God with us: A Gospel for the Lonely
In 1997, I stood at the altar and pledged my life-long love to my bride. It was a moment that has come to define me and everything about me. I was ready for it too- I longed to be married for years before meeting and marrying my wife. However, what caught me off guard during that sacred moment were the profound, yet simple words from our officiant. He said, “York, from this day forward, you will never be alone.” As he spoke these words to me, I suddenly realized what I was getting at this altar—a partner in life, a place in someone’s heart, a companion. My wife is not merely the solution to my loneliness, but then again, she is. It had not occurred to me until our officiant spoke those words of how God was solving one of my most basic needs and struggles in the face of this glowing young woman. It was overwhelming, and I broke down weeping in the middle of our ceremony. I have struggled with loneliness my entire life. Isolation and loneliness are areas of my life marked with shame, fear, and grief. Even now, after a life of happiness and belonging, I secretly struggle daily with loneliness—and I know I’m not alone.
While most people around us seem like they have it all together— independent and in need of nothing— the reality is loneliness and all the associated maladies like depression and suicidal thoughts are rampant. As an example, our college campuses are filled with over 16 million young, upwardly mobile and intelligent adults who seem like they have everything going for them. Yet at the same time, there is an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and suicide. For many, the source of these conditions is tied to loneliness. There are entire departments on every major university tasked with dealing with these realities. In the ministry I serve with, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, we routinely deal with the devastating impact loneliness has on faculty, students, and staff. Loneliness is all around us, hiding just underneath the veneer of a life well-lived. While we have never been more technologically connected in the history of humanity, loneliness is all around us. The great news of Jesus, however, is that a God is ‘with us.’ This phrase ‘with us,’ is replete throughout the Bible. Before Christ ascended, He declared that He would be with us always, ‘…even to the end of the age’ (Mt. 28:20); God was with His people in their desert wandering; God was with Mary in her shame and alienation; in the end, we will be with Him as the tabernacle of God is finally among mortals (Rev. 21:3).
This idea of constant companionship is the one, singular aspect of my personal faith that has propelled me deeper and deeper with Jesus. Whenever I’m tempted to forsake the faith, settle for mere ‘Churchianity,’ or just live a quiet religious life, it is God’s constant presence that calls me to the reality of being known and knowing. Like the gift of my wife, Jesus is quite literally ‘with me’ and it is His presence that keeps me going.
The gospel is good news for many reasons. The gospel solves are eschatological problem by making us acceptable to God. The gospel solves our forensic problem by cancelling the debt of our sin. The gospel, however, also solves our companionship problem, calling us deeper into relationship with God and others. We are restored to who we have been made to be as we are known and as we know— these realities are critical contours of the gospel. The good news of Jesus is ultimately the only real, enduring way that we can be freed from the oppression of loneliness and the despair that comes with it. My marriage combats loneliness in a small way, but it reminds me that God is ‘with me’ and that I am ‘with God.’ In Christ, we are never alone in an ultimate and enduring sense and that is great news to the lonely. By practicing presence, loving through listening, and being an active part of people’s story, we can be a window into God’s love for the people around us.
Several months after getting to know Tim, a new neighbor who moved in down the street from me, I was struck and caught off-guard when he came to me one afternoon and said, “York, I don’t know if I can make it here. I’m lonely. All my family and friends are back at home and I feel like I’m starting all over again.” I listened and asked questions before trying to ‘solve’ Tim’s problem. I asked things like, “What do you miss most about your friends?” and, “are there times you are lonelier than others?” After listening and asking several questions, I responded by saying, “Tim, I know how you feel. I have all my family and what few friends I have here but I’m constantly lonely. I don’t know why, but it has been a big part of my story.” I waited to see how he would respond. Looking down at the ground, Tim said, “I don’t know many guys who can admit that, it gives me a great deal of respect for you.” Tim and I have been friends and good neighbors to each other ever since and little by little, I’ve had the opportunity to share my faith in Jesus with him. Tim is not a religious man and, if anything, leans towards eastern religions but has recently taken an interest in Jesus.
I don’t think I’d take credit for that recent turn but what I will say is that I believe being present in his times of loneliness has given me credibility and a place to speak into his story. I can’t be the solution to Tim’s loneliness any more than I have been able to solve this enduring problem in my own life. I know, however, that Jesus being ‘with me’ has made all the difference in the world. The good news is good news for the lonely and one day God will wipe away our tears and make His home amongst mortals. For now, we have the deposit of this reality in the gospel and glimpses of it in friendships, spouses, church communities and with our neighbors.