3 Unhealthy Responses to Loneliness

Disappointed that life hasn’t turned out the way she expected, Holly began our conversation explaining the challenges she faces as a single mom. She bears the weight of responsibility for everything, and she feels exhausted and lonely.

Jessica recently turned 30, and until we met at Starbucks, she hadn’t known any other single Christian woman that old. At one point in our conversation, she haltingly asked me whether I struggle with my singleness. She wanted to know she’s not alone in the pain and loneliness she feels.

Though these conversations were with single people, they aren’t the only ones who feel lonely. Leadership is often lonely. The stay-at-home mom surrounded by toddlers all day feels lonely. The Christian teen who’s the only believer in his family feels lonely. The missionaries who just arrived overseas and are overwhelmed by the unfamiliar language and culture—they experience loneliness, too.

Since loneliness is a common human experience, what should we do when it creeps up? Here are three unhealthy ways to respond to loneliness.

1. Ignore the Why

When I was in seminary, one of my counseling professors often observed that every emotion is a theological statement. Essentially, we feel the way we do because we think the way we do.

So when you feel lonely, it’s helpful to identify why you feel that way. What is it you want that you don’t currently have? What does your loneliness express about your view of God, yourself, and your situation? Take time to evaluate what thoughts or beliefs your loneliness reveals.

2. Embrace Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

While loneliness itself isn’t a sin, we can respond to our loneliness in sinful ways.

Two common ways I see this playing out with the women in our church’s singles ministry is through codependent relationships as well as pornography and masturbation. Here is the thought process behind codependence:

I feel lonely, so I act on this emotion by clinging to someone I’ve identified as “my person.” They can be the same sex or the opposite sex, but whoever it is, I expect them to be the solution to whatever negative emotion I’m feeling. I expect them to assuage my loneliness, to satisfy me, to make me feel significant, to comfort me. I’ll do whatever needed to hold onto that person, since I’ve become emotionally dependent on them. That relationship has become an idol; it’s more important to me than God.

And here is the thought process behind pornography and masturbation:

I’m bored and lonely, so I’ll watch something that will hopefully quench that feeling inside—or at least delay it for a while. I’ll pretend that the person on the screen wants and understands me. And since no one else is here to comfort me, I’ll comfort myself through self-stimulation.

When we feel lonely, it’s so easy to turn to other people or things instead of God. Be alert to loneliness triggering a temptation to despair, or to run toward unhealthy relationships, or to masturbate, or to be angry at God. Be aware of your sinful proclivity, set guardrails for yourself, seek accountability, and pray that you will not fall into temptation.

3. Forget Truth

Our emotions are tainted by sin, so just because we feel something doesn’t mean it’s true. Emotions are a good gift that should be tested, not automatically trusted. So when you feel lonely, remind yourself of what is true. For example:

  • Although you feel alone, you’re not. God is with you. He will never leave or forsake you (Deut. 31:6).
  • God knows exactly how you feel, and he has felt the pain of loneliness too. Nowhere is that exemplified more than when Jesus hung on the cross (Matt. 27:46; cf. Isa. 53:3).
  • You know the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3–4). If you turn to him with your pain, he will comfort you. He is near to the brokenhearted, to the crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18).
  • God has a mighty and marvelous purpose for your situation and pain (Rom. 8:28). It won’t be wasted.

To remind yourself of truth you must first know the truth, and this only happens through studying God’s Word. So read it, ponder it, memorize it, and preach it to yourself.

Also, as you consider what is true about your loneliness, acknowledge that God in his sovereignty might not immediately solve it. In The Path of Loneliness, Elisabeth Elliot writes,

Our loneliness cannot always be fixed, but it can always be accepted as the very will of God for right now, and that turns it into something beautiful. Perhaps it is like the field wherein lies the valuable treasure. We must buy the field. It is no sun-drenched meadow embroidered with wildflowers. It is a bleak and empty place, but once we know it contains a jewel the whole picture changes. The empty scrap of forgotten land suddenly teems with possibilities. . . . And when, through a willed act we receive this thing we did not want, then Loneliness, the name of the hidden field nobody wants, is transformed into a place of hidden treasure.

God alone can take your loneliness and turn it into something beautiful, for his glory and your good. But this requires entrusting your loneliness to him—leaning into his character and trusting his sufficiency. So the next time loneliness hits, bring it to your Savior and Friend, confident that he cares for you.

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