How Can I Overcome Loneliness?

In my Sixth Form at school, there was one girl that stood out. Joy Lovely. While my friends were into scooters and beer, Joy was into Jesus – in a big way. She tried to convert me and my friends on numerous occasions. After I became a Christian at university I wrote and thanked Joy for her prayers.

Joy also played a role in the life of Terry Waite the hostage negotiator. As the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Envoy, Waite successfully negotiated the release of several hostages in Iran including John Coleman and Jean Waddell (the secretary to the Iranian Anglican Bishop) in 1980. Four years later he negotiated with Colonel Gaddafi for the release of British hostages held in Libya and again was successful. From 1985 Waite became involved in hostage negotiation in Lebanon, and secured the release of Lawrence Jenco and David Jacobsen. However, he was observed using an American military helicopter to travel between Cyprus and Lebanon. His appearance with Oliver North also meant that he became compromised when the Irangate scandal broke. Against advice, Waite felt a need to demonstrate his continuing trust in the other side.

He wanted to demonstrate his integrity as a negotiator. He arrived in Beirut on 12 January 1987 with the intention of negotiating with Islamic Jihad for the release of several hostages. On 20 January he agreed to meet with the captors and was promised safe conduct to visit the hostages. But the group broke trust and Waite was held in captivity for 1,763 days, the first four years in total solitary confinement. After nearly five years of captivity, he was released 17th November 1991. In his biography, Taken on Trust, Terry describes the experience of intense loneliness he encountered. When they led him into an empty cell deep underground, Waite said he knew his efforts had failed. “I knew I was no longer in a negotiation, but a hostage. I knew those cells were tiled because they were easier to clean after knocking people around,” While alone in his cell, chained to a wall nearly 24 hours a day, Waite focused on three attitudes: no regrets about his life so far, no self-pity about his predicament, and no over-sentimentality. He slept on the floor and often beaten with canes. It was years before tapping on the wall revealed that Terry Anderson and several other hostages were housed next door. During those five years, he received just one piece of mail. It was a postcard of Bedford Jail where John Bunyan had once been imprisoned.

Terry wrote an imaginary letter to John Bunyan,

“I shall never forget the day when you impinged on my life in rather a dramatic fashion. I was being kept in strict solitary confinement and had been totally alone for two or three years. I was not allowed to have any news whatsoever of the outside world nor did I have anything to read. The only words I uttered to another human being were to my guard when he brought me a simple meal three times a day. One day he came into my cell and handed me something. I couldn’t see what it was as whenever he entered I had to wear a blindfold. After he had left I saw he had given me a postcard on which was written a simple message of encouragement from someone I didn’t know. I turned the card over and it showed you in prison, sitting at a desk with a pen in your hand gazing out across the city of Bedford. I remember thinking: “Bunyan, you’re a lucky fellow. You have a pen and paper; you have your own clothes and you can see outside your cell.” All these things were denied me.”

The postcard was addressed to Terry Waite, Hezbollah, Beirut, Lebanon. And had been sent by Joy Lovely. Never underestimate the power of a postcard. Mother Teresa said,

“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer. It’s the feeling of being uncared for, unwanted – of being deserted and alone…The spiritual poverty of the Western world is much greater than the physical poverty of our people. You in the West have millions of people who suffer terrible loneliness and emptiness.”

Can you be wealthy and lonely? Ask Howard Hughes. Can you be popular and lonely? Ask Michael Jackson. Can you be beautiful and lonely? Ask Marilyn Munro. You do not have to be alone to feel lonely. You can feel lonely in a marriage, lonely in a crowd, lonely in a club, and sadly, even lonely in a church. We all experience loneliness at one time or another.

What Causes Loneliness?

There are at least four causes for loneliness and four cures. Please turn with me to 2 Timothy 4 and you may also like to follow the sermon outline. Paul is in prison in Rome, probably for the second time. His future looks bleak. His first imprisonment was under house arrest living in a rented home (Acts 28:30). This time, Paul is languishing in a cold dungeon, chained like a common criminal. His friends are having a hard time finding out where he is being held. And Paul is lonely. Very lonely.

Four Causes of Loneliness

  1. 1.   Loneliness from Transitions of Life

2 Timothy is probably the last letter the apostle Paul wrote. And we find him in the final transition of life. Writing from prison, Paul asks Timothy to come and visit him. He knows his time is short and he is lonely. “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.” (2 Timothy 4:6). Growing older brings a series of changes, and any change can produce loneliness. Moving school can be lonely. Moving home can be lonely. Emigrating to a new country and encountering another culture can certainly be very lonely. Starting at university or military service can be lonely. A new job can be lonely. Redundancy and retiring can be lonely. Divorce or separation is very definitely lonely. Gradually losing your sight or your hearing or mobility can be isolating. The death of a loved one is very lonely. Any new experience we have to deal with can create loneliness. Transitions are hard, especially when they are irreversible or terminal.

That is why as a church we need to be especially sensitive to those who are moving into our community from another country to live or work or begin a university course. That is why our monthly breakfasts and lunches are so important. The first cause of loneliness – the transitions of life.

2. Loneliness from Separation
Being separated from friends or family can cause deep loneliness. Solitary Confinement, as Terry Waite endured, is a cruel form of punishment. Paul says to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me quickly.” (2 Timothy 4:9) In the next few verses, Paul mentions his best friends by name. None are with him, except Luke. Today, you can just pick up a phone and call someone. You can email them, Skype them, text them, instant message them. We think nothing of getting on a plane and travelling thousands of miles to meet a friend, attend a wedding, take a holiday or conclude a business deal. But in those days, Paul couldn’t do any of these. It took a long time and considerable uncertainty to travel anywhere. Paul is lonely because he is separated from his friends.

Twice in this passage, in 4:9 & 4:13, Paul asks Timothy to “Come,” and then in 4:21 he says, “Do your best to get here before winter.” Why? Because time was running out. “Timothy, I may not be around much longer. And I really want to see you. Please come and see me one last time.”  Think about it. Whom do you need to call? Whom do you need to write a letter of appreciation to? Do it now, while there’s still time.  That is why writing to our mission partners is so important to them. Charles Howie wrote to me this week from Viet Nam.

“I’m sure you have been praying for me.  Its quite hard work being a Christian without communication on a daily basis with others, but Paul’s letters have plenty to say…  However, I’m sure missionaries and others know this well, so no grumbling there.  I pray that what I do and how I do it will be some witness, however feeble. My health is okay, but I would be more positive about myself if I could sleep better.  The risk of too little sleep is depression, I don’t want to go there.”

Please write to Charles in Viet Nam, write to Ian and Suzanne in Uganda, write to Rosie in North Africa. Help relieve someone’s loneliness. Loneliness can because caused by the transitions of life and by separation. There’s a third cause mentioned here.

3. Loneliness from Opposition
Paul says, “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm.” (2 Timothy 4:14) In other words, “Not only am I getting old and sitting here alone in prison, but I’m also being persecuted.” We don’t know what Alexander had done to Paul. Maybe he slandered Paul’s name, or attacked his reputation. Maybe he was turning people against Paul. The Greek word for “harm” in this verse literally means to oppose or resist. And to be vigorously opposed creates a truly lonely feeling. It’s a lonely feeling to be misunderstood, to be embarrassed, to be humiliated. Type my name into Google and you’ll meet a few. Jesus said

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

You may be blessed when this happens but it doesn’t necessarily take away the loneliness. The temptation when this happens is to draw into your shell and shut the door. But doing so just makes us more lonely still. Three reasons for loneliness: Transitions. Separation. Opposition. There’s a fourth.

4. Loneliness from Rejection
This is the form of loneliness that causes us the most pain. It’s the loneliness of rejection. It’s when you feel betrayed or forsaken by those closest to you. Paul felt forsaken. He says of his trial before Nero, “At my first defence no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.” (2 Timothy 4:16) You can almost hear the pain in Paul’s voice: “When things got tough, everybody left me.” Nobody spoke up in his defence.

Rejection is one of the most difficult things for us to handle, whether a children in the school playground, a teenager at a party or spouse in a marriage. That is why divorce is so painful and why God hates it. Being abandoned and forsaken is as painful as bereavement – some of you have been, or are there, at the moment. God created us for relationship, for fellowship, for friendship. That is why we need to be loved and accepted to feel secure. Some people deal with loneliness by becoming workaholics. But that eventually takes its toll too. Others try materialism. They buy everything in sight. They think,  “If I can just improve the quality of my life, I’ll be happy.” But things don’t satisfy for long.

The fact is you cannot buy happiness. Some people have an extramarital affair.  Others turn to alcohol or drugs. Still others lose themselves in a fantasy world by reading novels, pornography, gambling or just watching TV. But these are poor substitutes and take us further and further from God’s will. Four reasons for loneliness: Transitions; Separation; Opposition; Rejection. How then can we overcome loneliness?

Four Ways to Combat Loneliness

How did Paul do to combat loneliness? Four ways that are just as appropriate today: utilize, minimize, recognize, and empathize.

1. Utilize your Time
“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” (2 Timothy 4:13).   The first way to combat loneliness is to utilize your time wisely. If life gives you a lemon, make lemonade. Make the best of your bad situation. Resist the temptation to do nothing. Loneliness has a tendency to paralyze if you just sit around and do nothing. Lonely people don’t take care of themselves. They don’t eat right, they don’t exercise, and they ignore their personal needs. Paul resisted that temptation. He refused to sit around and mope. He said, “If I’m going to be forced to spend some time in prison I can use this time constructively. If I can’t visit the churches I can still write to them.  I’m going to make the best of my situation. If I cannot be where the action is, I will create some action right here.” God can use loneliness for good. Paul’s letters might never have been written had he not been in prison. The churches Paul planted may have missed his pastoral oversight because he travelled so much and was in prison. But his pastoral care has blessed churches around the world throughout history. We have all benefited from his inspired prison letters. So, if you are lonely, utilize your time.

2. Minimize your Pain
The second way to deal with loneliness is to minimize the hurt. Play down the loneliness. Don’t exaggerate it and don’t rehearse it over and over: “I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely.” Don’t allow the loneliness to make you bitter, and don’t allow resentment to build up in your life. Resentment only makes you lonelier. Paul said, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.” (2 Timothy 4:16). Paul demonstrated that he forgave those who deserted him. He was free from bitterness. Resentment only locks us up in a self-imposed prison and drives other people away. Resentful people, who always complain or are cynical are not pleasant to be around.  Paul wanted to be a better person not a bitter person. How can you overcome loneliness? Utilize your time and minimize your hurt.

3. Recognize God’s Presence
Paul said, “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength.” (2 Timothy 4:17) When Paul was acutely lonely, God made his presence felt and gave Paul stamina. Where is God when you’re lonely? Right next to you.

Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18) God the Father says, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)  There’s no place on earth where God is not present so you’re never really alone. Prayer is a great comfort in lonely times. Talk to God and let him speak to you. When we are aware of lonely feelings it is a sign that it’s time for us to become better acquainted with God. If you want to overcome loneliness, like Paul, utilize your time, minimize your hurt and recognise God’s presence. And there is one more thing we can learn from Paul.

4. Empathize with Other People

“But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.” (2 Timothy 4:17).

Paul was lonely and near the end of his life. Yet he never forgot his life’s goal: to win people to Christ, build them in the faith and send them to do the same – to win, build, send.
His constant thoughts and prayers were with the young churches he had helped to plant. In the last few verses of this beautiful letter, Paul’s concerns are with the needs of others, especially the sick. He concludes his letter, “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you all.” (2 Timothy 4:22).

If you are feeling lonely this morning, instead of focusing inward on yourself, focus outward on other people. Look out for the needs of other people and God’s grace will fulfil you.

When Corrie ten Boom was a young woman in the Netherlands, she fell head over heals in love with a young man. But he broke off the relationship and married one of her good friends. Corrie was devastated. Nothing hurts more than being rejected and having someone else chosen over you. When Corrie got home, her father said something very wise.” Corrie, your love has been blocked, and he has married someone else. Now, there are two things you can do with a blocked love. You can dam it up inside and hold it all inside and it will eat you up – or you can re-channel it to something or someone else and can focus on other people’s needs. Corrie chose to do the latter, and her story of a selfless life living under Nazi captivity and imprisonment is told in her book, The Hiding Place.

Love is the antidote to loneliness. Instead of building walls, build bridges. Stop complaining, “God I’m so lonely,” and start praying, “God, help me be a friend to somebody today”. Instead of waiting to be loved, take the initiative.

Remember, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God knows what it’s like to be lonely. In his darkest hour, in the Garden of Gethsemane, while he prayed earnestly, his friends were all asleep. When the soldiers came to arrest him, his friends all deserted. When we was put on trial, his closest friend denied him. On the cross, when Jesus carried the sins of the world on the cross, even his Father turned his face away. Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) Yes, Jesus understands your loneliness.

Today we have examined four common causes of loneliness, found in the Apostle Paul’s life. Transitions, separation, opposition and rejection. We have discovered four practical steps to overcoming it. Utilize our time, minimize our hurt, recognise God’s presence and empathise with others. May Christ help you conquer your loneliness as you deepend your relationship with him and as you reach out in love to lonely people around you. Lets pray.

The title and some of the content of this sermon is adapted with thanks from Rick Warren’s God’s answers to Life’s Difficult Questions (Zondervan).