Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He
[His Eye Is On The Sparrow]
It comes as no surprise to anyone that I often feel lonely. Actually, with the case at hand, it is a little too unsurprising. Yes, I lived eighteen years of my life in a family that grew to fourteen; always among them, never at school, let alone a new school, where I could feel ostracized. Now I live in an apartment completely by myself. How could I not be lonely?
Let’s leave aside the easy question for a moment to pose a harder one. How could I have been lonely when I was among my family? For indeed I often was, in the same manner and measure that I am lonely now. Perhaps not exactly the same–but I will come to that. The loneliness I speak of now arises when I face the prospect of doing any number of things, anything I can imagine if you will, but I find the thought of them all unsatisfying. To write? Eh. To read? Eh. To draw? Eh. Go online, buy a computer game, and blow up my sorrows? … eh.
I have more freedom in this regard than ever I did before. I have more financial means, less interpersonal responsibilty. I used to be able to pretend sometimes that if only I could find some quiet, or if only I could have some uninterrupted time on the computer with this or that program, then I would be content.
When I was a younger child I thought the problem might be that there was nobody my own age with my own interests. I think some of my relatives reasoned the same way. I submit that modern society has been thinking that way for at least two generations now. The ideal society, they reason, is one where you can go from friend to friend as your mood changes, so that you can always be engaged with someone who matches your present mood. This sentiment has not been printed on any T-shirts that I know of, but it is there, in the background of the incessant cell phone conversations.
Besides being exceedingly selfish, this philosophy is false. Everyone finds themselves in occasional doldrums of loneliness, and I think that the more frantically and constantly people socialize, the more the background hum of loneliness haunts them. Nothing to make you acutely aware of the singularity of life on this planet like searching for other life among the stars, so to speak.
This background loneliness, though, I think is loneliness for God. Mankind has been lonely since Adam hid from God in the garden, and will remain lonely until the new creation. Rightly are we “lonely, and long for heaven and home”:
I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far [Philippians 1:23]
Yet the song is also right that “Jesus is […] my constant friend.” I won’t try to precisely unravel the distinction between right loneliness and appreciation of God’s presence, but I will offer, off the cuff, that it is a lack of faith to be lonely in fierce despair, and a part of faith to be lonely in a quiet melancholy.
What shall I make of my loneliness that sometimes comes over me–or comes out of me, like an inflatable toy unplugged? It is not a general loneliness, or even a despairing loneliness; it is an acute an particular yearning for companionship. No point in being coy or pretentious. I never felt this acute loneliness before I met Sarah. I want a wife.
I would like to think that this is entirely justified:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. [Genesis 2:24]
Most of modern Christianity would support me all the way in this. Whether socially or sexually, a lot of Christians are content to say that a desire for marriage is a God-given appetite that must be met, as fundamental as the desire for food. If they are right, it is in a different measure than they think. What about the apetite for food?
“We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” [Numbers 11:5-6]
If Jesus is the true bread from heaven, His Spirit is also our true Comforter. How easy it is to lose our appetite for what we have, and yearn for what we had before! Yes, the appetite is God-given, but we turn the meaning of this upside-down if we use it to justify the appetite.
“Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”—but God will destroy them both. [1 Corinthians 6:13]
To say “God made this appetite, therefore I must satisfy it,” is no better than to say “God made this rock, therefore I must throw it at you.” Depending on the circumstances, I might want very particularly to throw this rock at you, but that does not give me license to do so.
Like the Israelites, my dissatisfaction is sometimes nothing less than rebellion. One day in particular I was struck by how my own apathy was exactly that of a spoiled child. I had any number of reasonably pleasant or necessary tasks to do, and I didn’t want to do any of them. I refused to do any of them, as a matter of fact, until I got what I wanted.
God sets the lonely in families,
he leads forth the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.
I had made my case, and given evidence for my loneliness; now God had ought to provide me with my family. But God made His case, and demonstrated my rebelliousness. Checkmate. (Reminds me of a story I’ve read.)
I am well aware that the freedom and family mentioned in the Psalm speak of freedom from sin, and the spirit of adoption by which we cry “Abba!“–with all the other saints. Indeed, as the appetite for food is meant to put us in mind of the Bread of Life, so the appetite for marriage does not exist for its self-fulfillment, but to teach of Christ:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. [Ephesians 5:31]
The famous “one flesh” paradigm is no longer about the marriage of a man and woman, but the union of Christ with the believers. Though I had been intending to use this quote to look into the virtures of fellowship in the church, it strikes me how this scripture actually once again points beyond the temporal fulfillment of the appetite, beyond the present benefits of church fellowship, to say how even this is only looking forward to the fellowship that will be. Marriage and church fellowship both are perspectives on the consummate fellowship that Christ will have with his people in the new creation.
Thus I disagree with other Christians who say that a Christian must have fellowship in the church. Such fellowship is no more to be despised than marriage–but it, too, is a form that is passing away. We must have Christ; and things fleshly and things intangible are only worthy insofar as they teach us of Christ, lead us to Christ.
There are those today who think it is blasphemous to say that the church–and I mean the true church–could ever be an idol for a believer. They think that the true church is a guide to the truth, a conduit of Christ, so that even one who approaches amiss is corrected by the unerring course of the church. As with food, as with marriage, as with any thing God created that He declared good, the true church is of itself a good thing. But like any other thing God created, when we take it in place of Himself, it has become poison to us. We have taken that rock I mentioned earlier and hit ourselves in the head with it.
Perhap I can compare the necessity of fellowship with the necessity of food:
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ [Matthew 4:4]
In like manner, a Christian does not live by fellowshipping with other Christians. All that is necessary is the Word of God; most essentially His Spirit, who teaches all of us. Without the Spirit, neither the Bible nor fellow believers are effective at communicating life to us. There have been times when people lived without eating in the normal manner (Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and the Israelites with the manna), but ordinary food is the normal way God’s people sustain themselves. To despise it is usually rebellious.
Yet there are times when we can eat and drink to our condemnation. This was the temptation offered to Jesus: You want to eat; God made you to want to eat; eat this bread, and let God sanctify it to you. But because of who was offering, Jesus could in no wise eat that bread.
In the same manner, while there exists in the world believers, gatherings of true followers of Christ, when I have purposed in my heart that the same will meet my needs, I have already taken God’s and made it mine. Believers can provide fellowship, encouragement, and companionship to other believers, but a Christian is not owed that blessing by God or by any number of believers. The church of Christ does not exist so that I can be satisfied, but so that Christ may be glorified.
To say that the church is of God and so no matter how I approach the church, my involvement is good and blameless, is as misguided as saying since God has instituted marriage I can treat my wife however I want. And it is not acceptable to say, “Go to church anyway, with a wrong heart, and let God change it while you are there.” Eat in an unworthy manner? Taste the bread of Satan, for hunger’s sake, and let God remove the offense of it?
I do not say that as long as I am lonely, I will not join any church. Rather, instead of seeking to join a fellowship in spite of my weakness, I would stay in my wilderness until God sends me in to fellowship, in spite of my weakness.
It is not as though I am without any kind of Christian interaction. I have my family, among whom are those who have been worthy help before. They might almost be considered my own “manna,” of which I am bored because it is always the same day after day. This will be, as always, sufficient, until God grants me increase.