.
But getting people to disconnect from "social" media for any length of time is not as easy. In Japan, for instance, the government estimates that 1.15 million people who use the internet and social media heavily, have withdrawn from society. But Saitō Tamaki, a leading expert on this matter, suggests that the figure is larger and may eventually rise to above 10 million. These people are known as hikikomori. It is a Japanese word describing a condition that mainly affects adolescents or young adults who live isolated from the world, cloistered within their parents’ homes, locked in their bedrooms or apartments for days, months, or even years on end, and refusing to communicate even with their family. And while they are completely ingrained in a culture of social media, they only venture outside their bedrooms or apartments to deal with their most imperative bodily needs.
Loneliness is not without its hazards to our health either. Loneliness has been linked to an array of health problems, including dementia, depression, anxiety, self-harm, heart conditions and substance abuse. For instance, 44% of seniors living in residential care in Canada have been diagnosed with depression or show symptoms of depression without diagnosis, and men over the age of 80 have among the highest suicide rate of all age groups.
None of us are strangers to loneliness at some point in our lives. We all know the feeling – you smile, but you want to cry, you talk, but you want to be quiet. And being in a crowd doesn't help either as you can still be overcome with intense feelings of loneliness. Some of the funniest people on the outside are the saddest people on the inside. Countless numbers of comedians who have made their audiences laugh have ended up taking their own lives because of loneliness and depression.
It's important to point out that aloneness is not the same as loneliness. Being alone can provide us with moments of solitude and reflection. Jesus often went out to pray and to be alone. Most of us appreciate periods of time where we can be alone. Aloneness can provide us with opportunities for restoration and reflection, while loneliness can drain us and be destructive.
In order for the church to understand how best to treat the problem of loneliness, we need to understand what causes loneliness and how we can we best address it. This blog is not intended to be a through treatment of this subject but rather to give us a general overview of the problem and to help us to address this issue.
1. Sin Can Make Us Lonely.
The church can often define loneliness in physical or emotional terms. We have been conditioned to think that loneliness is just the absence of people, whether physically or emotionally. So, we think to ourselves, ‘What we need to do to fix our problem of loneliness is to have more people in our lives.’ Instead, the loneliness we feel can be a spiritual alienation from God. When our sin estranges us from the relationship God wants to have with all of us, we can feel incredibly lonely and isolated. All the friends in the world cannot help with this type of loneliness.
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal addressed the subject of spiritual alienation in Pensées:
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.
Let me further explain this void of which Pascal speaks. Loneliness was not part of God’s plan for human beings. When God created Eve, Adam felt that his loneliness was gone. Horizontally, Adam had found a companion. Vertically, Adam and Eve walked in fellowship with God every day in the garden. So, they were not lonely. They were walking in communion with their Creator and each other.
But Adam and Eve soon discovered that having a suitable companion for each other did little to cure the loneliness that engulfed them when they sinned against God. After Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God in the garden because they were afraid. Their isolation and loneliness from God were extremely palpable.
Once happy and free to enjoy God and his creation, they now found themselves afraid and separated from God because of their sinful disobedience. As Pascal said, "there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace." Sin had marred that original happy state. Consequently, they inherited one of the many consequences of sin – the pain of loneliness that everyone feels when their sin has alienated them from God.
Sometimes we call ‘loneliness’ what God’s Word calls a longing for unhindered intimacy with him. And we start thinking that other people or things can provide us what only God can provide.
When King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, his sin resulted in a painful sense of loneliness and isolation from God. Listen to what David prayed for afterwards, "Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me (Psalm 51:11)." David realized that the worst kind of loneliness a person could experience was a loneliness that came from being alienated from God. The last thing David wanted was to feel banished from God's presence.
Is your sin causing you to feel lonely and separated from God? Then confess your sin to God. David said in Psalm 32:1-3, "Happy is the person whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. Happy is the person whom the Lord does not consider guilty and in whom there is nothing false." Don't let your sin keep you from the relationship God wants to have with you. The only way to have that happiness restored is to accept God's offer of forgiveness through his Son Jesus Christ.
2. Social Isolation Can Make Us Lonely.
In addition to our sin, it's no secret that social isolation can make us feel lonely. We were not created to live in isolation from each other. Mother Teresa, who worked among the poor in India once said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” Anyone, who has ever experienced loneliness and the feeling of being unloved knows this reality better than anyone.
Sometimes we find ourselves feeling isolated and unloved due to no fault of our own. People can be cruel, selfish, and unloving – masters of dishing out cold shoulders, insults and put downs. We see this nastiness all around us today in the cancel culture we are living in.
David knew all about being unloved and isolated. He said, "Insults have broken my heart and left me weak. I looked for sympathy, but there was none; I found no one to comfort me (Psalm 69:20)." In another instance David wrote, "I am like an owl in the desert, like a little owl in a far-off wilderness. I lie awake, lonely as a solitary bird on the roof (Psalm 102:6-7)." When we are on the receiving end of being spurned like David, a prevailing cloud of loneliness can soon settle in upon us.
What are we to do when we find ourselves in situations like this? David knew that even when all others might forsake him, his companionship with God was crucial. That's why he continued and said, "I cry to you, O Lord; I say, "You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living (Psalm 142:5)." David knew if he had God as his refuge, all others could forsake him, and he would be fine.
The Apostle Paul discovered this truth as well. He told Timothy, "The first time I was brought before the judge, no one came with me. Everyone abandoned me. May it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me and gave me strength" (2 Tim. 4:16-17). Like the Apostle Paul, we need to remind ourselves that the Lord will stand beside us even when all others forsake us.
But what if you are not the victim of loneliness, but instead the perpetrator of insults and the doer of put downs. What if you are the cocky self-assured type that always sees yourself better than others? What would God say to you? How can you be a part of the solution to other people's loneliness and isolation? What fears and insecurities are you hiding from in the prison of your own loneliness? What causes you to appear so self-assured on the surface, but so empty on the inside that you must put others down driving them into despair and loneliness? What help can you be to others, if you need help yourself?
The church must help those who are lonely. They must reach out in creative ways to bring real meaningful friendship to those suffering from loneliness. But it must also address those in the church that gossip and isolate others with their cruel tongues of destruction. Too many people have been hurt by other Christians. David said, "It was not an enemy insulting me. I could stand that. It was not someone who hated me. I could hide from him. But it is you, a person like me, my companion and good friend. We had a good friendship and walked together to God’s Temple" (Psalm 55:12-14).
3. Tragedies Can Make Us Lonely, But They Can Help Us to See God in a New Light
Sometimes, due to no fault of our own, a tragedy strikes. It is difficult to comprehend that a God who is both omnipotent and benevolent could allow his people to endure such agony. It's at this point that many a Christian can feel alone in this world even when their friends are all around them.
Consider Job. We cannot explain Job’s suffering in terms of some immaturity or inadequacy in his faith. In fact, after reading Job chapter 31, it is hard to imagine what Job could have done more to love God and neighbor. Nowhere in the book is it suggested that God allows the tragedy that occurs in chapters 1–2 to give Job some virtue or moral quality that he is lacking, even though Job's friends accused him of lacking these very things.
Rather, Job's loss and bewilderment become an avenue by which God revealed himself to him more than he ever could when he was at ease (see Job 29 for a list of God's blessings upon Job). The same is true for all of us. When God puts us into a position where we are suffering and the pangs of loneliness are overwhelming, we must hold onto our relationship with God if we are to see him more fully. Job’s amazed cry at the end of his suffering, “Now my eyes see you,” becomes our own in the midst of tragic and lonely circumstances.
The book of Job ends with Job worshipfully confessing that he has gained a whole new vision of God (42:5), a vision so great that all his previous knowledge of God is like unreliable second-hand information by comparison. Since Job is already exemplary in piety (1:8), this is quite a statement! What new insight does Job get at the end of the book? Job wholeheartedly submits to God’s particular way of ruling over creation. He is entirely reconciled to a world in which children sometimes die, and the best kind of lives are sometimes the most miserable. As he withdraws his complaint of injustice (cf. 40:7), he does so because he sees God in a whole new way.
C. S. Lewis, in imagining the lead demon, Screwtape, tells the demonic underling, Wormwood, "Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will (God's will), looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys." Job affirms such a stance when he said, "Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him." (Job 13:15)
We mustn't let our suffering and loneliness obstruct our understanding of God or impede our obedience and service to him. Elisabeth Elliot was a young missionary in Ecuador when members of a violent Amazonian tribe savagely speared her husband Jim and his four colleagues. Incredibly, prayerfully, Elisabeth took her toddler daughter, snakebite kit, Bible, and journal . . . and lived in the jungle with the Stone-Age people who killed her husband. Compelled by her friendship and forgiveness, many came to faith in Jesus. It must have been difficult for Elizabeth to live without the companionship of her husband. Elisabeth once said, "Loneliness comes over us sometimes as a sudden tide. It is one of the terms of our humanness, and, in a sense, therefore, incurable. Yet I have found peace in my loneliest times not only through acceptance of the situation, but through making it an offering to God, who can transfigure it into something for the good of others."
4. Helping Others Can Cure Our Loneliness
Elisabeth Elliot was right. We need to make our loneliness an offering to God. When you feel lonely, it is really easy to just sit, to sulk and to get sour. Loneliness tends to paralyze us.
Many Christians are suffering in loneliness because they are sitting instead of serving, being selfish rather than selfless, being recluses instead of rescuers and being retreaters instead of responders. But I want to challenge you. Don’t fall into that cycle. Instead, look for creative ways to break the cycle and get outside of yourself and to find ways to serve others. If you will just open your eyes to that, you will suddenly find that there are all kinds of opportunities around you where you can serve others and in doing so you will get out of the pit of loneliness.
The church must also help people to feel needed. It must find ways to enlist others in service to God. One of the worst feelings contributing to loneliness in the church is when people remember what they used to do for God and now find themselves marginalized for no good reason. Maybe the church thinks they are too old and not hip enough. Maybe the church thinks they went through a difficult time and they need to be shelved for a while. Or they perceive the person's troubles as a lack of God's blessing upon their lives – therefore they dare not use them in the church.
David spoke about what this type of loneliness felt like when He said, "My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks amid the sound of a great celebration!" (Psalm 42:4-5). Please, church, we must do all we can to help people to feel needed in the Kingdom of God.
It won't be easy to conquer loneliness. But it can be done. We can start by praying this prayer of Augustine's:
God of our life, there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down; when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies grey and threatening; when our lives have no music in them, and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage. Flood the path with light, run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; tune our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so, quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life, to Your honour and glory.
 Hannah Schulze, Promoting Public Health, "Loneliness: An Epidemic?", Blog, Harvard University, http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/loneliness-an-epidemic/  Cigna. ‘Research Puts Spotlight on the Impact of Loneliness in the U.S. and Potential Root Cause.’ Accessed October 14, 2020. Available at: https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/.  "Living arrangements of seniors", Stats Canada, https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/as-sa/98-312-x/98-312-x2011003_4-eng.cfm, July 23, 2018.  N.R. Nicholson, A Review of Social Isolation: An Important but Underassessed Condition in Older Adults. Journal of Primary Prevention. 33 (2-3), 137-152, (2012).  Susan Pinker, "Does Facebook Make Us Unhappy and Unhealthy?" The Wall Street Journal (5-25-17).  Ibid.  University of Pennsylvania. "Social media use increases depression and loneliness, study finds." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181108164316.htm (accessed October 14, 2020).  Japan’s “Hikikomori” Population Could Top 10 Million, https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-topics/c05008/japan’s-hikikomori-population-could-top-10-million.html, September 17, 2019.  Frontiers in Psychology, Internet Addiction, Hikikomori Syndrome, and the Prodromal Phase of Psychosis, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4776119/, March 3, 2016.  Ibid.  Dr. Holt-Lundstad speaking at the 126 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, You Tube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JP_cUmaA1O0&list=PLRAI_WnbL7Z3k-mmfjWk6Yn3b46JzbwkK&index=2&t=0s  Jamie Ducharme, "COVID-19 Is Making America's Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse", https://time.com/5833681/loneliness-covid-19/, Time, May 8, 2020.  Canadian Institute for Health Information. (2010). Depression Among Seniors in Residential Care: Analysis in Brief. (July 2014).  Public Health Agency of Canada. (2010). The Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada 2010: Growing Older – Adding Life to Years, July 2014.  Blaise Pascal, Pensées, VII(425), https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/2746/where-does-the-concept-of-a-god-shaped-hole-originate/, accessed October 20, 2020.  C. S. Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper One, 2020), 208.  Elizabeth Elliot, Loneliness: It Can Be a Wilderness, It Can Be a Pathway to God, Oliver Nelson Books, 1988.  Augustine, Works and Biography