Our heart-felt Love Demands are not without reason or justification. We know it, deep inside, even if nobody else agrees. “I’m so lonely!” screamed John Lennon, “Wanna die!” The torture in his heart erupts through his guitar. Loneliness foments and froths and wells deep inside until it erupts with an irrational force that alienates everyone nearby. When it subsides, it only burrows deeper.
Loneliness is emptiness. It is isolation. It is utterly dehumanizing. Solitary confinement is the torture that breaks the human spirit and melts the will of hardened criminals in prison. Loneliness screams to be healed, and it must be healed. Love Demands feel more like Love Necessities inside: human nature demands the loneliness must end. Empirical research provides abundant correlation between loneliness and a wide range of debilitating and fatal maladies. Its effects range from simple anxiety, addictions, chronic depression and suicide to alcoholism, sociopathic hostility and even physical sickness like heart disease and increased risk for cancer. But expensive research is hardly needed for most of us to know that loneliness is devastating. The following account is far too common:
Holy crap. I miss my family really badly. I am the oldest of 11 going on 12 kids, and they all live very far away. I am all by myself in NYC… if I really wanted to go home I could, though I know it sucks there. My boyfriend dumped me and I almost got fired at work today… I don’t know why I feel so bad when there really are people who care about me. But I do feel horribly lonely. I know I could get into another relationship, but I’m not even sure what I want anymore. I got married at 20, and am already alone again. – Wanda
How can she be so lonely in a crowded place like New York City? With 11 siblings, an intact family, many “people who care about me,” once married and still apparently attractive enough to easily “get into another relationship,” she still says, “But I do feel horribly lonely.” It’s a dark and malignant emptiness growing inside her. Whatever else could be said about her situation, one point is clear: loneliness is inside, not out there.
The Confusion Inside
The depressing sense of isolation – not a temporary thing from a business trip or death of a spouse – but this chronic, sometimes debilitating alienation is what Wanda describes. It’s an emptiness that settles bone-deep, a heavy weight carried from one relationship to another. This is Wanda’s life. Surely from among all the many diverse people she knows, someone could fill that emptiness, but not so! Each new relationship is so promising, but in fact it’s tainted by the terrible weight of loneliness she brings from her growing collection of unhappy relationships. Loneliness becomes a confusing collection of feelings and experiences so difficult to grasp! Loneliness always intensifies when a relationship fails, so it seems to be connected to other people. In fact the truly defining moments in our lives are tied to other people. The sudden death of a parent, or marriage, or the birth of a child, or divorce, or the loss of a child become the milestones of our lives as we look back. Our greatest changes come from the way someone else reached deep inside and touched us. It could be a high school teacher who believed in us, or an elementary teacher who embarrassed us in front of the class. It is a distinctive characteristic of the human psyche to be impervious to changes in the environment and the world of nature and surrounding circumstances, but still remain vulnerable and exposed to the personal touch of another human heart.
Does this mean Wanda is one seriously unlucky person? Why can’t she find someone to counter that growing repository of loneliness? She carries it with her because loneliness is undeniably our personal property and beyond the control of anyone else. The next man she marries—if there is one—will live with her deep sense of despair and he’ll be powerless to touch it unless Wanda grants permission. Our heart becomes the county trash dump for all the people we allow inside. After they leave, our hearts still hold their filthy garbage. No wonder Wanda is reluctant to let still more people come tromping inside! The Bible frames this same quandary in more concise terms:
The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9 (NASB95)
Yes, the heart grows very deceitful in time as become more cagey and crafty dealing with people. But no matter how skilled we become, the craftiness won’t keep our hearts from getting polluted with the deceit and sickness other people dumped there. Time is growing short for Wanda, since each new relationship burns her emotional energy and each failure grinds her hope away. Her quest is so useless! She roams and seeks for The One with enough love to fill this dark loneliness and clean up the mess, but no human can reach that deep inside her. Her “desperately sick” heart it is not beyond the reach of God, however. Answering the earlier question in verse 9, God says:
“I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind!” Jeremiah 17:10a (NASB95)
God offers relief for everyone like Wanda struggling with loneliness, and those who turn to Him can find the relief King David describes:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way. Psalms 139:23-24
Lonely With Company
Wanda is lonely, but not alone. “Loneliness is a condition of human life, an experience of being human,” writes a modern philosopher, which “is within life itself.” Thomas Wolfe framed it well:
The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people-not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness. – Thomas Wolfe.
Today “the huge unhappiness of the average soul” is drawing considerable attention from philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists as well as the medical community. Their research has proven invaluable, yet secular thinkers are still baffled by it: “the meaning of loneliness remains ‘an enigma,’” writes one researcher. Despite our vast scientific and medical resources, our technology and even the billions spent on entertainment, the problem of loneliness is growing in modern culture.
People are baffled by their loneliness, and so are academics and scholars. Solutions are few and insufficient. One popular approach attempts to control loneliness by labeling it Existential Loneliness and framing it as something “which enables the individual to sustain, extend, and deepen his humanity.” How strange to view loneliness as a strength! The hope is that enlightened reasoning will enable us to rise above such primitive fears and limitations, and “deal with questions about how to live authentically, how to confront one’s inner life, and how to approach the problem of death.” A popular school of psychology now uses this approach with “Terror Management Therapy” (TMT). Loneliness is our need “to become” or “to be” significant, they say:
The lonely individual seeks to grasp some meaning in the face of life’s impermanence…and the inevitability of death… Loneliness is not merely a normal part of human life, it is essential for human growth and authentic existence. By truly experiencing loneliness, the individual affirms his being and authenticity. When positively embraced and confronted, loneliness has a salutary role: the integration and deepening of self. Through loneliness, the individual “discovers life, who he is, what he really wants, the meaning of his existence, [and] the true nature of his relation with others.
Can the “deepening of self” resolve my loneliness as TMT claims? This is the epitome of a Work Substitute solution for loneliness! (Not surprisingly, high-achieving, high-functioning males invented it.) Normal people would never say loneliness is “a subjective and multidimensional state involving emotional distress, social inadequacy, interpersonal isolation, and self-alienation” the way these academics define it. Rather, “loneliness is when dad is home” describes the family’s reaction to their cold-hearted Work Substitute father. Social scientists claim loneliness originates from poor social structures outside the individual:
“Sociological perspectives are concerned with social and environmental forces that increase or intensify the prevalence of painful feelings associated with being isolated or feeling alienated from others.”
These social engineers believe in building new social systems to pull isolated people into society, so government action is required. Is this not another Work Substitute approach to emotions? (Only the Work Substitute feels loved by building systems.) Nobody else would feel loved by the new “environmental forces” erected by the social engineers. Inadequate solutions are not limited to the secular realm; manmade religions use Spiritual Disciplines to eliminate loneliness. As with the other approaches, loneliness is redefined so it can be managed through rigorous, personal effort:
The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God.” Theresa of Avila.
Why did God create us with an irrepressible need for “merely natural companionship” as Theresa calls it? If human love is an “illusion” as Theresa claims, it means God is sadistic for planting that longing in our hearts! If God intended us to know only His “invisible companionship,” why can’t He get to the point and get rid of the need for “natural companionship” distracting us? These solutions are trite because they avoid the obvious problem: loneliness means we are alone! It isn’t perceived, and it’s not an illusion. It’s not rectified by complex social structures. Loneliness is a personal problem, it’s deep, and it pierces the core of our being. It is, in fact, a built-in alarm that we need intimacy. Loneliness is a signal that our hearts are broken.
From the beginning God defined real loneliness:
And the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be by himself: I will make one like himself as a help to him.” Genesis 2:18 (BBE)
Real loneliness is simply the man “by himself,” God said, and it’s not His will for anyone. Nobody should have to feel lonely, according to God: “it is not good!” His solution is not the complex social structures or deep, inner “solitude and recollection” of Spiritual Disciplines. He defines loneliness as it really is, and He also offers real solutions as simple as finding a spouse and building together a powerful love relationship called intimacy:
“At last!” the man exclaimed. “This one is bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh! She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken from ‘man.’” This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. Now the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.” Genesis 2:23-25 (NLT)
God’s solution stands apart from the crowd. It’s not complex or abstract, and it goes to the core of our deepest desire: to be intimate with another living, breathing human soul, from whom nothing is hidden or needs to be hidden. Clearly someone is wrong here: either the God of the Bible who says loneliness is an abnormal and unwelcome state, or these modern thinkers who view loneliness as a necessary pain.
Owner of a Lonely Heart
One singer called himself the “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” and he nailed it. He knew loneliness followed him wherever he went, whoever he was with, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. He just couldn’t understand where it came from or how to resolve it. By necessity an ungrateful heart is a lonely heart. We feel lonely because, as Paul made the point earlier, ingratitude rules the heart and builds a calloused, unfeeling, indifferent way of relating to the world around. Ingratitude begins with God, but it spreads to relationships everywhere. Normal people know loneliness hurts, and they know it’s not reduced by mere redefinition. There are more common ways to carry a lonely heart and still make life work, and these strategies grow into habits which get hardened and become lifestyles, as Paul says: “they would not give thanks!” No sir, no way! That is spoken with determination, and determination is willpower hard to bend. It is an ironic, almost insane fact that people consistently solve loneliness by turning inward rather than outward. As the brief survey above demonstrates, the solutions people use to fight loneliness are always self-based, not others-based. This hardly makes sense by the most obvious standard of loneliness as “being alone.” And once deeply entrenched inside our lonely hearts, we then ask, “Why can’t I reach out to other people, even though I know how lonely I am?”
The Birth of Loneliness
We do not feel indebted to anyone, anywhere, and this foundation was established long ago. It formed in the earliest stages in life, when love was first poured out freely by the parents. It was at that time we learned to interpret love as something owed, not freely given. It’s a fascinating paradox that parents feel such deep love for their children, while at the same time children don’t feel the love–they feel honored instead!
Our attitude is, “God cares for me and I deserve it!” This is the source of the thin love of man: failure to be thankful…We react in the very same way in relation to our parents: “Daddy and mommy love me, and I sure do deserve it!” If we don’t grow from this infantile , sinful, love-taking reaction, we still feel this way: “I deserve something!” – Dr. Ankenman
People make Herculean efforts to avoid falling into debt to God, and they do it through harsh, manmade religions. By offering God a religious performance rather than authentic, heart-felt gratitude, it’s possible to maintain a respectful distance. It’s an historical anomaly that the more rigorous and harsh religions attract more followers than the simple message of God’s love made freely available by grace. The reason is simple: legalistic traditions keep people from owing God anything. God is unimpressed by our self-justification and good works. Instead, he longs for a thankful heart that comes from a deep love relationship with Him:
I will praise the name of God with song and magnify Him with thanksgiving. And it will please the LORD better than an ox or a young bull with horns and hoofs. Psalms 69:30-31
Isn’t it intuitively clear that thankfulness will “magnify Him,” but self-justification only magnifies ourselves? If so, why pursue it? Quite simply, to practice thanksgiving instead would feel unnatural at best, and probably repulsive. Legalism is a way of life that spreads into human relationships as well, and for the same unthankful reasons. In our heart of hearts, we firmly believe we deserve to be loved.
Ingratitude is a highly rights-oriented viewpoint. “I deserve better!” the ungrateful heart says. But where are these rights defined? Ask the ungrateful person this question, and you’ll get a list of arbitrary answers, all imaginary and many conceived spontaneously on-the-spot, yet held with great conviction as if they were known before the dawn of time. The right to feel hurt or angry is so arbitrary and spontaneous because the ungrateful heart is satisfied with nothing less than a blank check for payment. As much as we try to provide rationale, these rights are truly irrational because they are so emotionally valuable. They don’t make cognitive sense, and nobody could dispel them through sheer reason, but rights-oriented thinking has played a significant and long emotional history in our inner world of loneliness. We dare not release those comforting rights! It isn’t any specific rights which buttress the loneliness deep inside. It is an orientation towards the outside world, a way of thinking dominated by personal rights. This is evident in the way personal rights get arbitrarily attached to floating issues, which makes it forever impossible to find personal satisfaction and terminate the loneliness. “You’re so hard to please!” is another way people tell you the same thing. Consider silly Jonah, the Old Testament prophet. Here was a guy so consumed with his arbitrary, personal rights, he ends up loving a gourd! A gourd is a fairly useless vegetable. It sounds crazy, but this is what happens when a rights-oriented view has nowhere else to anchor itself. Throughout the book of Jonah, God persistently corners Jonah and repeatedly knocks down Jonah’s formidable pillars of rights. In the end, we read this absurd conversation between God and Jonah:
But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die!” Jonah 4:9 (NIV)
The absurdity of that conversation is evident reading it in an isolated context, but Jonah of course could never see the absurdity from within his rights-oriented world. Deep inside was a twisted, knotty logic that justified dying for the “vine” (literally, a “gourd”). Those rights are often so irrational and foolish, it’s no wonder we feel so lonely! We dare not tell anyone else–they would laugh!
Not surprisingly, the scriptures don’t embrace rights:
As currently discussed, rights are a product of the Enlightenment. The Scriptures speak so little about rights that it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that “rights” are not a scriptural concept. What the Scriptures speak of are duties and justice: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
The only rights we have standing before God is the right to go to hell. This is justice, pure and simple, if we wish to invoke justice. “But that’s unfair!” people scream. They mean this: “If you don’t love me God, you’re not a good God! You must love me! I deserve it!” God has an answer to these charges:
But to the wicked God says, “What right have you to tell of My statutes and to take My covenant in your mouth? Psalms 50:16
Would we instruct the lawmaker about the law?
A Simple Evaluation
There is an easy way to prove how arbitrary our rights-oriented logic can be. Try this in a cell group or perhaps with your spouse:
- Identify the last time you felt really hurt or angry. Remember how it felt?
- On a piece of paper write down precisely which rights were violated that triggered or justified such strong feelings.
- Ask someone to play the role of a sharp lawyer in court testing the precise, unambiguous meaning of your rules, looking for any possible loopholes.
- Re-write the rules to close the loopholes and give your lawyer another chance. Precision is important with rules, of course.
- Re-write the rules one last time and now look at them: ask yourself where on earth these rules can possibly be found clearly codified and endorsed like you felt they were when you were so hurt and angry?
If your lawyer was any good, your once-clean list of violations now look like a spaghetti bowl of confused, impossible-to-satisfy and very immature demands. You would never submit to a list like this from someone else! Is it beginning to make sense why these personal rights we cherish so dearly are actually imprisoning us inside a lonely world nobody else can share?
- The Power of “Possibility Thinking”
- The Sublime