Having been an ordained minister for 32 years and licensed psychologist for 18, I (Gary Barnes) have had the privilege of being entrusted with many personal stories of loneliness. As individuals from all walks of life have opened up with their struggles, I’ve been deeply affected from two different directions. From a psychological perspective, I’ve been struck by the depth of pain humans encounter in their experience of loneliness. And from a theological perspective, I’ve been amazed at how significant human loneliness is to the triune God.
This dilemma has taken on fresh importance as it’s become intertwined in the debate over same-sex marriage. Difficulties in interaction are especially pronounced with the exchange of religious and theological arguments. My aim here is not to “win” an argument over same-sex marriage. My hope is to move us all from debate to dialogue, particularly as it relates to the vital issue of loneliness.
Here are five popular myths that heighten loneliness for us all.
Myth #1: Loneliness is a result of something bad, and therefore no one should have to experience it.
Truth #1: Even before sin entered human experience, God described loneliness as “not good,” yet he used it to bring about a greater good.
Aloneness isn’t just important to our triune God; it’s central to his design for our dealings with each other and with him. Nor is loneliness simply a result of personal choices or the world’s groaning under sin. Before the fall in Genesis 3, God proclaims, “It is not good for man to be alone” even as he evaluates his sin-free world. In infinite wisdom, then, God created a perfect human being incomplete on purpose.
In his book Fill These Hearts, Christopher West refers to this as a “burning yearning” desire meant to drive us to God’s design so we’d experience our eternal destiny with him: “The yearning of eros reveals that we are incomplete, and that we are in search of another to make ‘sense’ of ourselves.” In Genesis 2 God ordains the marriage of male and female as another aspect of his design for our aloneness. Yet he never designed marriage to fulfill the incompleteness or eradicate the aloneness. Rather, it more fully reveals our need for our ultimate destiny—to be in union with him.
Myth #2: Loneliness is a result of singleness, a second-class transitional stage of life on the way to the first-class state of marriage.
Truth #2: Loneliness isn’t a result of singleness. Single and married are equal and necessary image bearers of God. Blessings of fullness and contentment (though not full completeness) are to be experienced in both states.
Neither marriage nor singleness should be deified or deprecated. Marriage and singleness reflect the love of God in different and necessary ways. While spouses reflect the exclusive nature of God’s love, singles in community reflect its inclusive nature. We don’t exist as isolated inviduals. Sexuality and bonding are part of relationships. As Stanley Grenz explains in Sexual Ethics:
This relationship between sexuality and bonding is present in single existence as well, even though the sex act as the “sacrament” of the bond is absent. . . . Single Christians, therefore, who because of their abstinence from genital sexual expression are often in touch with their affective sexuality, have a unique ministry of love to offer in service to the Lord within the fellowship of the community of Christ.
Myth #3: We can avoid loneliness by getting married.
Truth #3: Loneliness can be equally experienced in singleness or marriage. In fact, many can feel more alone in their marriage than they did in their singleness.
Even a great sense of satisfaction in marriage or singleness will reveal remaining unsatisfaction. As Augustine reminds us in his famous prayer, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” We have a God-wired incompleteness only he can fill. Yet sin causes us to exacerbate our loneliness and dissatisfaction by trying to fill this God-shaped vacuum with substitutes.
Psychological research yields “discovered truths” confirming this “revealed truth.” In Evidence Based Practices for Christian Counseling and Psychotherapy, which examines the outcomes in individuals and relationships, Scott Stanley and I (Gary Barnes) report on more than 30 years of scholarship in the field of marital health and success. The two primary variables considered are stability and satisfaction. Those in the stable and satisfied group are aiming to help each other grow and to protect “differentiated unity” or “oneness not based in sameness.” In other words, outcomes aren’t so much about finding the right person as they are about being the right person who makes right choices over time.
Myth #4: Loneliness can be avoided by meeting my sexual needs.
Truth #4: Trying to meet non-sexual needs sexually will heighten loneliness. Only when we meet our non-sexual needs in non-sexual ways will we begin to adequately address our loneliness.
Healthy sexual intimacy requires many intentional healthy non-sexual choices. Sexual activity alone will never fulfill our emotional or spiritual needs.
In his book Soul Virgins, Doug Rosenau defines a soul virgin as “one who continuously seeks to value, celebrate, and protect God’s design for sexuality—body, soul, and spirit—in oneself and others.” The goal should be to build a Christlike character that seeks sexual wholeness and celebrates deep, fulfilling intimacy appropriate to each type of relationship. Along the journey, non-sexual needs must be met non-sexually.
Myth #5: Limiting my freedom will increase my loneliness.
Truth #5: Trying to preserve freedoms will heighten loneliness. In fact, having fewer choices decreases loneliness. The paradoxical truth is this: “In choosing to have less, you choose to have more.”
Christians agree that we are called to love as God does. We love with benevolent power rather than self-serving power. We love as whole people, as male and female, as single or married. And God showcases this benevolent love in the person, work, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Stanley and I (Barnes) show that one of the key predictor variables for satisfaction and stability in marital relationships is “dedication commitment” in contrast to “constraint commitment.” In “constraint commitment,” couples stay together because of what it would cost them to split up. In “dedication commitment,” couples remain together because of personal sacrifices for the sake of “us.” Self-limiting choices are more closely associated with greater stability and satisfaction.
If we’re not careful, our pursuit of satisfaction and avoidance of loneliness will lead us to treat others as things created for our sake, not as persons created for God’s sake. The solution isn’t found in more self-indulgent liberties, but in limiting ourselves with the compelling love of “the great mystery”—the sacrificial love displayed in Christ’s union with the church (Eph. 5:31–32).
Looking to Another
There are many popular myths associated with our experience of loneliness. This isn’t a gay or straight problem. We must look to God’s Word and re-examine our own beliefs and strategies in dealing with loneliness, and, as a result, better love one another in our common struggle.
Ultimately, the solution to our loneliness is not found in another person. It’s found in God.