Eric Geiger is a leading voice on the health of the church in America. He seems to have his finger on the pulse of church, and his social commentary is typically erudite and thought-provoking. You can check out his website at ericgeiger.com. In February of 2020 he wrote an article on “Loneliness in the US, the UK, the Garden of Eden, and the Church.” It’s a short article of “three quick thoughts,” and worth five minutes of your time. But in his discussion of loneliness in the church, I think he has overlooked a crucial point.
After twenty years of ministry I have not heard more people express loneliness in the church than I have in the past year. Yes, quarantine, social distancing, and virtual church have contributed to loneliness. But they have also uncovered a preexisting condition, an ailment that was often unrecognized prior to the pandemic. The ailment is self-isolation.
We often hear about “loneliness” in the church; I think loneliness is very often a symptom rather than the real problem. Loneliness, like a headache or fever, should move us to inquire more deeply.
I’ve heard and watched Christians who say they are lonely. I’ve said that myself. The thoughts that follow are not meant to undermine the truth and reality of loneliness, or to place blame on people whose loneliness is beyond their control. My counter to Geiger’s quick thoughts on loneliness is to suggest that, very often, it stems from self-isolation, which is within a person’s control.
Geiger emphasizes the point of Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone,” in essence saying that, just because you attend church, doesn’t mean you are in healthy spiritual communion. I have addressed this passage in a sermon “Hell is a Lonely Place,” where I point out that the loneliness of Genesis 2:18 is followed by the post-Fall self-isolation of Genesis 3:10, “So I hid (myself).” The first describes the need for companionship and community; the second is the rejection of the companionship and community which God provided Adam. The first is about loneliness; the second about self-isolation. Both need to be taken into account.
Very often, loneliness stems from self-isolation, which is within a person’s control.
What does this self-isolation look like? Below are some common ways people self-isolate. Sometimes they don’t even realize it. And often, they mistake the symptom—loneliness—for the real problem—self-isolation.
1. A Critical Spirit
Constant criticism breeds distrust even among close friends. Uncontrolled and frequent negativity removes all sense of safety. I have watched people become increasingly isolated from their friends only because of the emotional toll of a critical spirit. Here is a bit of wisdom from C.S. Lewis: “Abstain from all thinking about other people’s faults, unless your duty as a teacher or parent makes it necessary to think about them. Whenever the thoughts come unnecessarily into one’s mind, why not simply shove them away? And think of one’s own faults instead? For there, with God’s help, one can do something.”
2. Sin of Any Kind
Sin always isolates and deteriorates relationships. If left unchecked, sin will destroy relationships. Pastors know well that, when they see a member withdrawing from the church community, the person may have either sinned themselves or been offended by another. When sin is not properly dealt with, sinners often self-justify and become too arrogant to humble themselves. Some sins have more severe social consequences than others. But regardless of the sin, if one’s response lacks acknowledgment of wrongdoing and repentance, others in the church will almost certainly disassociate.
3. Imbalance of Give and Take
Healthy relationships have a balance of giving and taking. A friend who is always receiving and never giving is exhausting. They may be unwittingly self-isolating because their friends have no more to give. One common imbalance is the work of listening. If one friend monopolizes conversation it is sure to exhaust others. A balanced friendship allows for a healthy two-way interaction of speaking and listening.
4. Refusal to be Transparent
People aren’t looking to spend much time with someone who is closed and consistently inauthentic. If one refuses to be increasingly transparent, we should not be surprised that a friendship isn’t growing. Lack of increased transparency is a mark of a stagnant or deteriorating relationship. There are two sides of the coin, of course. One may attribute their lack of transparency to a preexisting lack of safety. If this is the case, a person needs to seek out a safe person with whom they can give and take with increasing transparency. Healthy transparency requires truth and grace.
Lack of increased transparency is a mark of a stagnant or deteriorating relationship.
Have you ever wondered why a person’s prayer requests are always “unspoken”? I have, and I’ve developed a response that goes something like this: “Thank you so much for bringing attention to a prayer need. We will certainly pray with you, and I really hope you have someone you can share this burden with.” I’m not saying that “unspoken” requests are not legitimate; rather, they shouldn’t be substitutes for healthy transparency.
5. Refusal to Make Friends with Those Who Think Differently
The older I get, the more I realize that very few (actually, no one) thinks exactly like I do, and many of my friends are not going to remain silent. If I can’t tolerate disagreement, I am not likely to have many, if any, friends. Those who are friends will not feel safe or capable of being authentic. My best friends disagree with me far more than I wish, and I love them for it.
6. Unmet and Unspoken Expectations
A good friend shared this wisdom: most unmet expectations are the unexpressed ones. It is not fair to my friends for me to assume that they know what I expect without me expressing my expectations. You may have heard something like this: “They should know me well enough. I shouldn’t have to tell them.” Those are presumptive words and create distrust.
7. Too busy
Authentic, meaningful relationships take time and then some. Sporadic “check-ins” don’t go very far in relationship-building. Friendships are intentional. Arriving late at a church gathering and leaving quickly is a recipe for loneliness.
Arriving late at a church gathering and leaving quickly is a recipe for loneliness.
8. Absent without Notice
Some of the loneliest people are those who never communicate when they are going to be absent. They expect people to check in on them, but never bother to communicate with their friends when they are going to be late or absent. They just don’t show up and it’s anyone’s guess why.
If you are struggling with loneliness, it’s not necessarily your fault. But it may be a symptom of self-isolation. By identifying the ailment, you can take steps towards finding relief from the common symptom of loneliness.