“Who might feel lonely?” I recently asked a room full of people that. I planned to give them a few minutes to come up with some examples. But within seconds – not minutes – the group began offering examples of lonely people faster than I could write on the whiteboard:
Single parents. The elderly. Those living alone. People in ministry. People in difficult marriages. Young people. Young renters with little sense of belonging to their local area. People facing life transitions such as retirement or heading to university. The bereaved. Empty nesters. Those struggling with ill health or poor mobility.
We cannot escape the reality: we are a lonely bunch. We’ve all felt the ache of loneliness either in passing, manageable ways or in a more chronic, severe form – and it hurts. Proverbs 14:10 describes the pain of loneliness as this: “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (ESV). It’s the experience that there is no one who feels the way you feel, no one who intimately knows you, no one who is with you.
It might be easy to think the antidote is community. And the Bible does indeed encourage us to love one another well: to be there for one another, knowing each other, encouraging others to persevere. But, even more than that, scripture gently nudges us to reframe those experiences of feeling forsaken by inviting us to step into the story of one who knows this pain the most.
Come to the Lonely Place
Come with me to a grove of olive trees on a mountain side in the middle of the night (Mark 14:32–42). It’s a dark and lonely place. A small group of men are winding their way through the shadows when suddenly the group divides. Some men appear to sit down on the outskirts of the grove while four others continue deeper into the garden. The four then stop again, and one looks particularly distressed. His face is clouded with grief, and you hear these words leave his lips: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch.” A simple way to bear with one who is in agony.
The troubled one leaves the three and goes a little farther into the shadowy grove. His distress seems to grow, and he falls to the ground. In the glint of the moonlight you see beads of sweat – or is that blood – gather on his forehead. You catch a little of what he says: “Abba, Father. Not what I will but what you will.”
Suddenly you remember the friends – the ones who resolved to never fail this man. Are they fetching tissues or weeping with the distressed one? No – they are sleeping. Their eyes are shut to the sorrow of their friend. He has borne the pain and anguish of the last hour on his own. Twice more he asks the three to keep watch and twice more he finds them asleep.
Is there something of Jesus’ experience here that echoes your own? Where the ache and hollowness of some grief gnaws at your soul and there is no one to keep watch and pray with you? Do you know what it is like to bear your burdens on your own, and even the closest of friends let you down?
Meet the Lonely One
The man in this dark garden knows. He is the Lonely One and his name is Jesus. Isaiah describes him as a man of suffering and familiar with pain (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus experienced the pangs of loneliness. He knows what it is to lack faithful friends who know and care. He understands what it is like to have eleven people nearby and still feel alone. In him, you have a friend who’s been there too.
Loneliness’ story claims that nobody knows or understands. Jesus’ story says, “I do.”
The Lonely One’s Mission
Though his friends failed him, Jesus was not entirely alone in that garden. Even in those troubled moments Jesus still cried out, “Abba, Father.” But his story of pain was not over – his work not yet done. Hours later, the wood of another tree would be laid on his back as he carried his cross outside Jerusalem. On that cross, the sweetness of his relationship with his Father would be severed. Instead of “Abba!” we hear “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is the cry of an abandoned son, a cry of genuine agony. It should be our cry, but it’s his because he was bearing the full weight of God’s wrath in our place. Now, in our own suffering, in our own lonely places, we can hear these words: “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
We need never know the ultimate loneliness of being forsaken by God because Jesus did on our behalf.
Our Lonely Prayers Transformed
What difference does this presence make?
The assurance of God’s presence with us means our beliefs – and our prayers – can change. Here’s how one author put it. “I’ve started to rephrase certain prayers. I usually ask God to be with me or us or them. He’s good so I know He answers, but He’s also answered already. He’s promised to be with, to never leave, never forsake me or us or them. So now I pray – ‘God help us to believe that you are with us.’ It’s made all the difference.” – Jackie Hill Perry (Instagram)
We are not alone! His everlasting arms are secure beneath, his Spirit is a seal within, our Lord and King could not be closer. And his closeness is loving, active and good.
Until Jesus returns or calls us home, lonely moments are here to stay. None of us is immune from their pain. But under every moment when we are tempted to see no-one near, we can lift our eyes and know: “We are not forsaken.”