Dealing with Pandemic Loneliness and TemptationBy Garrett Higbee
November 9, 2020
Humans have an innate desire and need to be with other people. We can observe this through Scripture and social sciences. If we are alone, however, problems can quickly creep in.
A few years ago, I wrote a small group Bible study looking at ten of the “one another” verses in Scripture. I was struck by the repeated commands to love one another by encouraging, praying for, and bearing with one another (to name a few). In the creation account, the Bible points to the clear interdependence we were created for (Gen 2:18).
Because of the way God created us, the current social distancing and physical isolation only adds to the profound problems associated with loneliness. Feeling alone and disconnected is increasingly prevalent today.
It is not surprising then that even secular social scientists were talking about an epidemic of loneliness in the U.S. before the COVID-19 pandemic. The forced social isolation in the last several months has only exasperated the consequences of an increasingly disconnected society.
The effects of loneliness on physical and mental health are well documented, but I want to focus on other insidious effects of loneliness. There are those in our faith family and circle of influence who deal with very real but often less talked about effects.
We hope these may come out in small group or with a trusted friend. But what if you don’t have those outlets? What happens when you live in fear or sadness but perhaps you don’t share or confess for fear of judgment? The fight with temptation intensifies when we are feeling disconnected, insecure, or depressed.
Christians should seek times of solitude, but that is different than loneliness. For believers, solitude should be a time to draw near to God and away from business and distraction. Loneliness, on the other hand, is not about connecting deeper with God or the discipline to create times of reflection. Loneliness is a perceived or real deficient of relationship.
God invites us to Himself to meet the most profound depth of this deficit. There is a vacuous place in our soul that can only be met in Christ.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
The beauty of the Christian faith is that we are never really alone. God is with us. Abiding in Him is the first and most powerful antidote to loneliness.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken” (Psalm 62:1-2).
But let’s face it, we need to remind each other of this truth. Sometimes we need to help someone who is so tired, fainthearted, or depressed that our care incarnates God’s heart toward them. In fact, the Lord ordained the Church to provide a platform for deep fellowship with Him and each other.
The Church has an amazing opportunity to return to deep fellowship, mutual discipleship, and soul care. It can be a place where authentic community happens weekly and even daily, a beacon of hope that draws people from every tribe and tongue together to satisfy a longing for connection.
Ultimately, the deepest need we have to connect and abide is with our Lord Himself, but He has chosen the Church to be a physical and intimate reflection of this communion (John 13: 34-35; 17:20-23).
Loneliness increases temptations.
Most of us know that when we are feeling isolated, we are more likely to fall into temptation. Temptation can happen any time, but when we are not in life-giving fellowship, we are more susceptible to wrong thinking and fleshly desires. James 1 lays out a pattern for temptations slippery slope.
“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:13-15).
Loneliness doesn’t cause someone to sin, but it certainly makes it easier to start down the path. Staying in fellowship and having a close friend to talk to (Proverbs 17:17) can make all the difference between giving into sinful desires and fighting them.
The image of a lone sheep comes to mind. Maybe this sheep has strayed from the flock or maybe it has become isolated in some other way. Regardless, it is vulnerable. Satan watches for strays and attacks when we are most isolated, weak, or susceptible to temptation (1 Peter 5:8). Like a lone sheep, we are vulnerable to all kinds of dangers when isolated.
At the same time, not everyone experiences loneliness for the same reason. Imagine the difference between the loneliness of neglecting to spend time with others versus being rejected or cutting off a relationship versus being left behind. The most destructive forms of loneliness seem to include a sense of being forsaken.
This state of mind leaves us with a yearning that takes us to passive aggression, false comforts, false security, and worldly pleasures. A young single professional asks herself, “Does anyone really care? Why doesn’t someone call me? An older widow asks, “Why doesn’t anyone check in on me?” A prodigal child at college justifies their drinking because the family seems to have given up on them. Loneliness isn’t the same for everyone, but it is an equal opportunity tempter.
Most of us have experienced some intense moments of feeling alone recently, but the desperately lonely person may have added feelings of abandonment, betrayal, rejection, loss, or unresolved conflict. That type of loneliness is skeptical of prayer requests or an invitation to attend church again. It calls for intrusive love and follow through, which is difficult in this season when most of us seem to be waiting for someone else to reach out to us. Yet those of us who, while feeling a bit disconnected from others, are generally close to the Lord need to be on the loving offense not the fearful defense.
Loneliness is an echo chamber.
Loneliness tends to exaggerate negative thinking and behavior. It is an echo chamber of our worst fears. Our self-talk tends to ruminate on the what-ifs or insecurities, which lead to lies we start to believe. Nervousness becomes paralyzing worry and can cause erratic behavior. Disappointment can lead to despair bringing with it a hopelessness that can lead to poor self-care.
Some fulfil their own prophesy—”I am unloved”—by staying away from others out of fear or distrust. They may feel they have been hurt or disappointed and can’t open themselves to more of that treatment right now. Others may actually see it as an excuse to avoid accountability. In this way, isolation can be a sign of selfishness or pride. Proverbs 18:1 warns us not to self-isolate: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.”
In either case, a true friend goes and confronts lies lovingly or asks forgiveness for neglect and presses into the hurt until the person is restored (Galatians 6:1-2). We speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) helping others to interrupt and change the narrative that no one cares, or God is not there for them.
Loneliness and social distancing.
But what if life circumstances force isolation on us? We long for connection, but it’s temporarily cut off. The psalmist writes, “I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop” (Psalm 102:7).
Trouble sleeping, a profound sense of being left out, or just missing people we use to hang out with are some of the effects of a temporary or situational isolation. They can still bring sadness and require compassion and humility.
A great way to enter in and to gain a hearing with someone else is to admit your struggles without comparing your suffering to theirs. You may say, “I want to hear your story and share some of how this has affected me.” Doubtless, we have all been disappointed and had moments of “hope deferred” (Proverbs 13:12). Just reconnecting and sharing common experience is helpful for most.
But we must remember, many were already experiencing a sense of disconnectedness before the virus wreaked havoc on communities around the world. Some of the most vulnerable were already alone—living in nursing homes, struggling with mental illness, or facing various addictions. The temptation to find comfort in mindless distractions, fulfilling lustful desires, numbing the pain, or becoming self-destructive has likely compounded their struggle. Listen carefully, provide a safe place to confess, and pray with them.
Ministering to the lonely.
If loneliness is a serious issue in our world right now and is increasing temptation to sin, what can we do to face it head on?
First, we admit it. We preach sermons that pull in the Psalms and other passages that face suffering and loneliness with a vertical reality. Perhaps, we share stories with permission of real people dealing with real struggles, or at least develop believable hypotheticals. We ask people who are dealing with loneliness using help from others to give the problem a face through testimonies.
We don’t shame people or make feel that “faith should be enough.” We don’t offer a trite Christian saying or superficial attempt to help because we recognize those do nothing more than alienate the person or hurt them more.
We go the extra mile with people who seem tenuous or skeptical of our care. We text, call, Zoom, drop by with food, but then we follow up again. And we don’t just help with physical needs, we target the heart.
We invite people to fellowship to the edge of their comfort zones. This might take place online with some, but for others it might mean intimate conversations in our living rooms with proper health precautions. If they don’t show, we call right away to ask where they were. If they are hesitant, we ask what is keeping them away.
If someone has given into temptation, they may feel shame. If they have drifted from godly disciplines, they feel embarrassed and fear judgment. Others will test you to see if you are just trying to make the rounds instead of really checking in to care for them. Asking questions that go deeper than “How are you doing?” or “How can I pray for you?” helps here. Again, admitting your struggles with current fears or disappointments and asking where they are struggling is a good start.
Take people to the Scriptures. Remind them that God is waiting for them (Matthew 11:28-30); He will never forsake them (Psalm 27:10); and He is the good Shepherd (John 10). Let them know their temptations are common (1 Corinthians 10:13), and they are not alone.
We must remember: God is faithful, the church is where real community happens, and, while social distancing may be necessary, social isolation is not. We need to help encourage others to flee temptation (2 Timothy 2:22), run into the arms of God, and stay in the protection of the flock.