Encountering God in Loneliness
Jason Gaboury says he’s wrestled with loneliness his whole life. He felt this sense of disconnection in a particularly powerful way when he was in his mid-thirties, with two young kids at home, doing campus ministry. His home was in a “constant state of relational connection,” but he still felt lonely.
“My assumption was that if I was lonely, there was something wrong with me,” he says. “A lot of people assume that. They assume that if I’m lonely, I’m doing life wrong—I’m not social enough, I’m not gregarious enough, I’m not attractive or talented enough—it’s the assumption that there’s something wrong with me.”
So, he went to see Father Ugo to help sort it out. But he didn’t get the response he expected. After he described how he was feeling, Father Ugo closed his eyes and said, “Ah, Jason, that’s very good.” He went on to suggest that God was allowing Jason to touch something basic about the human condition. “Loneliness is everywhere,” he said, “it’s part of the human condition: to be human is to be lonely.” Even Jesus was lonely, Father Ugo told him, and he could begin to see his loneliness as an invitation from God. This perspective sent Jason on a journey into Scripture to explore the stories in the Bible about “women and men who experienced God in their times of loneliness and were transformed.”
Jason's book, Wait With Me, is about (and invites readers into) this journey of asking “how do I know God in loneliness?” Along the way, he’s realized that “most of us relate with God in a very therapeutic kind of way. We assume that God’s main objective is to relate with us and empathize with our experience.” But now, Jason has come to believe that loneliness is an opportunity to “increase our capacity to know and relate with God. Jesus went down deeply into isolation to an extent I have never and will never experience. Maybe my little pieces of loneliness actually allow me to know Jesus a little more deeply. If I can know Jesus in that way, I can have greater capacity for compassion for Jesus, then I can have greater capacity for compassion for myself and for other people.”
Jason often gets asked how to fix loneliness. He says, “I wish I had a list of five easy things to not feel lonely any more. But the truth is I don’t know that I have that in my tool kit. What I have is life with God, and that’s what I really want to give to people.” Ultimately, he says, we need to bring ourselves (and teach others to as well) to have a conversation with God about our loneliness. “It’s about bringing our grief and our displacement and our restlessness to God. Because that’s where the healing is.”
The pain of loneliness, as with all pain, is yet another opportunity to walk with God. He says, “When we read in Psalm 23 about the ‘paths of righteousness’ and the ‘valley of the shadow,’ we need to realize they aren’t different things. They’re the same things. The path that the Lord leads us on—the path of righteousness—actually goes through the valley of the shadow of death. Life with God goes through these valleys.”
Based on his twenty-three years of experience in professional Christian ministry, Jason says most pastors are lonely—and a lot of people go into the pastorate because they’re lonely. He jokes, “This is the lonely person’s dream job—look at all the rapt attention you get and all the benefits of being connected to people.” But he says that in this season especially, “pastors really need to confront their own loneliness. If you don’t confront that, and you’re completely blind to it, it’s bad news for you and bad news for the people you lead.” He mentions, for example, that the major sex scandals we see are as deeply a problem with loneliness as they are about sexuality. “Jesus was lonely,” he says, “You can admit that you’re lonely too.”
Jason insists that we need to do discipleship around loneliness. “The truth is most middle schoolers are crying themselves to sleep at night because they’re lonely. Half of older adults are lonely. Single men and women are lonely. Married men and women are lonely. And they’re in your congregation,” he says. “We’re all lonely, and we need to do discipleship on this issue.”
What does this look like practically? One step is to teach on loneliness from a biblical perspective and look for loneliness in the story of Scripture. It also involves exploring how loneliness fits into the overarching creation-fall-redemption-restoration narrative. For example, we can explain that loneliness is a part of the human condition because we’re created in the image of a relational God (Creation). We can acknowledge the ways we participate in our own isolation to each other and unlearn habits that lead to disconnection and acquire skills that allow us to build healthy relationships (Fall). We can direct our desire for connectedness toward God in healthy ways, which increases our capacity to love as God loves (Redemption). We can ask hard questions about what reality we’re being formed for, for example, whether our screens are forming us for the reality of the beloved community, in which we’re following Jesus together, or are turning us in on ourselves (Restoration).
In addition to the teaching aspect, we’ve got some practical work to do in the way we approach relationships in the church, Jason says. “Everyone’s solution for loneliness in the church is to suggest someone joins a small group, but these small groups are usually segmented into groups of peers. The truth is that we’ve got to do a better job in the church of making intergenerational, high-commitment, multi-tiered relational networks.” Jason says we need different sorts of relationships: intimate relationships, relationships with heroes, relationships with mentor or parent-like figures, relationships with peers, and relationships with people that we are mentoring or caring for. “This is not market segmentation,” Jason says, “but it is discipleship in the Kingdom of God.”
Jason Gaboury is the author of Wait With Me: Meeting God in Loneliness (IVP). He is a regional ministry director with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and an Anglican friar in the Anglican Order of Preachers, and lives in New York City with his family.
This article is part of our ongoing series, Through the Valley: Real Conversations About Following Jesus When the Road Gets Hard, in which we're talking about discipleship in the parts of life that are difficult, complicated, or sometimes controversial.