Read an Excerpt
God Created Loneliness, Then He Solved It
So Don’t Deny Your Deepest Need
Loneliness is the leprosy of the modern world.
If I’m such a legend, then why am I so lonely?
Do you want people to like you? I mean it. Do you want other people–even strangers–to like you?
I do. If I’m standing in line at the supermarket, surrounded by people I’ve never seen before, I want to appear likable. There’s nothing in it for me, but for some reason I want everyone else to like me.
The need to be liked is a more powerful motivator than we realize. It affects how we present ourselves, how we view ourselves, and what choices we make. It can lead us to do or say things we otherwise would never do or say. But we don’t talk much about our consuming desire to be liked. We just think about it a lot.
We like to think that being liked is a pretty simple process. I like you; you like me; we can all just be friends and get along.
If only it were that easy.
Think back on your life. I’d bet money that the desire to be liked by another person has been one of the most consuming, most enjoyable, most terrifying, most inspiring, and most devastating pursuits of your life. The way others choose to respond to us brings joy and fulfillment and also pain. That’s the hard irony of relationships.
Remember those years of choosing sides for kickball, passing notes in class, getting parts in school plays, going to proms, being invited to parties–or not getting invited to a party and not being chosen for a team? The memories are still vivid. Every generation has its hit parade of songs that tell the sad story of loneliness. Roy Orbison, in a voice that cut to the quick, sang “only the lonely know how I feel.”1 The Beatles recognized “all the lonely people” and wondered “where do they all come from?”2 In our own day, the indie rock group Bowling for Soup sings, “My loneliness is killing me.”3 And most baby boomers remember when Janis Ian’s song “At Seventeen,” about the loneliness of not fitting in, climbed to number three on the pop charts and received a Grammy nomination. And songs don’t get more direct than the Janis Joplin lyric that states simply, “All is loneliness before me, loneliness before me.”4
Every generation seeks a way to fit in, and every generation prays that no one will notice when they don’t. It’s important to have friends who love you. It’s unbearably painful to be alone.
I recently attended a concert where I was twenty years older than 98 percent of the audience–and the audience was not made up of preschoolers. Relient K was on stage, a band popular among college-age Christians and my two boys. As is the custom at a concert such as this, most of the audience stood and crowded the stage, clapping, jumping, and sometimes running into one another while the band performed. It’s all a part of being actively engaged in the music.
But I’m a midforties dude, and one of my sons was in a full-leg cast. My other son is shorter than the college-age fans, and as we made our way to our front-row seats we were enveloped by the crowd. We not only had to struggle to get to our seats (and then get people out of them), it was a struggle just to see the band.
I found myself playing an interesting mental game. The father side of me wanted to protect my boys and get them the great view from the front row that they’d been so excited about. The psychotherapist side of me was fascinated by this young crowd attempting to feel connected, to feel part of something and not be alone. Is standing so close that you can hardly move or breathe a cure for loneliness? Does being jammed together in a crowd make people feel they are liked and accepted? I know they wanted it to.
The Lessons of Not Being Liked
Our intense desire to be liked teaches us a great deal. Think back to the first time a parent or teacher told you: “If you want other children to like you, you have to play nicely with them.” What did they mean “if”? Were they kidding? Using the word if implies that maybe, just maybe, we may not want people to like us. It also plants the idea in our heads that there just might be people who in fact don’t like us, so we’ll have to work really hard to turn that around. Or even worse, we begin to fear that just being who we are will make people not like us.
We learn that being unliked and unlikable is a very real possibility.
Then we grow up, or at least our bodies do. And we learn that there are people out there who in fact do not like us. We find that there are things about the way we look, the way we talk, where we grew up, or simply who we are that cause others not to want to be around us. And we learn that there are things we don’t even like about ourselves. We wish we looked different, acted differently, hadn’t made all the mistakes we’ve made. We’re adults, but we’re all still standing out there on the playground, waiting to be picked for the team, hoping someone will like us just the way we are.
In the movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a friend of veterinarian Abby Barnes comments: “Disappointment [from a dating relationship] doesn’t kill.”
“You’re right,” Abby responds, “disappointment doesn’t kill. Rejection kills. Disappointment only maims.”5
We already know the force of this in the core of our being. It was God who said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
I vividly remember the day one of my childhood buddies came for a visit. His name was Tim, like mine, and he had moved out of our neighborhood. Now he was back to play for a day, and I was one excited eight-year-old. Tim and I were playing in my yard when Jimmy, the third member of the Tim-Tim-Jim trio, rode his bike into my driveway. This was cool; we were all together again!
Jimmy hung out for a few minutes in my yard, then he said something about wanting Tim to go look at his bike. The two of them walked off, and as I waited for them to return I saw Jimmy peddling down the hill toward his house–with Tim riding double on his bike. All I could do was look down at my feet and feel very alone and very rejected.
That was more than thirty years ago. You could tell me I should just get over it, but it wouldn’t do any good. I can see it happening in front of me right now. I’m a licensed mental health counselor, for goodness sake, and here I am writing about something that happened when I was eight. You are certainly not stuck on something that insignificant from your childhood. Or maybe you are.
We all are marked by rejection. If you think you’re not, then scan your memory for an image like Jimmy and Tim riding off to have fun without you. Your picture will be different, but the impact is largely the same. Being rejected by those we care about is one of the most devastating experiences along the human journey. Having someone choose to play with someone other than you hurts. Not being liked maims us.
Recently a team of mental health counselors and medical doctors conducted an experiment to try to determine reasons for the sharp rise in emotional and behavioral problems among youth. For the most part, the teenagers studied were well educated, techno-savvy, and from financially secure families. Yet 25 percent of them were at risk of failing to function productively in adulthood. Why? The researchers concluded that “humans are ‘hardwired’ biologically to need close connections with others.” Further, “religion and spirituality” are vital in a person’s life. Therefore, “when both belonging and belief are absent, children are more likely to experience physical, emotional, and spiritual crisis.”6 Being lonely is deadly.
The Lessons of Being Liked
Now consider the opposite power of actually being liked by someone. I can vividly recall the image of my lovely wife, Amy, the first time I felt she might like me. We were working at a Young Life camp in the Rocky Mountains. It was Tableau Night, and we were decked out in 1800s garb. I was the sheriff, she was the schoolmarm. Seventy-some-odd camp staffers were waiting for some four hundred high school campers to descend the stairs and be surprised that they had suddenly “traveled back in time.”
I stood in the back of a wagon, looking for the signal that the teenagers were coming. Amy stood forty feet away in front of a group of unruly “students.” Our eyes met; she smiled. No, it wasn’t the first time a woman had ever smiled at me, as some who know me may think. And it wasn’t the first time I had seen Amy smile. But this smile wasn’t a smile of, well, just smiling. It was a smile that meant more, as though she had enjoyed the few times we had spent talking and liked seeing me now. That was cool.
I can see that smile today. Why? Well, it helps that I have been married to her for more than sixteen years, so I’ve seen that smile many times (as well as “the look” that means something entirely different, but we won’t get into that now). But I remember that smile on that day.
The memory is vivid because the yearning to connect and be loved is the fiercest longing of the human soul. I remember that smile because being liked brings life to my soul.
Every time we try to connect and it fails, a scar is left on our heart. In contrast, each time we reach out to love someone and are loved in return, our heart smiles.
That’s why we all want to be liked.
Why God Put Us Here
But wait. Surely we weren’t put on earth to wear ourselves out trying to get other people to like us. There has to be more.
Most of us also have a driving desire to make a real difference in this world–be it an invention, a medical breakthrough, leading others in a crisis situation, or saving a life (or a soul). Or on a smaller scale, to mentor someone, to reflect God’s love into the lives of those who need to know Him, to be a friend to those in need of support. In big ways and small, we want our lives to count.
It’s good that we want to change the world, but we might not understand what it actually takes. The simple truth is that by investing in relationships, we really can make a difference. An eternal difference. In fact, it’s what God has called us to do. One by one, person to person, we are to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In other words, we are called to invest in people and change the world.
Pursuing the types of relationships that bring about real change is rewarding but not always pleasant. Consider the way Jesus prepared His followers for the mission of changing the world:
All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Mark 13:13)
Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man. (Luke 6:22)
These aren’t verses you see printed on fliers designed to get people to visit a church. Churches instead promise that we’ll find friendly people who will like us. So how do we reconcile the apparent contradiction? We long to be liked and to connect with others. Yet there is Jesus’s warning about being hated just for following Him.
Are we here to love others and to be loved in return? Or are we here to change the world and risk opposition and hatred? The answer is yes to both.
God created us with a desire to be intimately connected to others and to feel the emptiness of life when we’re rejected. The first thing declared to be “not good” in the creation of the world was that Adam was alone. Our head tells us loneliness is bad. Our heart tells us loneliness is bad. God tells us loneliness is bad. There is no question: it’s bad to be alone.
God created Adam as a person who needed to be connected to others in relationships. There was nothing sinful about his feeling lonely. God created the need. But clearly, it’s not good, so He didn’t leave him that way.
What is good is to be connected to others in naked-soul relationships. So just as God created the need, He also delivered the solution. God’s answer to Adam’s loneliness was to create another person, Eve. He created Adam as a being who craved and needed the companionship of others. And then God chose people–not Himself–to meet this God-given need.
Most believers won’t question the assertions that we need God and that we need Christ in order to have a relationship with God. But there seems to be a great deal of hesitancy when it comes to admitting that we also need people. At least we often fail to admit it by the way we live, keeping our true selves hidden behind the walls of our houses and the walls of our faces. And after all, isn’t God enough?
God answers that question with one word: no. When it comes to relationships, we need more than God alone. We need one another. But instead of admitting our need for authentic intimacy, we insist on hiding behind a mask, because we believe the lie that masks protect us from hurt, from being misunderstood, from walking into an emotional buzz saw. A mask pretends to serve as a protective shield, promising to deflect criticism, unjust accusations, and emotional turmoil.
The mask lies.
Instead of protecting us, masks destroy us with a false sense of safety and security. The masks serve only to prolong our isolation and to amplify our loneliness. Masks prevent people from caring about us and caring for us, because they make it impossible for anyone to really know us. God tells us that we need people, while masks lie and tell us that we’re fine just hanging out with God.
Getting tight with God is not enough. We need to be tight with God and in intimate, honest, vulnerable relationships with other people. That is God’s solution to our need to be liked, and, interestingly, it’s also the path we follow in changing the world. In meeting our own needs to be loved, we find ourselves loving others and changing the world.
That’s why we’re here.
Why We’re So Bad at This
Why do we fail so miserably at fulfilling our God-given purpose? It’s not as though we’re bad at needing people, because we all do–whether we acknowledge it or not. What we often seem to fall short on is letting ourselves experience the fulfillment of that need through authentic God-honoring relationships.
But why cheat ourselves out of the very thing we want the most? I can think of several reasons.
First, too many of us don’t recognize the importance of knowing and loving others in God’s grand economy of life. So instead, we try to fill our need for authentic relationships with a thousand other things, ranging from sex to status to substances.
Second, knowing how to be a good “knower and lover” is not part of the human DNA, at least not since the fruit-eating rebellion that was launched in the Garden of Eden. We like to think we are naturally great lovers, husbands, wives, and friends. It’s not true. We need to let God train us in knowing and loving others.
Third, we are scared. Really knowing someone else is risky, and being known by others can be downright frightening. And love? Man, that’s skydiving without a parachute.
Fourth, we’re bad at knowing and being known, loving and being loved, for the same reason we have problems with any relationship–one of us is selfish. Okay, we’re all selfish. And selfishness is both the cause and the result of the fact that we are sinners.
Yeah, we’re sinners. It’s fifth on this list, but it ranks first among our problems. Being selfish and being a sinner gives us one top priority in every relationship: me. Or in your case: you. “What can you do for me? Why aren’t you doing more for me? Don’t you know that you need to be paying attention to me and taking care of me and thinking about me?”
The great truth of relationships is that the more we worry about ourselves, the less we’ll have a chance to experience true intimacy with another person. Authentic intimacy comes by learning to risk. God’s plan for intimacy is risky because it involves focusing on someone else, a person other than ourselves, and that’s not our natural tendency.
Late-night-television host Conan O’Brien described hosting the television Emmy awards this way: “You’re standing in front of the most self-involved audience you’re ever going to stand in front of. It’s like a narcissists convention.”7 That may be true of the typical Hollywood crowd. And yet it seems that if he were standing in front of many church congregations on Sunday morning, O’Brien could say the same thing. We all carry membership cards to the National Narcissists Society.
As we have seen, Jesus told us we would be hated for being His followers, so why worry about the fact that we are not very good at letting ourselves need others and be needed by others? In the midst of all of the other crises in the world, why should we even care how good or bad we are at dealing with interpersonal relationships?
For one, because we’re cheating ourselves. By not being involved in thoroughly authentic relationships, we are missing out on a huge blessing that God wants us to enjoy. Letting ourselves be known and loved not only fulfills the yearnings of our soul, but it also is where we experience the community that can provide a place to heal our hurts and end our loneliness. And it’s the place where we can contribute to the healing of others.
The second answer is that living in an environment of genuine love and acceptance with others is one of the primary ways Christ taught us to bring His message of God’s grace. In other words, learning to live in authentic relationships is how we change the world. Likewise, refusing to live in authentic relationships is how we let the world continue to spiral away from its Creator. So if you’re not ready to make this change for your own benefit, then do it so you can reflect the love of God into the lives of others.
The key both to ending our loneliness and to taking the first step to changing the world is as close as the people next door. Maybe even as close as the people who live in your home. It is imperative that we learn to love and be loved. But to get started, we must choose to love.
I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love.…
I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. (John 15:9—14, msg)
Being liked can’t be our goal. For that matter, neither can changing the world or living a life that matters. Those are results. Our goal is to be obedient to Christ.
But by being obedient to Christ, we will change the world, and we will have an abundance of life-enhancing relationships along the way. We will love and be loved in a way that makes a lonely world stand up and take notice. And we’ll get rid of our own loneliness.
Do you want to be loved? Do you want to change the world? Congratulations. You can begin right now.
The Big Idea
God created love. He also created loneliness. Then God created the amazing, everyday answer to loneliness–He gave Adam and Eve what the Bible describes as the naked-and-unashamed relationships that abolish aloneness. He shows us how to love and be loved and how to experience the life-giving power of the naked-soul experience. God designed each of us to be in authentic, life-changing relationships with other people. It is our call to decide what we will do in response to God’s solution to loneliness.
“God said, ‘It’s not good for the Man to be alone; I’ll make him a helper, a companion.’” (Genesis 2:18, msg)
•Are you willing to let God challenge your view of relationships, even if it involves significant risk?
•Are you willing to honestly look at the things in your life that may be keeping you from impacting your corner of the world for God?
•Are you ready to let go of loneliness and live a life that matters?
Loving Father, thank You that You have made me just as You desired. And thank You for putting people in my life to end my loneliness and so I can put an end to their loneliness. Help me as I begin this journey to discover what it means to live a life that changes the world. Father, send Your Spirit to guide and bless this journey. Amen.
From the Trade Paperback edition.