By / Feb 17

This week marks the end of what can be considered the loneliest season of the year. 

The lonely season unofficially starts around Thanksgiving, extends through the Christmas season, peaks in the cold, dark days of January, and then finishes on Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, for many people the loneliness they experience continues long after this season has passed. 

Loneliness occurs when there is a significant mismatch or discrepancy between a person’s actual social relations and relationships they need or desire. A person may experience loneliness because they are alone or isolated (known as social loneliness), but they may also experience loneliness while surrounded by people if those relations lack an intimate attachment (known as emotional loneliness). 

While loneliness has always been a part of the human condition, the current age is facing what has been described as an “epidemic of loneliness.” And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic led to even more social isolation. Today, more than half of U.S. adults (58%) are considered lonely.

Here are three ways we can serve those who are suffering from loneliness.

1. Know which groups are most likely to be lonely

Almost everyone experiences loneliness at certain times of the year or at specific times throughout their lives. But there are times during the human lifespan when loneliness is more likely to be acute.

Age: A study published in 2020 found that levels of loneliness were highest for people in their 20s and lowest in the 60s with another peak in the mid-40s. More than 2 in 5 adults (42%) aged 18 to 34 report “always” feeling “left out,” compared to just 16% of people aged 55 or older who say the same. 

Race: People from underrepresented racial groups are more likely to be lonely compared to the total adult population.

Income: Those with lower incomes are lonelier than those with higher incomes. Nearly two-thirds of adults (63%) earning less than $50,000 per year are classified as lonely—10 points higher than those earning $50,000 or more.

Parents: Parents are also likely to be lonely. About 65% of parents and guardians are classified as lonely, a 10-point gap compared to non-parents (55%). They also report a strong sense of feeling left out, as 42% of lonely parents always feel this way compared to 24% lonely non-parents.

Mothers are especially likely to be considered lonely (69%)—seven points higher than the rate of loneliness among fathers (62%). Single parents are particularly likely to struggle with loneliness, as more than 77% classify as lonely.

Christians can get lonely too. Just because we have Jesus does not mean that we don’t desire other relationships. “It would be cruel to suggest that human friendship is irrelevant once one has befriended by Christ,” Dane Ortlund writes in his book Gentle and Lowly. “God has made us for fellowship, for union on heart, with other people. Everyone gets lonely—including introverts.”

2. Recognize that social media is likely to cause more loneliness than it cures

One of the reasons people in their 20s may feel more lonely is because they are becoming increasingly socially isolated compared to earlier periods of their life, such as high school or college.

Social media may heighten the effect, since it can make other people appear—whether true or not—to have richer and more meaningful social lives than the person who feels lonely. Engaging with people on social media can also give us a false sense of intimacy, making us feel as if we have a relationship with people we don’t really know. The result of this “Instagram illusion” is that we can eventually feel even more emotionally lonely than we did before. 

If someone has higher than normal levels of engagement on social media, it is likely that they are suffering from social isolation, emotional loneliness, or both. Make an effort to engage with them as directly as possible, preferably in person. Encourage or invite them to participate in offline activities either with you or with a group.

Churches can also help by sponsoring activities that facilitate engagement between people who might not know each other. Too often, our default setting is to host events where church people interact primarily with their own friends and family. Make an extra effort to reach out to those who are struggling to find connection.

3. Help the lonely find their “family.”

Psalm 68:6 tells us, “God sets the lonely in families” (NIV). While this may sometimes be true of the natural family, it should always be true for the family of God.

“In biblical terms, the people in the pews around us are our family,” says Megan Hill. “Like the members of our biological family, we haven’t chosen them for ourselves, but they have been chosen for us, and we are therefore inseparably bound to them. Because we belong to Christ, we belong to his family.” 

One of the most helpful ways to serve the lonely is by helping them find the community of believers who will help them establish the relationships they truly need. Invite the lonely to church, and show them where they can find a family in Christ that will be with them for all eternity. 

By / May 13

Have you ever had one of those times in your life when you could almost hear God saying, “Pay attention. I’m about to teach you something important!” Of course, God gives us those lessons almost daily, but sometimes his lessons come with alarm bells or pain or a terrible sense of loss. We may even say, “Am I going to survive this one, Lord?”

I hadn’t really thought through the issue of loneliness, for instance, growing up in a ministry home with five sisters and lots of other young people beginning in the ministry whom my folks took in from time to time. In fact, I would sometimes hide in the attic just to be alone to write in my journal. In the 65 years of my marriage with four wonderful children and about 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, my husband and I discovered conversation was no longer required for communication. I loved those first moments of waking up and reaching over to pat my sweet husband’s face on the pillow next to mine. And now that my husband is enjoying Heaven’s glories (one year this month), I still find myself remembering the softness of his face. And I find myself alone.

Then COVID-19 came suddenly into our lives, and loneliness wasn’t the only issue. Tornadoes came across the South destroying homes, businesses, and our beloved church and school—those precious buildings where we had so felt the presence of God.

The blessings in the midst of isolation

But then God came with some questions of his own. One morning while I still wallowed in my losses, it was as if God, in his kindness, said, “Jessie, your entire life I have surrounded you with my blessings—people to love, my beautiful world to see, wonderful adventures, opportunities to make a difference in other peoples’ lives, answered prayers, a life full of my grace. I’ve given you so many lovely things, but If I were the only person in the universe to make you happy, would I be enough to satisfy the longings of your heart?”

He reminded me that he wasn’t taking away “people” and “things” to make me unhappy; he was showing me all those second-hand distractions that were keeping me from discovering how absolutely and wonderfully his love and presence meets every longing of the human heart.

I also continue to enjoy the added privileges of being able to pray anytime, anywhere because of living alone. I sometimes find I am talking out loud with the Lord—not a good idea if I happen to be walking through the neighborhood as I pray. However, when I was a little girl, my bed was close to my parents’ bed, and I remember how comforting it was to sometimes hear my Dad praying in the night.

No matter how I may feel about my usefulness or ability to serve, and even when the loneliness sets in, I continue to learn that God truly is sufficient to meet my needs.

More important, I have learned the benefit of planned prayer time. Through the years, I have kept some sort of a written journal–a collection of the people and projects and deep, deep needs which I brought to the Lord either on a temporary or permanent basis. These included my own children, the students I taught, the other young people my husband and I mentored through the years, my own longings, and the requests that others asked to share with me. I would not dare reveal all that I wrote in those prayer journals; they are not the prayers of a great Christian, but the faltering, sometimes doubting, usually tearful requests of a fearful child of God.

But here is the point: When I bring all of my broken things and dump them in the Lord’s lap for help, he doesn’t reply, “Jessie, what a mess you are!”  Instead, he reaches out to me beyond the mess and pulls me to himself, wipes away my tears, and then goes to work fixing the problem.

Here is God’s promise in Luke 12:28-32: 

If God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow, won’t he more surely care for you? You have so little faith! And don’t worry about food—what to eat and drink. Don’t worry whether God will provide it for you.  These things dominate the thoughts of most people but your Father already knows your needs. He will give you all you need from day to day if you make the Kingdom of God your primary concern. (NLT)

There are other lessons in loneliness as well. Just because my circumstances have changed, doesn’t mean I can’t do things to serve others. I have elderly neighbors all around me, many of whom may have fewer resources than I. I love sharing special food treats when I find bargains, and I try to bake cookies just for fun. And I’d like to do more.

No matter how I may feel about my usefulness or ability to serve, and even when the loneliness sets in, I continue to learn that God truly is sufficient to meet my needs. And not only does he provide what I need, he meets me with his love and presence every moment of even the hardest days. Whatever our current and future circumstances, he promises to do the same for all his children.