You hear the wind move around to another quarter in the night. Soon rain is slapping against the windows, rattling the gutters, rushing through the downspouts. You try to sleep but a chill seems to have crept into the room—and into your heart. The old longing rises unbidden, the longing for someone who isn’t there. That thickness in the throat, dryness in the mouth, that restlessness—what is it? You lie perfectly still, listening to the rain, telling yourself that all is well, the bed is your own, comfortable, familiar, the place where you belong at this wee hour. You have been given much—home, work, friends. What is this weakness, this sickness, this storm in your soul?
Old anxieties crowd into memory—the friendships you might have cultivated but instead nipped in the bud by some lack of sensitivity, some coolly casual response to a timid overture, a joke or a caustic rejoinder, perhaps a thoughtless gesture of dismissal, a shrug—your own contributions to the distances others seem to keep.
“If you would have friends, you must show yourself friendly.” The whisper of self-pity says you tried. Maybe not hard enough, or maybe you came on too strong. The world’s a lonely place.
And what of the deep, answering friendship which seemed suddenly ruptured by you knew not what? For years you thought the understanding between you was complete. Now the trust you took as mutual appears to have been on your side only, and obviously misplaced. Lying there in the dark you rake through it again—was it I? What did I do or fail to do that ruined everything?
You’d hate to see a printout of the things you tell yourself at three o’clock in the morning—you the unholy, the unloving, the helpless. You the lonesome. All of the above, simply because you’re human.
George Herbert uses the metaphor of a pulley to describe how God, at creation, poured out on man all blessings but one. He gave strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure. Then He stopped, withholding one thing: rest.
” ‘For if I should,’ said He, ‘Bestow this jewell also on My creature, He would adore My gifts instead of Me, And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature: So both should losers be. Yet let him keep the rest, But keep them with repining restlessnesse; Let him be riche and wearie, that at least, If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse May tosse him to My breast’ ” (George Herbert, “The Pulley”).
If weariness may toss us to His breast, so may loneliness. In the Psalms we find the deepest, truest, most unadorned expressions of a man’s helpless humanness. The psalmist, tempted at times to blame God, knows there is no other refuge. To the Lord he lifts up his soul, puts his feelings on the line for the Lord to see, and expects help. “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted” (Psalm 25:16). His attitude is one of willingness to be shown the Lord’s ways—show me, teach me, forgive me, rescue me, my hope is in You. [See Derek Kidner on pp. 27–28.]
Loneliness is one of God’s pulleys. It is a call to prayer. This condition of my earthly existence from which I cannot extricate myself is the very ground of my prayer. Because I am lonely and afflicted, I have reason to hope for divine help. God is in the business of coming to the aid of those who know their need and ask Him to meet it.
What, exactly, do we expect Him to do when we pray a prayer like the psalmist’s, Free me from my anguish?
Answers to prayer rarely come in the forms we envision. Christians have a good deal more information now than the writer of the Psalms had at his disposal. The life of Jesus shows us very plainly that suffering is required for those who would enter into fellowship with God. Loneliness is only one of many forms of suffering, but one with which nearly all of us are familiar. It is the very raw material by means of which we are to be formed into the image of Christ. When we turn to the Lord as the psalmist did, asking for His grace and His deliverance, is it with a determination to move things in the direction we would choose or with a self-emptying willingness to be His instrument, a channel for the prayer of the Spirit who makes intercession for us in “those groanings which never find words”?
Can we find in our loneliness a chance to die to ourselves and live in company with the Lord Jesus? He came to His own and His own received Him not. He had nowhere to lay His head. When people seem callous to our troubles we may walk the road to Jerusalem with Him and witness the stolid incomprehension of His closest friends. He had just told them that He was to be mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed, whereupon they put to Him a breathtakingly irrelevant request: we’d like to sit one on your right and the other on your left.
In the hour of His great loneliness in the Garden of Gethsemane He asked not for understanding and sympathy but only that the disciples be there, stay awake, watch. He asks us, too, to enter into the mystery of suffering with Him.
How trivial our troubles are by comparison. We cannot put ourselves in the place of Jesus or the apostle Paul. Most of us are not called to great sacrifice. We are called to accept, that is, gladly to receive as from the Lord’s own hand, small ones. Even the minor pain of loneliness is the divinely measured and divinely proffered share in the sufferings of Christ that Peter speaks of. Don’t be bewildered by it as though it were something extraordinary, Peter says—it is a “cause for joy” (1 Peter 4:12–13). Take it, then, without fuss. Offer it up to God, and offer with it the sacrifice of thanksgiving.