Today we started a new series at Gateway Church in Austin called Home Alone.
All of us feel lonely at times, sometimes even in a crowd or at home with our families. Other times we feel lonely because we’re new to an area, or just don’t feel like anyone really knows us. God sees the lonely, and He cares. God cares about our relationships and helps us experience a community that can be healthy and healing.
Work through the following questions and scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.
Message Notes from John Burke:
Most all of us have had experiences where we felt lonely. Think back: Maybe it was the first day at a new school, being called 4-eyes on the playground, as sides were chosen for kickball, at work when you made a creative suggestion and people laughed, when you came home to the TV and a hearty microwave meal. Or maybe even worse, when you come home to a spouse and you feel distant and alone. Ironically, the sting of loneliness hurts most in a crowd or among friends. We’ve all felt lonely.
Complaints of loneliness have reached epidemic proportions in our society. The number one complaint that psychologists and psychiatrists hear is the complaint of feeling lonely. Harvard reports that “the heightened risk of mortality from loneliness equals that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.”
It’s not healthy to feel lonely.
In 2017, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called loneliness a public-health “epidemic.” The UK appointed a “minister for loneliness” a year later. A national 2019 survey led by health insurer Cigna found that 61 percent of Americans report feeling lonely. Covid has pushed it up even farther with social distancing, sheltering in place, isolating ourselves.
But what is loneliness? And why is it so destructive to our health, and what’s the cure?
Henry Nouwen says the fear of loneliness, at the root, is a deep-seated suspicion that there’s no one who really cares. There’s no one who really cares and will love me unconditionally. No place to go to be vulnerable and connect as me–who I really am–without being hurt or used. That’s the fear that underlies our terror of loneliness. And the fear gets reinforced every day: through little rejections, sarcastic comments, gossip, flippant remarks, a cold shoulder – all that subtly say “no one cares. Everyone’s out for self-preservation. Guard yourself.” And so, ironically, our fear of being lonely drives us deeper into loneliness.
Face Loneliness Head On
But God wants us to learn to face our fear of loneliness, but not alone, with God. Because when we don’t face it, it causes problems. In our loneliness is we seek out cheap connections—pseudo intimacy. We surf for pornography, we shop to feel good, we have a high-charged, short-lived fling, we seek out Suds-buddies, we numb the pain with drink or drugs, or we distract ourselves (play Call of Duty all night, binge on Netflix–anything to keep us from feeling alone). And yet, the only way past loneliness is to learn to be alone.
See, it’s counter-intuitive, but the secret to relieving our loneliness is not found in being together, but in first learning to be alone. Until we learn to be alone with ourselves and God, our relationships quickly become needy and greedy, manipulative and clingy, exploitative or parasitic. When we are not spiritually full people with something to give, but empty people needing to take, we approach each other as people we can use for the fulfillment of our often hidden needs. See, we want community—we want people around us who will relieve our fear of being hurt or used—who will love us for who we are. And we think if we can find these, we won’t feel lonely. Actually it’s backwards – these things come as a result of learning to be alone and secure with God. When we learn to Be Quiet and alone with God – then we can find fullness to connect with others, to know and be known, give and serve and love in a mutually fulfilling way.
“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The LORD Almighty is with us. Psalm 46:10-11
You’re never alone! God is with you, and sees you, knows you, but you must Be still, and know God. That is the answer to our loneliness—to realize that God is with you—you may feel lonely, but you are NEVER ALONE! God wants you to realize that—and turn to Him in your loneliness, so you find a security and comfort that no one can take from you. Do you realize how many times God reassures you He is with you—you’re Never Alone? Let me show you a sample across the Bible.
God Invites Us to Be Alone with HIm
To Abraham and Sarah God said, I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go…. Genesis 28:15.
And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses. Joshua 3:7.
But it’s not just Leaders, or Special People, God says to all Israel “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God….” Isaiah 41:10.
When we face very real fears, God understands and cares, and reassures us:
Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, whom you now fear…declares the Lord, for I am with you and will save you. Jeremiah 42:11.
He understands what we go through. The first Christmas was foretold in the prophets as “God with us”
“the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14.
Immanuel means God is with us. Then 700 years later an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”(which means “God with us”).
And after his crucifixion, Jesus appears resurrected, he reassures all his followers: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:20.
God wants you to know He is with you, always! You’re Never Alone! Turn to Him.
Because God is the one who knows you intimately, loves you unconditionally, and will never leave you or forsake you. And when you’re hurting and alone, and no one else sees, God sees and he cares.
King David says, You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book. Psalm 56:8
God tells Isaiah “Go and tell Hezekiah, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears….’” Isaiah 38:5.
God is with you in your tears, your grief, your sorrows—why would he collect or record all this? Because He shares in our sorrows with us—He’s the God of compassion, and He rewards those who turn to Him for comfort.
In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them through all the years. Isaiah 63:9.
When you turn to God in your sadness, your sorrows, your fears or loneliness—it matters to God and God remembers and rewards. That’s why he says, Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. 1 Peter 5:7
No one cares more about you.
If you have put your trust in God, you are never alone, even when you feel lonely. But what we really need, is not just to hear this—because I’d guess many of you would say, “I know God is always with me.” But He says, NO – I want you to face your fear of being alone long enough to BE STILL – to be quiet, undistracted, unanxious, not talking, playing music, reading, or planning…be STILL and KNOW I am God. Because knowing this experientially can fill us with a wholeness and love and confidence that allows us to connect with others in ways that heal each other’s loneliness. But it’s not just agreeing with the words mentally. You must learn to be alone with God until you experientially KNOW God – the one who is higher than all the nations—the one who is with you always, the one who loves you unconditionally, the one who will surround and protect your soul like a fortress. Be still and know I’m God, He says.
This was the secret to Jesus whole way of life. Scripture says, But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Luke 5:16
Jesus made it a habit to spend time alone with God. It was first priority to Him. He needed it first, in order to then connect and minister to others effectively. In fact, Jesus began his years of ministry in the desert alone for 40 days. If JESUS needed 40 days alone in preparation, maybe you and I could benefit from a half day, or even 30 minutes alone with God, before we try to connect with others and be useful to humanity?
Henry Nouwen points out this progression that Jesus modeled that we can imitate to cure our loneliness, and be all God intended.
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them…He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all. Luke 6:12-19
Jesus began in solitude. In times alone with God—in this case all night. And you say, why all night? Because contrary to popular opinion that says “Well people back then had lots of time, I’m too busy to be alone with God” – Jesus was so busy with people clammering for him morning until bedtime he struggled to be alone with God. But it was a priority. So we see this progression of Time Alone with God, then moving toward people into community–connection with others. He called the 12 it says “To be with him”. And then together in community, they served and gave to meet the needs of a lonely, hurting world. From Solitude with God, to connection with people, then to serving and being useful to humanity. That’s the pattern we see, and that’s the pattern that moves us from Loneliness to a feeling of Never being Alone, into a deep connection with others, and the ability to become a Giver instead of a Taker. But to get there, you’ve first got to face your fear of being Alone. To learn to be alone with God.
So do a little exercise with me. I want you to imagine something. Imagine yourself home-alone. There are no sounds. Imagine turning off all music, all TV—no TV, imagine. I’ve done week-long TV/Netflix fasts to purge all the noise.
Until you remove all the noise, you can’t spiritually hear. Imagine Home alone. Can you just Be Quiet and Still before God and allow Him to search your soul and show you what’s going on inside? What happens when there’s no project to finish, no friend to call, no book to read, no television or spotify noise, and you are totally alone? (Let there be silence– imagine it-what would that be like?).
For most of us, it’s very, very hard to just BE Still before God. To be silent and alone with our thoughts. But it’s what we desperately need to cure loneliness. Solitude time with God allows us to face down what we fear, and sometimes we are not even aware of deep hidden fears that drive and direct us, but in that time alone we can find a Quiet Assurance—a Stillness that God is with us, you’re never alone. And in this time alone, we gain freedom from the forces that constantly mold and shape us, and we create Space and Quiet to be molded by God. It’s only in time alone where we can Be Still and learn to listen to the One who will direct our very thoughts to guide us, strengthen us, heal us, and grow us.
Why are we so afraid to be still before God?
Why do we tend to run from being alone with our thoughts and God? For one, when we get alone, we are forced to face our Insecurities.
So much of our frantic, frenetic, stressed-out, hurried lives are a direct result of our insecurities. And it’s these same insecurities that cause us to repel rather than attract the people we so desperately want to make deep connection with – our insecurities keep us feeling lonely and isolated, and they keep you from trying great things. But God wants to teach you how to be outrageously secure in His Love and what God says about you.
An Exercise in Solitude:
I remember the first time I tried to take an extended time alone with God. My original plan was to take books and journals and paper to write and plan as I prayed. But a much wiser spiritual friend urged me to take nothing-to just sit alone or walk and be with the Lord for 3 hours. So I did…At first, it drove me crazy. After an hour, I had worried twice about all the problems facing me, my mind had drifted into all kinds of anxious thoughts and fantasies, and finally, I ran out of worries to pray about, and then I started to feel it. I started to feel worthless. I started to feel like I was wasting precious time, and I really need to be doing something—I felt intense anxiety about being unproductive. And I wanted to go get to work, but I stayed with it 2 more hours. What I believe God started to reveal to me was a lie I had swallowed about how I had to produce to be of worth and value–I was only worth my accomplishments. He wanted me to Be Still (to quit having to produce and prove I’m lovable) to Be Still and just KNOW—experientially He’s God, He’s with me, I’m never alone. He loved me before I was born, He proved His love through His Son’s death for me, He’s adopted me as his deeply loved child. And that’s all unconditional—it’s what I’m frantically trying to prove I’m worth—But I don’t have to prove it—I have to live in it as true. And as these things are coming to me I asked God “why do I feel this way?” I see 2 hawks circling, and I start watching them, and I think “they’re hunting—being productive.” But as I watch, they dive and soar up and down—like they’re chasing each other—like playing chase. And it caught my attention, and I heard in my thoughts “they’re playing. It’s okay to just rest and play, John.” I realized God was addressing a false belief and helping me learn to live in the freedom that Jesus came to lead us into.
God wants the same for you, but you must take time to be alone and let God’s truth soak deep into your heart and displace all the anxious, insecure thoughts keep you afraid to risk connection with others or to be useful. It starts with time alone with God, so you can hear deep within, “You’re Never alone, I’m with you. I love you unconditionally. Be Still and Know I’m God.”
And if you face your fear to be alone with God, not only will you face down Insecrities,
Deep Buried Pain
You will begin to face Deep Buried Pain from wounds that never healed. Wounds from our childhood, wounds from things said or done to us. Lies we’ve believed that keep us isolated from others, protective, untrusting, afraid of vulnerability.
And so again, ironically, we desperately want to connect in deep, meaningful relationships–we want to be useful to the world, and yet our festering wounds of the past keep us walled off and afraid. But if you will get alone with God, over time, here’s what God promises:
“…listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes…for I am the LORD, who heals you.” Exodus 15:26.
But notice the condition “If you listen carefully…” Be still and KNOW–I’m the God who heals you. We must stop just acting and reacting out of the pain and blame of the past—God wants to free us from the past to live fully in the present. But you must take the time to be alone to listen carefully…to Be STILL KNOW God.
For some of you, you’re afraid to be alone with your thoughts because of Guilty Feelings. You have deep guilt that haunts you, and you’ve been running from it maybe for years. But here’s what you need to hear—God is not out to condemn you and keep you feeling guilty.
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned…. John 3:17-18
God wants to set you free of being plagued with feelings of guilt and condemnation. All our sins, all our wrongs, all our shortcomings were paid for on the Cross of Christ. God forgives you WHEN WE ASK HIM. But you won’t experience that freedom if you’re running and hiding from God or the truth.
For some of you, all of this has made little sense because you’re not even sure there’s a God—so you’re trying to find a category to file away or throw away the things I’ve been saying. But let me challenge you with something: What if your rejection of God—or your fear of facing the possibility that God exists is really the fear of facing yourself? Maybe all your doubts and objections are really a smokescreen to keep you from facing the truth – that you know intuitively you’ve done wrong. And now, you just don’t want to face God. Friends, if that’s you, welcome to humanity! It’s the reason we say at Gateway “No perfect people allowed.” Because we’re all screw ups, we’ve all turned from God’s will at times. God wants us to be honest, to admit it, and experience his forgiveness—but as long as we try to hide it from God, we will be afraid to be alone with God to find freedom.
David, whose sin was adultery and murder said this: For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my wrongdoing to the LORD”– and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalm 32:4-5.
If God can release David from the guilt of his sin, He can release you from yours. Why? Because He paid the price we owe to satisfy His own justice. It’s an amazing mystery, but because of what Jesus did, God will freely forgive those who don’t run and hide and pretend. God isn’t out to condemn you—don’t run and hide. Face your fear and get alone with God. And if you don’t believe in Him, tell Him that. He can handle it. Tell Him why you don’t. And ask Him if he’s really there, to help you overcome your disbelief and Know that He’s God. And don’t put any demand on Him, just stay open and keep seeking Him, and see what happens.
Maybe you’ve been in a tough season. Remember it may be winter, but spring is coming and God will lead you there! So I want to ask you to make a commitment to yourself. Decide if you will make it a priority to Be Alone with God this week. Find an hour or more put it in your calendar—go somewhere comfortable or beautiful. Maybe take a Bible, but nothing else. Ask God to search your thoughts, talk with him, but mostly, Be Still enough to Know the depth of love God has for you—”you’re Never Alone.”