More than ten years later, my memories of the red couch, the clink of the crutches, the daily drive to physical therapy, and the return home to the same couch are still viscerally strong. I had taken a year off of graduate school and left my community of friends and colleagues, the youth group I led, and my work in a high-profile college athletic department to return to my childhood home on the other side of the country.
There, a world-renowned surgeon performed a series of major operations on my left leg to fix the bone that was no longer healthy enough to hold the weight of my body. My recovery meant nearly six months of extremely limited mobility and a daily routine that began and ended with the couch. When I think about that year, it’s not the difficulty of the physical recovery or relearning how to walk or the steel plate holding my femur bone together that I remember the most. It was being 24 years old, unable to work or go to school, disconnected from friends and community, and feeling crippled by loneliness.
Lonely Seasons are Inevitable
Most of us have experienced lonely seasons. It could be a cross-country move, a new job we are still getting comfortable in, or a season of motherhood keeping us home. It might be attending a new church with no familiar faces or a health condition that has limited our ability to be in fellowship with other people. At some point, we’ve likely all experienced the feeling of wishing we had the company of others but not being able to find it. And for some, being lonely has not been just a temporary season but a long-term state, one they still find themselves longing to escape.
Loneliness has long been a problem. It’s even more pronounced in Western cultures that highly value individualism and don’t live communally. Coming out of a year where a global pandemic arrested nearly all in-person connection with others, loneliness itself has become its own kind of epidemic.
A study done just before the world shut down showed that three out of five Americans reported feeling lonely. While we will not know the quantifiable results of a year of social isolation and cancelled gatherings for some time, we can safely assume that those numbers are only growing, both inside and outside of the church.
Made for Relationship
When God spoke the world into being, he did so out of the eternal relationship he himself is a part of in the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In his book Experiencing the Trinity, Darrell Johnson writes, “At the center of the universe is a relationship, that is the most fundamental truth I know. At the center of the universe is a community.” We long for connection with others because it was hard-wired into us to flourish, to be at our best, when we are connected.
Research and science only back up what believers in Jesus know to be true about the inspired design of humanity. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has written that “…when loneliness persists for a long period…we enter into a chronic stress state. And that is what has dramatically consequential impacts on our health.” We were made for relationships, for knowing and being known by others, and we suffer physically as well spiritually when we are not.
But is it all that simple? We find ourselves in a season of feeling lonely, we know it is not good for us, so we just go make some friends and all of our problems are solved, right? Unfortunately, we all know there is no quick fix for being lonely. But we also know how important community is. We know how highly God values it and uses it for our good and his glory in the world, and with that truth in mind, we have to be people who are both noticers and investors.
Notice and Invest
The church, the fellowship of the saints, should be a place where no one feels alone. A place where our shared desire to gather as believers of the gospel compels us to live in response to the gospel, which simply means we understand the love Christ demonstrated for us and we look for ways to love others likewise.
Yet too many people would say that is not true of their experience in a local church. They experienced cliques they could not break through or left after a few months of visiting because no one even knew their name. It should not be this way.
We must be people who are looking for the lonely. We have to actively seek out the new faces, the visitors, the quiet guests who walk into our lives and church buildings. When people stumble into our social groups seeking connection, we have to do our very best to make sure they don’t leave without finding some.
It is all too easy to stay in our comfort zones, sit in our same chairs at church, or make small talk with the same people in our day-to-day routines. It is all too easy to keep ourselves at the front of our minds. So easy that we can go weeks or months at a time without realizing how many opportunities for inviting—for noticing—someone we might have otherwise missed.
Marked by Love for the Lonely
Open arms and hospitality are some of the most beautiful marks of God’s people. Our concern for one another should always be one way we distinguish ourselves from the world around us. We have to be willing to put down our phones, step out of what is comfortable, and walk around with our eyes wide open to the needs within our arm’s reach. Truly, sometimes that is as simple as a conversation, and other times it means giving more of ourselves. But every time we notice others, we are meeting God in the work to make the world “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
Trust the Return on Investment
Writer Sam Kim said, “The single greatest gift we still can give others outside of eternity is our time. Time is precious because it is the only commodity we cannot ever recoup.”2 We are only going to take two things with us when this life is over: God’s Word and God’s people. If those two things are the only things that will last forever, then we can trust that our return on those investments will be worth it because God is the one making them grow.
It may not be quick and it may not be easy. It may not always be obvious or measurable. But giving ourselves away for the sake of someone else is kingdom work, and kingdom work does not return void. Not for us, and not for the people we invest in.
In his book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Timothy Keller says, “…the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” The antidote for the loneliness in and around us may come down to having the humility to think of ourselves less, so we are quite naturally thinking of others more.
Hebrews 10:25 encourages us not to neglect meeting together. After a year of being forced to learn to live in so much isolation, it’s vital that we as women intentionally return to a beautiful part of God’s plan for growing us and our faith in him—and that’s one another.
We can Start Right Away
This week, introduce yourself to someone at church you have not met. Next time you want to scroll social media, check in with a friend instead. Once a month, make a double batch of your favorite cookies and bring a plate to your neighbor. No matter what it looks like, wake up every day and ask God for the eyes to see the many little ways we can step into the places someone might desperately need us to.
May we be women who notice and invest, whose minds are so often on others we are always expectant for God to present opportunities to encourage someone else. May we trust that God can fill our hearts to overflowing when we’ve given them away in Jesus’ name.
Meet the Author:
Katie Blackburn is a wife, mama to six, a writer, teacher, and learner. She is saved by grace alone and helped along the way by cold brew coffee and quiet mornings at the kitchen table with her Bible and her words. Katie is a contributing writer to the Coffee + Crumbs blog, and her writing has also been featured on Risen Motherhood, Deeply Rooted Magazine, the ERLC blog, MOPS, and Motherly. You can read more of her everyday words on Instagram or on her blog.