In high school, I would cry quietly in my bed. I felt like an outsider in my faith community. I felt a measure of rejection from my family. I felt confusion, shame, and insecurity about my sexuality. All of these added up to one simple feeling: I was lonely. So I wept and prayed every night for Jesus to show up, physically, in my room. He never did.
Throughout my twenties, I’ve gone through periods of asking for that same thing. The reasons have changed, as have the pressures and responsibilities of life. But that silent, desperate plea has not. Please, Jesus. Now. You did it for Thomas. Can’t you do it for me? Just for long enough to know that you’re really here; that my life really matters to you; that this painful obedience and denial is worth something immeasurable to you. But still he resists.
I’ve had a thousand reasons why I’ve felt lonely over the years. When I was young, my dad left, so I felt lonely when I looked up at the family pictures in my friends’ houses. I played classical music and enjoyed musical theater, so I felt lonely when my friends met up after school for garage band sessions. I knew my sexuality was different, so I felt lonely when I couldn’t talk about that boy in the back of that class with my friends because not only was it weird to them; it was a black mark of a sinful disposition. As kids, our loneliness can feel insurmountable.
Enter adulthood. As grown-ups, we feel more empowered to “solve” our loneliness. Some find a spouse. Others find community. Lots find both. We learn to talk about these relationships in particular ways. They help us draw closer to Jesus, bring us life, and become our other half. We use words like love and delight and pleasure and intimacy to describe the ways we interact with others—words that prove we are no longer supposed to feel lonely. Because if someone has love and delight, pleasure and intimacy in their life, how can they still be lonely? That’s how we talk.
But it’s not what we feel, at least in some holistic sense. Loneliness persists. Because the truth is to be human is to be lonely.
Or more precisely, to be human is to feel loneliness in at least some small way, always. We may be individuals created in the image of God, but we are all individuals. No one person can fully and completely relate to another, nor can any number of friends completely satisfy our need to be known in our entirety. Even sex itself—the ultimate experience of unification—is often a not-so-subtle attempt to make oneself completely known to another. But that most physical of connections still cannot break the bonds of our unique sense of self. It’s not just that we must face our death alone; it’s that we must face our life as a created being that is unlike any other created being that has ever been created.
That reality causes us to feel dissonance in our own lives. Because we believe ourselves to be rational and logical, we believe it is logical and rational to assume that the knowing of another or a group of others in marriage or community must therefore satisfy our need to be known. We preach this message in our churches when we uphold marriage as the gold standard and community groups as the vehicles for our being known. Our solution to “I’m lonely” is “Get plugged in”, as if there is a current of emotional and relational satisfaction that one simply needs to connect himself into in order to abate his suffering. It’s an easy way out of an impossibly difficult reality of our human condition: we need not be alone to be lonely.
When the loneliness persists within relationships, our shame grows. We believe we shouldn’t feel lonely anymore, so the loneliness must be a result of some deep selfishness or sinfulness. This shame pushes us into emotional isolation, and the pressure increases in strength until we eventually explode. All of this, because we have not embraced our loneliness as part of what it means to be human.
So how can we integrate loneliness into our lives in a way that releases the pressures that our isolation creates? First, we need to release ourselves from the shame of our loneliness. 1 Cor. 13:12 tells us that while we have been fully known by the Father, we can only know in part while we are in our earthly dwelling. We should expect to feel loneliness in our life, even when we are surrounded by relationships and communities of love and acceptance. There is no shame in this feeling. To love well and still be lonely is not a sign of failure in a relationship; it is a signal of God’s having made us unique creations that only he knows fully.
With this in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised that we need different expressions of love from different people, and that some of these expressions are shunned by our church simply because they have become sexualized by our culture. In this respect, some of our loneliness is culturally imposed. After all, scripture does not prohibit men from holding hands. Scripture does not prohibit a deep, emotionally intimate relationship between friends simply because one or both are married. Scripture does not demand that one relationship meet all of our needs. But our churches do. As does our culture. What is a “Happily Ever After” ending but the full satisfaction of one person in his/her other for all time?
We’re told these lines exist to protect us from physical (or emotional!) infidelity – sex, or the potential therein. But as Christians, we must recognize that embodying love means becoming the physical presence of Jesus for others. We must work towards a radical form of love that does not limit physical affection or emotional and spiritual intimacy to marriage.
Anytime the flesh is brought into the picture – including love incarnate – it brings with it risks of crossing boundaries. We must fearfully accept these risks as opportunities to grow in our capacity to love. After all, love cannot grow if it is not challenged or practiced. In a culture that has sexualized nearly all forms of emotional, spiritual, and relational intimacy, it is the responsibility of the Christian to reclaim these forms of love for the Kingdom of God.
In the measure that we take up this challenge, we must also be willing to embrace failure in equal measure with success in our explorations of incarnate love. It’s ironic that 1 Corinthians 13 has become a declaration of love and fidelity within marriage because the “Love Chapter” challenges believers to practice a form of love that comes at a cost many relationships couldn’t countenance. Our posture in marriage is largely risk-averse, and we reinforce this posture within our communities. Any hint of potential sin is a signal to run the other way.
That’s not the working of a 1 Cor. 13 form of love. This radical love bears all things, not just safe things. It believes all things, not just those things that reinforce our sense of relational security. It hopes all things, not simply the things that satisfy our relational needs. Most challenging of all, it endures all things, including the scars and burns left when our weakness is exposed and our experiments fail. While we don’t seek out failure, we don’t shy away from challenging our capacity to love simply because failure is a real option. In this way, we challenge a culture of isolation by becoming that physical presence of Jesus for others.
But even if we overcome our shame of loneliness and start practicing a fervent, radical, and incarnational love, we will still experience loneliness. As a condition of our humanity, it is unavoidable. Only in eternity will our feeling of being fully known match our knowledge of that reality. Until that day, we must stop striving to fill the void of loneliness and learn to be content in its expression: that in our admission of loneliness, we are not alone.
Instead of growing anxious about our loneliness; instead of attempting to fill it with relationships or marriage or community or sex; instead of despairing and kicking and silently screaming in anger; we can sit with our loneliness and recognize that even in that darkest of places, we are experiencing something that our Savior experienced as well.
The truth is, I was not alone in my room as I wept and begged for Jesus to be with me. I was surrounded by the silent prayers and flowing tears of thousands of others who were looking for the same thing. While I can’t change the isolation I felt so long ago, I can choose today to embrace the reality of my humanity and loneliness, reject the shame that comes with it, learn to become the physical presence of Jesus for others, and admit that even in the best of times and relationships, I won’t feel fully known until I am united with my creator in eternity. Loneliness may persist, but I am not alone.
Brian Gee writes from his own experiences at the intersection of sexuality and conservative Christianity. He holds an MA in Biblical Exegesis from Wheaton College Graduate School and has worked within the Christian publishing industry for most of his career. In his spare time, Brian works as a freelance photographer and a professor of philosophy. Despite his southern California upbringing, Brian lives with his wife and three kids in the Chicago suburbs. He can be followed on Twitter: @briansgee.