When You're Lonely

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 14:18

Surely there’s no pain quite like the pain of loneliness. To feel that you’re all alone with no one to turn to – that’s a terrible feeling. But you’re not really . . . alone, that is.


All of us have felt the chill of loneliness.

I’m not speaking now of solitude, of merely being by ourselves. Often our times apart from others bring no lonely feelings with them. We enjoy opportunities to slow down, to reflect, to gather our scattered energies in quietness, when no one else is around. Many of us can be comfortably alone. On the other hand, crowds are no buffer against the pangs of real loneliness. Some of my loneliest moments have come when I was surrounded by people. I can remember times on a New York subway or while walking a busy street in Mexico City or shopping in a crowded Moscow department store when I had distinct feelings of loneliness. It isn’t always the physical absence of other human beings that makes us feel alone. As population booms and cities sprawl, we may develop more of a sense of companionship with each other, or we may become increasingly “the lonely crowd.”

Loneliness comes when it seems that we “don’t belong.” That’s what I felt in Mexico City and in Moscow. That’s what you may have felt in other strange places where peoples’ languages or customs may have been different from yours, where no one knew you, where you weren’t really involved in what was going on. A young boy goes to a new school and no one notices him. No one speaks to him. No one seems the least bit interested in knowing him. He feels lonely. A teenage girl arrives at a party where little groups of special friends have already gathered. They’re all facing inward, laughing, joking, enjoying one another’s company. No one reaches out toward her. No one wants to include her. She feels left out. You’ve known something like that, haven’t you? Sometimes you’re in groups where you feel very uncomfortable because you don’t seem to fit in. That’s loneliness.

Maybe you are committed to an unpopular cause. You cherish a vision which few others share. You believe a truth which has not yet found wide acceptance. And when you speak on that issue, when you stand for that principle, when you defend that friend, others disapprove. They don’t understand. They move away from you. They look on you coldly, with suspicion or disdain. That brings lonely feelings, doesn’t it?

But we can bear it to be outsiders, to be misunderstood or rejected by “in-groups” if we have a few real friends or even one special person who is accessible to us. “Whatever the world may think about me,” we say, “I’ve got my buddy . . . my sweetheart . . . my spouse . . . my child, perhaps . . . my father . . . my friend.” It’s when we don’t have persons like that or when we lose them or can’t reach them that loneliness becomes acute.

Here’s a three-year-old boy. He’s the first child, but now Mommy’s time seems all taken up with a new baby girl. He can’t seem to get his mother’s attention or enough of her affection. Just when he needs her, just when he wants to show her something, just when he’d like to run up to her for comfort, she’s feeding that new little one, taking care of her. It begins to seem to him that he doesn’t have his mommy any more, and he feels lonely.

There are people around us who crave a special friend, who want intensely to be married, who long for real intimacy, but who haven’t found what they are seeking. And there are also those who have known the warmth and security of a close relationship, but have lost it all through some betrayal, divorce, or bereavement.

There are lonely adolescents who are convinced there’s not a human being on earth who really understands them. We meet elderly folk in nursing homes who fear that no one really cares. Many men and women behind bars are persuaded that everyone who ever knew them has long since forgotten that they exist. Life is moving on like a great train pulling out of a station, but it’s leaving them behind. No one, no one seems to notice.

It’s a bitter thing to be lonely, really lonely. Some of you know that. The sparkle, the zest goes right out of life. You find yourself wanting to withdraw, to sleep, to escape perhaps by drinking or by drugs. But that doesn’t work. An AA leader said recently that “Alcoholics are the loneliest people in the world.” Sometimes we flee into mental illness because the world of fantasy, frightful though it may be, seems easier to live in than our lonely surroundings. Yes, and the most lonely of us are most likely to give up entirely and take our own lives.

Are people lonelier now than ever before? It almost seems so, doesn’t it? Whatever else the growth of technology, the world’s “coming of age” has brought, it hasn’t lessened loneliness. If anything, it has made the problem worse. In our mobile, rapidly changing society, many of the structures that used to provide togetherness and belonging are breaking down. In a culture that places so much emphasis on acquiring possessions and status, people seem to devote less time and energy now to building relationships. Think of this: almost one-fourth of our population here in the United States lives alone, and one out of every two marriages fails. Every time you walk down a busy street, you scan the faces of a succession of lonely people. You may have looked in a mirror today at one of the very loneliest.


What’s the cure, if there is one? People who have been really lonely know that solutions don’t come easily. They cringe at those who act as though this is a minor problem, as though all they need to do is “snap out of it” and “get out with people.” The bustle of more activity may not help at all. A frenzied round of socializing and joining may only make the pain more intense.

People need to exist for something, and even more, for someone. They need to have the achievement and contribution of their lives accepted and acknowledged. They need their place defined by their work, their gift. “Oh, so-and-so, he works at the Buick place . . . he sells insurance . . . she’s a nurse at the hospital.” But more than that, all of us need to be a someone that someone else cares about. That secures for us a place in the world. To have a work to do, a cause to serve, certainly helps. But nothing really overcomes loneliness except close ties, warm, strong relationships with other persons. We all need a companion in whom we can confide. We need a sweetheart, a spouse, a relative, a friend who understands us, to whom we are important. We need to know, if such persons are far away, of their continuing interest and sympathy, their thoughts and prayers.

“But that’s just the problem,” says someone. “How do lonely people find ties like that?” Some feel that they’ve never known anything of the kind. They fear that warm human bonds are not for them. They’ve been hurt too often; they see no way out of their prison of loneliness. They’re waiting for others to reach out to them, others to show them love, but it doesn’t seem to happen. They know they need other people, but where is anyone who genuinely cares?

And even those who have once warmed their hands at a fireside of caring hearts don’t finally escape loneliness. Our deep relationships, just because they are temporary, can make us vulnerable to devastating grief. The more we have loved and been loved, the more poignantly we feel the loss of a dear one.

There is something that we can do when we’re lonely. We can realize how common the problem is, what a world of yearning hearts we live in. And whoever we are, wherever we are, we can probably reach out and touch at least one other lonely life. Maybe it’s a letter or a long distance phone call. We can ease our own struggle in that way but we can’t take the loneliness away. Sometimes lonely people make their discomfort worse by blaming themselves for the problem, hating themselves because they can’t alter their feelings by sheer will power. But we can’t banish loneliness entirely by anything we do, nor will time necessarily heal it. The fact is, friends, that something of loneliness will still be there, even if you’re happily married, even if you have good friends, even if there are those who deeply care about you. Let’s face it – there’s a sense in which we are incurably lonely people.


But that sad observation has some good news hidden away in it. The fact that our best human relationships don’t finally dispel loneliness can point us beyond ourselves. There is a relationship with God, friends, in which our deepest needs are met. In knowing him, we truly belong. In his love, we are understood and valued – fully and forever. George MacDonald’s little poem makes good sense,

When with all the loved around thee,

Still thy heart says, “I am lonely.”

It is well: the truth has found thee,

Rest is with the Father only.

Listen to this word of Jesus Christ from the Gospel according to John, chapter 14, verse 18: “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” Remember how it was with Jesus’ disciples? They were together in their familiar group. They had each other. And yet they were dismayed at the loneliness that seemed to lie ahead. Jesus told them that he was going away. The best friend they’d ever had was about to leave them. They were facing what seemed like orphanhood, bereavement, heartbreaking loss.

But here on the last night before he was crucified, he said, “I will not leave you comfortless, orphaned, desolate.” There are depths of loneliness in us which only he can reach. We have struggles which none but he can fully understand. And more, there are some crises which each of us must face alone, in which no human companions can be there for support. Supreme among those is death. But wonder of wonders, this Jesus, now risen from the dead, offers to be with us unfailingly. “Let not your heart be troubled . . . Lo, I am with you all the days, even to the end of the age.” He is there even in the valley of the shadow.

Yet he will not force himself upon us. We can shut the door of our loneliness against him. We can refuse his proffered friendship. We can say in one poet’s bitter words, “I want no Jesus Christ to think he ever died for me.” We can put him off as we sometimes do others, saying, “I don’t need you. I can make it alone.”

Sadly, we don’t always want to relinquish our loneliness. A recent writer on the subject comments that, “Too many are ambivalent about the spaces between us. We want independence and a faithful lover. We want the support of a family but not its demands; we want a community but we don’t want to conform to its codes.” We want companionship, we want comfort, all of us. But we don’t want to give up our right to ourselves.

How does the presence of Jesus become real for us? Listen:

They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.

John 14:21, nrsv

The cure for loneliness is in commitment to him. It’s when we cherish his word and will that we know his nearness.

His gracious companionship is held out to you today in the gospel. Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20, rsv). It’s a marvelous offer, friends. He will banish our loneliness if we deeply want him to. Will you welcome him today? He’s standing at the threshold of your life, offering the joy of his presence, inviting you to a transforming friendship. The question is: Do we really want him with us? Are we willing to open the gates to this Lord of all life and let him make us loving, caring, happy persons? Will we follow him in the fellowship of his forgiven people? Wherever we are right now, if we will respond to his call, he will meet us. And then, whatever we may face, we have his sure promise to lean on: “I will not leave you desolate.”