The following is a devotional I presented at a tea party for widows yesterday. These ladies are a fun group, full of zest and spunk. They entertained and blessed me with their sharp wits and sweet spirits. I don't presume to have taught them anything. In truth, they have much to teach me. But I pray they were encouraged and that I was a faithful messenger of God's extravagant love for widows and lonely hearts everywhere.
In the Midst of the Ashes: Where Loneliness Meets its End
You may wonder what a married 30 year old mother of two knows of loneliness. In short--enough.
Last year, the doctors at Mayo Clinic diagnosed me with an illness called Mast Cell Activation Disease, an allergic disease which upsets every system in the body. Following the birth of my daughter in 2011, my health spiraled out of control, and has worsened over the years. I became a virtual shut-in before age 30. No church, no parties, no dates, no restaurants, no movies, no Disney vacations, ball games, or dance recitals. A lot of life passes me by, and all I can do is watch.
In August 2012, under serendipitous circumstances, I met Jenny, who quickly became my best friend. She, too, was a young mom, her kids the same age as mine. She loved the Lord and struggled with an all-consuming disease of her own, which put her in a position to understand me better than anyone else. We spoke on the phone and texted daily, encouraging one another, learning and growing, sharing the joy of the Lord. Like David and Jonathan, our souls were knit together by the hand of God—until the cancer ripped her out of my arms and put her out of reach. Jenny died in March 2014.
I haven’t lost a husband or a parent, and I hope I don't for a long time, but my heart is a graveyard marked by lots of little tombstones. So while I won’t pretend to understand loneliness as you do, I can relate.
Loneliness is a kind of suffering.
Suffering, to me, is any event or circumstance that challenges or destroys the identity—who we are, how we define ourselves. Think of the injured athlete, the CEO who loses his job, the young mom diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer, the wife who loses her husband.
Suffering strips us down and leaves us naked. And it's in our nakedness, we discover a problem.
The Problem: We are alone.
You aren’t lonely because you’re a widow.
I’m not lonely because I’m a shut-in.
We’re lonely because we’re alone.
This goes for sufferers and non-sufferers alike.
That feeling we get that no one really understands? It’s not just a feeling. It’s reality.
Proverbs 14:10 says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can fully share its joy.” (NLT)
This is true even in the best of times, but suffering makes it truer. Suffering comes with a veil that hems us in and keeps others out. Fellow sufferers can come closer than others, but even in your common sorrow, you are alone. You are individuals shaped by unique circumstances. Not one of us can understand another perfectly.
So what’s the remedy?
First, let’s look at the example of someone who survived extreme loneliness.
The Example: Job
Two men in the Bible understand loneliness better than anyone else. One is Job.
In October of last year, I began studying Job and haven’t really stopped. He’s become my friend, and I love him dearly.
In the first two chapters of Job’s story, he’s called “blameless and upright” three times, twice by God Himself. When God calls Job “blameless,” He doesn’t mean sinless. He means genuine. Job genuinely loved God. And it was his conspicuous godliness that drew the attention of both God and Satan--the catalyst for the destruction of the wisest, richest, most righteous and beneficent man in the East.
Don’t miss the height of the fall. The longer the fall, the more bones you break.
The longer, the richer, the deeper the marriage, the greater the loss.
Satan predicted Job would curse God when he lost it all. But he didn’t.
Instead, Job tore his clothes.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return” (Job 1:21).
Job was stripped. His true self was showing.
“…he fell to the ground…” (Job 1:20).
And he worshipped.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
Job’s identity wasn’t rooted in possessions, influence, or even his family. So Satan went after Job’s health. And Job was struck with a painful, repulsive, isolating disease.
In this, Job met his breaking point. But not because he lost his health.
Job broke because he knew that God was ultimately responsible for what happened to him. God let the lion loose. Job knew he hadn’t done anything wrong, yet God had apparently turned His back on him.
Job shattered because he believed he’d lost God’s love.
Immerse yourself in this stunning imagery:
“And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand, but spare his life. So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and struck Job with painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took for himself a potsherd with which to scrape himself while he sat in the midst of the ashes” (Job 2:6-8).
Look at Job. Impoverished, bereft, sick, and apparently forsaken by God, he makes his way to the ash heap outside the city where refuse is burned.
The ash heap outside Jerusalem was called Gehenna. Jesus used Gehenna as a metaphor for hell. Hell is “where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die” because man is separated from God (Mark 9:44).
Alone, dejected, rejected by his wife, and taunted by the people he’d once helped, Job climbs a lonely hill of smoldering garbage and makes his bed in hell (Psalm 139:8).
Scrape, scrape. The potsherd is his only friend. It alone empathizes with his broken state.
After months of isolation, Job’s dearest friends gather to him, but all they can do is weep. They don't recognize him. He's emaciated, bald, scarred, and there's something deeply wrong in his eyes. His suffering terrifies them into a week long silence (Job 2:13; 6:21).
Scrape, scrape. The potsherd and the snap and crackle of flames are the only sounds. Until Job opens his mouth, and sobs into the dark.
Satan had predicted Job would curse God. What Job does instead is curse himself. Then he leans in, and calls out to God from the ash heap.
Job challenges God, doubts Him, praises Him, pleads for Him in some of the nakedest prayers of the Bible. And it’s there—in the midst of the ashes—that God stoops to Job, and Job gets more of God than he bargained for.
Job’s story raises two questions:
- Why did God allow Job to suffer so much?
- How did Job survive?
The answer to both is Jesus Christ, who is also the solution to our loneliness.
The Solution: Jesus Christ
Prior to Job, there was no room in the world’s wisdom or moral canon for innocent suffering. Job’s friends insisted he must've sinned because all they knew of justice was “reap what you sow” with an immediate harvest in mind.
Job’s validation by God in the beginning of the story and his vindication at the end of the story bust that theory wide open, making room for the truly innocent suffering of Jesus Christ.
The stories of Job and Jesus are strikingly similar: A prince plummets from glorious heights to the depths of hell. He’s a good man—innocent, blameless, accepted by God, deserving blessing, honor, glory, and power, and yet, he receives God’s wrath.
For the glory of God and for the good of the world.
Jesus experienced true loneliness so you would never know it. So the worst Satan could do is make you feel lonely.
He accepted my isolation so I could have a Friend who doesn’t weary of my overwhelming needs.
He absorbed your widowhood so you could marry a Husband that can’t die.
Loneliness ends only through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Job didn’t have the Holy Spirit as we do today, but the Spirit evidences Himself in Job’s worship, his boldness, his faith, in prophecies, in images of the cross, in spiritual fruit such as patience, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-restraint with those insufferable friends of his.
Job didn’t know God was with him the whole time, but He was.
We’re like Job. We’re unaware of the Holy Spirit. We undervalue Him, underutilize Him, and misunderstand Him. We don’t comprehend that the gift of Emmanuel—God with us—is something better than God beside us.
We have God in us.
The Holy Spirit lives in us to give us peace in an uncertain world (John 16:33), to tell us the truth (John 14:17), to help us bear fruit (John 15:5), to give us faith in the dark (John 14:20), to help us see Christ for who He is (John 14:19), and know the depth of God’s love (Romans 5:5) so even if we don’t know why we suffer we know what the reason isn’t.
It isn't because God doesn’t love us (Timothy Keller).
God doesn’t leave us orphans and widows (John 16:18; Isaiah 54:5).
He stooped to us, died for us, and now He's in us.
Listen to the gospel according to Hannah:
“The Lord kills and makes alive;
He brings down to the grave and brings up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
He brings low and lifts up.
He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,
To set them among princes
And make them inherit the throne of glory.”
(1 Samuel 2:6-8)
To survive loneliness, we must:
- Look at Jesus and gaze at the cross.
“…let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him—[us]—endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
- Attune to the Holy Spirit.
Be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).
Walk in step with the Spirit (Galations 5:25).
Listen to the Spirit. Give Him opportunity to speak in His word and through prayer.
May 2013 may have been the loneliest month of my life. I suffered a major reaction to a pesticide, and became so ill I couldn’t eat. My grandfather had terrible complications with his heart surgery. We all thought he would die, so my mom was with him. Jenny was dying. I didn’t expect her to last through June. My husband thought I was dying, and emotionally checked out. (This disease is so big and bad it's too much for Superman sometimes.)
I was alone in an empty bed, in an empty house, on a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere.
But my heart was filled with the love of the Father, my vision enraptured by the beauty of the Lamb. The Spirit sat with me in the midst of the ashes, and my lonely bed became a gateway to glory.
I remember being on the phone with Jenny one day during that time. We were both on what could’ve been our death beds but for the grace of God, and we prayed and praised with frail hands lifted to our Father. For a moment, the clouds parted, the Spirit smiled, and we ascended.
It's a glorious memory. But loneliness is a long suffering. And survival isn’t enough.
Our destiny is to be “more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37), to take the very thing Satan sends to destroy us and use it against him to the glory of God.
To achieve such a thing, we must answer the gospel call.
To achieve such a thing, we must answer the gospel call.
The Call: Clothe the Naked People
The world is full of naked people. Really naked people. A few who know they’re naked and many who don’t. These include church people.
To the lukewarm church, Jesus writes:
“Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” (Revelation 3:17-18)
Suffering separates the sheep from the goats. Once suffering rips off our clothes and our true selves are exposed, we’ll know whether we wear filthy garments or the rich robe of Christ’s righteousness, and so will everyone else (Zech. 3:3-5; Isaiah 61:10).
And sometimes, our temporary nakedness exposes the real nakedness of the happy and oblivious.
When a hungry sister sees us fat and satisfied with the fullness of God, she may be inspired throw the door wide open next time Jesus knocks.
The way we deal with loneliness may help others see they’re the lonely ones.
So put that loneliness to good use. Curb the empty calories of activity, and feed on the Bread of Life (John 6:48).
Be brave. Walk deeper into dark Gethsemane, and get alone with God. Be willing to leave your friends behind for a while.
We often have to travel farther into the desolate wilderness to find our way to the Promised Land.
Holy solitude is the remedy to loneliness.
It's the thorny prison where the Lord is sanctified in our hearts and we learn our defense for the hope that’s in us (Hosea 2:6; 1 Peter 3:15). When we come out on the other side, people will know that we’ve been with God.
Believe me—when they see the fire in your eyes after everything around you has burned to ash, they’ll ask about your hope. I was never asked about my hope until it defied rational explanation.
Last year, a friend of mine, who’s also a mom suffering chronic illness, asked me how I stay content in isolation. In my letter to her, I recalled the ache I used to carry in my chest, and compared it to a black hole. After brushing up on my quantum physics last week, I understand what an inspired metaphor that was.
Black holes form when stars can no longer support the weight of their own gravity and collapse on themselves. This is suffering.
The star then creates a cosmic vacuum so that anything that crosses the event horizon gets sucked in without any hope of escape. Suffering stimulates the insatiable hunger of our souls. Without realizing it, we consume resources and people ill-equipped to meet our needs until there’s nothing left.
The more a black hole eats, the bigger it grows. Support, attention, entertainment, distraction—instead of satisfying us, they make us crave all the more, which inevitably leads to addiction. Addiction has been a constant battle throughout my illness.
So what’s the end of it?
The black hole needs a taste of something as infinite as its need.
Particle and anti-particle pairs pop into existence all the time throughout the universe. Usually, the opposing energies just cancel each other out. But when they form near the event horizon of a black hole, one can get sucked in before they cancel out.
The other particle escapes, emitting something called Hawking radiation. The black hole which threatened to eat the universe alive is now sending out pieces of itself. Over time, it loses energy and evaporates.
There is no better imagery to describe what happened to me. The black hole of my loneliness ate everything, and grew bigger with every bite. In desperation, I cried out to Jesus and ate Him.
Little, daily bites of infinite, eternal God satisfied me so well I began emitting holy radiation back into the lives I’d sucked dry until the vacuum evaporated.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the end of black holes everywhere.
We eat Him, and go feed the world.
We’re clothed, and invite people under the robe.
Because there’s no end to Christ, there’s no end our supply. Like the widow’s jar of oil (1 Kings 17:14) and the five loaves and two fish that filled 5,000 men with leftovers to spare (Matthew 14:19), there’s enough Jesus to clothe you and the entire world.
Clothing naked people is the heart of the gospel. It’s what Christ came to do, and He calls us to share in His mission.
Jesus says in Matthew 25:34-40,
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me. Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasumuch as you did it to one of the least of these, My brethren, you did it to Me.”
Which leads us to the promise.
The Promise: The End of Loneliness
This is Isaiah 58:6-9:
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say,
‘Here I am.’”
The promise is God with us—the end of loneliness. We aren’t widows anymore. Our Eternal Husband is with us in our grief, in our loneliness, in the midst of the ashes, and He says to us:
“Here I am.”