Here’s a short post over at Trinity’s blog on my struggles with idolizing food.
We live in an age in which we are more globally interconnected than ever before in the history of the world. Communication and travel take place at incredible speeds. We can video chat or call acquaintances all over the world. But in this same moment of history, it is harder and harder to know our next door neighbors. Intimate relationships with others seem impossible as everyone is pulled in a dozen directions. Our lives are fragmented into a number of different relationship networks, and our relationships remain shallow.
The outcome? People are increasingly lonely.
Loneliness isn’t just a cultural phenomenon. It isn’t new. Loneliness is as old as sin itself. Because we cannot escape the shame of our sin and because we all fear the ways others can sin against us, it is natural for us to shrink back from relationships. Even when we do form friendships, sin often destroys them and brings separation.
We were made for intimate community by the triune God who lives forever as a community of three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. As those who bear the image of this relational God, the loneliness we experience reflects the sinful corruption of God’s creational purpose. We were never meant to be alone.
Now being alone is important. If we are never able to be alone before and with God, we are running from dealing with something, and we probably won’t be very good at being with others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” Community only has value if each person also has time alone with God. Alone time with God only works if we are thrust back into loving community.
But my concern in this post is to put a finger on the reality that many of us are alone far more often than we were ever meant to be. And the loneliness that attends this excessive alone time cannot be addressed by good entertainment and more hobbies.
So why are we alone? There are many (sinful) reasons. Sins of our own and sins of others.
We build walls relationally to protect ourselves from the pain others can cause us. We avoid vulnerability. We never reveal our weaknesses and failures. This does keep us safe and in control, and we avoid the shame of embarrassment and the judgment of others. Our pride is kept intact.
We indulge our personal comforts. We selfishly expect everyone to cater us. We orient our lives around gratifying our desires. In fact, we may be very social, always attending this or that dinner, sporting event, or party. But in the midst of our self-indulgence, we are alone because we never engage in the difficult discipline of being primarily committed to one network of relationships. We have every pleasure we want but no one to really enjoy it with.
We pridefully exalt ourselves above others placing high standards on anyone who would be our friend. Not so surprisingly, we find there are very few people worthy of being our friends.
We sin against others and refuse to seek reconciliation because it requires repentance or painfully awkward moments of naming what has happened between us. And so we move on to others and avoid humbly fixing what is broken.
Sometimes we exclude, look over, fail to notice, or even ignore others. Maybe we don’t consider certain people worthy of attention. Sometimes envy or pride leads us to keep our distance. Sometimes we are just plain inconsiderate.
All of these sins isolate us from others and make us lonely.
But our loneliness isn’t due only to our sin. In every way that we sin against others, it is likely that people have sinned against us in these ways as well.
Our sin not only separates us from others. It separates us from fellowship with God. And this separation is a living death. The good news is that Jesus was excluded and abandoned on the cross for us and in our place. Jesus embraced isolation and loneliness when he submitted to the Father’s will and hung on the cross forsaken. He did this out of love for us so that we could be reconciled to the Father and united to God’s people by the Spirit. The kingdom of Christ welcomes sinners to the table of blessing. The kingdom is for the outsider, the broken, the excluded.
The church is the community created by God’s Spirit. It anticipates and demonstrates the coming kingdom. This means that the church should be battling against the effects of sin as Christians are being transformed by the Spirit. While the world operates on principles and practices that reinforce the consequences of sin (loneliness for instance), the church is to be a counter-cultural community that embodies the hospitality and welcome of the kingdom of God. This is why the church is called the family of God. It is why Christians celebrate family meals together in corporate worship (the Lord’s Table) and throughout the week as we share our very lives with one another.
If Christianity is true, then we are not meant to be alone very long. God is always with us by the Spirit, but that same Spirit is working through the church to tear down the barriers that exist between people.
Sadly, many churches aren’t families at all. Most churches have adopted the individualism and consumerism that manifests our sinful tendency to isolate ourselves as we pursue our personal desires. Churches are often more like malls, concerts, or movie theaters that are attended by crowds looking for the next interesting experience. Even the programing allows us to choose our own adventure as we pick and choose interesting topical studies or ministries. In other words, the very structure and shape of church life can be at odds with what Christ died to create and bring about in his kingdom.
Christians are to share our lives together regularly as we fight the sin that isolates us all. We eat meals together regularly. We find ways to make our lives overlap, experiencing everyday normal things together as we serve, learn, celebrate, hurt, work, and rest. And we reach out to the lonely and call them to confront the sin that separates them from God and others by trusting in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If we experience loneliness on a regular basis, we need to consider how our sin may be contributing to our isolation. And as we trust in the gospel and live in light of God’s acceptance of us in Christ and his presence with us by the Holy Spirit, we will be empowered to engage the community of God’s people. We can battle against isolation and loneliness by joining a church whose very life is organized to live life together and begin engaging others who are trapped in their loneliness as well.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, 1st ed. (HarperOne, 1978), 78.