Living With Loneliness

Robert L. Gabhart

SEVERAL YEARS AGO A MAN put an ad in a Kansas newspaper. It contained only fifteen words, but it got amazing results. It said: "I will listen to you talk for 30 minutes without comment for $5." It sounds like a hoax, but it was legitimate. The person who put that ad in the paper realized that this a lonely world and saw a way not only to make some money, but to provide a service to people who had real needs. In fact, some people so needed to talk to someone else that they called long distance. After the ad ran for several days, the person was receiving 10-20 calls a day.

"None but the lonely heart can feel my anguish," the song says. Loneliness has been called "the most desolate word in all human language." Oddly enough, increased activity and a fast-paced life do little to solve the problem. Travel does not work; a lonely soul is not comforted by new surroundings. Many people in our accelerated society are immobilized by the bleak feelings of loneliness. It strikes those in every stage and circumstance of life: the single person following a broken romance; the inmate in prison with nothing to look forward to but the next day; the military serviceman thousands of miles from home; the widow who buried her life's mate and now must set the table for one; the teenager who stares disinterestedly into the TV set, attempting to escape the pain of a home pressured by drugs or alcohol or divorce; the divorced man or woman with little opportunity or no scriptural right to remarry.

But solitude is no new phenomenon. The apostle Paul knew penetrating loneliness. In 2 Corinthians, his most autobiographical writing, he enumerated personal experiences that throbbed with loneliness (11:24-28). The most eloquent of Paul's writings on the subject of loneliness were penned during his final days of life in his second letter to Timothy. From those words we can learn when loneliness comes, what it does to us, and how it can be controlled. Most of us, like Paul, have had some pretty desolate times. His words, maybe written by candlelight, can serve us well today in dealing with loneliness.

We are lonely when separated from cherished friends. Paul wrote, "Demos . . . has deserted me and gone . . . Cresens has gone . . . Titus to Dalmatia . . . Only Luke is with me . . Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus" (4:10-12). Later he added, "Erastus remained at Corinth; but Trophimus I left sick at Miletus" (verse 20). His closest companions were gone. Paul said, "I'm alone; there's no one around." and then pleaded, "Make every effort to come to me soon . . . come before winter" (verse 9,21). Except for Luke, those on whom he had depended for love and support were scattered. At that moment he needed his intimate friends. None were there to put their arm around him and say, "I care about you. Thanks for all you have done."

We are lonely at certain times of the year. So was Paul. Winter was on the way. The change of seasons could be felt in the dark, stony dungeon of the Mamertine Prison. Paul seemed to be saying, "I can't take the winter alone, Timothy!" Psychologists say we go through cyclical times in our lives. When a bad experience occurs, the next year on that date we subconsciously slump; our minds will not forget. The holiday seasons are tragically difficult times for many people. There is a perceptible rise in suicides.

Paul, however, did not die from loneliness. Loneliness does not have to be a totally wasted experience. Some beautiful things happened to Paul in his loneliness, as they can to us. Isolation makes us aware of the significance of other people. "Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service" (verse 11). Paul seemed to see John Mark now in a different light. In Acts 15 he had little respect for one whom he considered a deserter. But, in his final days, he saw Mark's value. Loneliness does that to you. In the emptiness of the hour you suddenly realize, "That person really is significant in the Lord's body; look at the good he is doing; I can gain strength from him." People who quickly write others off probably have never been lonely. The apostle may have never before appreciated Dr. Luke as he did in the dungeon.

Loneliness also forces us to turn our concerns over to God. That can save you when you are lonely -- when you are going under and there is nobody there. "But the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me . . . The Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen (verses 17-18).

Many lonely people tend to lick their wounds and drown themselves in self-pity, saying, "Poor me -- no one ever had it so bad." We have all been there. You will not be immune to loneliness in the future, just as you have not escaped it in the past. How, then, can we handle loneliness? Each of us must come to terms with the opportunity loneliness presents. It is the ideal occasion to say, "Lord, I've exhausted all my alternatives; now it's up to You. Make me the man or woman You had in mind all along, and I'll go on from here." He'll do just that.

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