Loneliness in a Time of Social Distancing
I used to joke when I was in retail, “This job would be great, if only there were no people!” Well, now we’re all finding out what it’s like to live, work, and minister away from all people. It isn’t so great after all. Here at Harvest USA, we are trying to keep up our direct ministry to individuals as much as possible using technology. But there is no denying that the realities of social distancing are profoundly affecting us and those to whom we are ministering. There are peculiar challenges during this time for those struggling with sexual sins. But there are also unique opportunities. Perhaps this is true for all of us.
Let’s consider the challenge of loneliness. Many people feel lonely whether or not they are physically distanced from others. For a lot of us, the challenge of this time is not so much being away from many people but being forced to relate more intensely to just a few people in our own households! Nevertheless, many are aware of a deep and enduring loneliness, a dull heartache arising from a sense of isolation, of not being affirmed, not being valued, not being desired, or not being known by anyone. Sexual sin offers a temporary taste of being loved, being desired, being valued. It is a powerful counterfeit—but a counterfeit it surely is. Sexual sin satisfies the hunger of loneliness the same way cotton candy satisfies an empty stomach: a blast of pleasure and energy that dissolves quickly and ends in a sugar crash.
This season has the potential to amplify this ache of loneliness. We may have always been lonely, but the constant warnings to stay away from others only causes our minds to dwell on it more. But more than that, the practice of social distancing is frighteningly similar to the process by which we descend into slavery to sin. It is a process of retreating into isolation. In a cruel irony, sin as a counterfeit cure for loneliness is sought at the price of further isolation. We lie. We sneak. We develop a dark double life. Increasingly, all our thoughts and plans are serving our inner world of escape. It is a lonely place. At Harvest USA, we are continually coaxing people out of their isolation into communion with God and God’s people. But now we have to stay away from each other. If feels wrong. It grieves us. And in the grief, the counterfeit looks good again.
But if this season poses a challenge, it also poses an opportunity. Change is always an opportunity. For many, the cycle of temptation and sin becomes habitual and almost ritualized. But now, perhaps, your entire schedule has been upended. This is an opportunity to break from those habitual patterns and establish new ones. Physical social distancing does not have to mean isolation. Now that you must create new daily patterns, let them be patterns of reaching out in mercy and honesty, even if it must be via technology. Let this be a time to establish new patterns of prayer—God is with us. Perhaps that is one reason he is allowing this; perhaps our lives had become too full of routine distractions, superficial relationships, and secret sin. None of these relieved our loneliness, so he is stripping them away. Let us get to know him, because today is the day of opportunity.
This is an opportunity not only to know God, but to know ourselves. Your circumstances have changed—radically—but you have not. This can help you see yourself more clearly. What do I mean by this? We at Harvest USA often stress that our circumstances, while having powerful influence upon us, do not determine what we do. It is our hearts that determine our behavior. By “heart,” we don’t mean our emotions or the mysterious seat of romantic whim so celebrated in our culture. We mean the biblical concept of the heart as our inner person, what we value, desire, and think at our deepest.
This is the place from which Jesus said all evil deeds come, and so God targets the heart in his gospel work in us. This great change in your circumstances and life patterns, this upheaval and removal of your routine distractions, can serve to display areas of your own heart that were previously hidden from you behind the curtain of routine. What you feel as loneliness is connected not only to your circumstances; it arises from deep and powerful desires and thoughts in your heart.
This is a time for you to see those desires more clearly and to strive to let the light of God’s love and the gospel to shine on them. God knows you more than any person—better than you know yourself. This can be a time of significant growth in your fellowship with him, which is the beginning of the end of loneliness. Take the opportunity.
You can also watch the video, The Crucible Is for Silver, which corresponds to this blog.