what lies behind loneliness … Romans 8

“It’s so lonely I can’t bear looking at it,” Mark said to me.  We were on our third date looking at a Hopper painting.  He winced as he said it.  And he never called me again.

Loneliness is odd.  You can feel lonely even when you’re with someone else. Sometimes being with other people only accentuates our loneliness. The Hopper painting that made Mark feel so lonely was the one above: “Morning Sun”:

The interesting thing was, Mark had already told me that he loved spending time alone.  He said he spent days on end completely alone. He glanced at me when he said it, as if evaluating whether I’d be able to handle that. He was a research scientist at a university.  His work involved the kind of uninterrupted thinking time that all artists, inventors, philosophers and creative types of every description not only require but crave. It’s like a hunger in us. We run dry after a while if we spend too much time in the company of others. We need time alone.

So why then do we fear the very thing we love?  Why did my scientist date recoil as if he’d been burned when he looked at this Hopper painting? After all, the woman is looking out of a window.  She is presumably looking at something.  And there’s more.  She isn’t really alone. The artist is there, observing her with compassion.

To Mark, however, in that moment, the woman was terribly and awfully alone.  Edward Hopper the artist managed to make Mark the scientist feel her loneliness. Hopper affected Mark’s emotions, the way all artists aspire to do. Harrison Ford explained on Charlie Rose recently about why the script for the Jackie Robinson movie grabbed him: “I’m still ambitious. I’m an actor.  I’m not happy unless I’m working.  But I don’t get to work enough because I’m picky about what I do. I only want to do scripts that interest me.  If I can’t be a leading man anymore, I’ll be a character actor. As Ben Kinglsey told me, ‘when you put on a mask, you can tell the truth.’  But there aren’t even enough interesting character actor parts. The script for ’42’ wasn’t talky. Talky is bad in a script.  A good script makes you feel something.”  Harrison Ford’s eyes gave his trademark serious yet yearning twitch.  I felt something just watching him.  The years evaporated.  I saw Indiana Jones on the screen in front of me.

Ford is a gifted actor, just as Hopper was a gifted painter.  And Harrison Ford was right.  In ’42’, when a racist pitcher hurls a ball at Jackie Robinson and it slams into his head, the entire audience ducks and winces. We literally feel his pain. That moment is more effective than any 3-D special effect, because it’s not a special effect. It’s an actor, in this case, Chadwick Boseman, empathizing so deeply with his character that the audience empathizes, too. The movie implies Jackie Robinson was the loneliest man on the baseball pitch, and yet ironically at the same moment the movie brings us all into the loneliness of his world and thereby expands it.

Which brings us back to loneliness.  What is loneliness?  And if we actually like being alone sometimes, is it even really loneliness that we call loneliness?  Do we have the right vocabulary? Is there another word, another language, another world that truly evokes and explains and heals the feeling we call loneliness?

It’s not an abstract question. Loneliness can drive even the calmest most rational human to extreme, dangerous and even violent behavior. The press is full of speculation that loneliness was a driving force behind the Boston marathon bombers, the Columbine massacre and any number of other violent acts.  See e.g. “The Teenage Brain May Have Driven Tsarnaevs to Violence.”  The lonely brain is susceptible.  A lonely person will sacrifice what she knows to be right in order to satisfy her hunger.  A lonely person can become what we call desperate. He will do things that are backwards.

In fact, we usually do the opposite of what we should. When we’re lonely, the more we cling to others, the more we tend to drive them away.  We behave in ways that achieve the opposite of what we crave.  Murder, for instance, isn’t calculated to give us friends. Or we accept bad relationships because we lie to ourselves that they’re better than nothing. Or we scream and shout and claim we’re neglected, making the object of our so-called affection run for the hills.

Loneliness can also compel us to erect walls around ourselves.  Sometimes, we’re so afraid of being hurt, we build walls to “protect” ourselves. Our reaction prevents us from finding the kind of restorative relationships that can end our loneliness. What is wrong with us?  And what is this beast called loneliness?  What will truly feed it, satisfy it–or at least starve it to death?

Romans 8 is a long and beautiful exposition on what it truly means to be a Christian.  It opens with the claim that there is “no condemnation” for the person who is “in” Christ Jesus. It moves on to claim that “all things work together for good” for those who love Christ and are called according to his purpose.  Romans 8:28.  This is a verse that many people cling to with every bone in their body. They call it their “life verse” and trust that God has a purpose in even the most seemingly meaningless tragedies. The chapter ends with the promise that “nothing” can separate us from the love of Christ.  We may understand intellectually why never being “separated” from Christ might have something to do with satisfying our loneliness.  Our heads can understand the concept that if we believe in Jesus we get accepted into His family.  We might see how the kind of forgiveness Christ both offers and calls us to  might relationships and bring healing to our wounds.  But how do we truly believe that?  How do we take it into our lonely hearts, not just our heads?  I think the answer lies in Paul’s opening statement that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.  But what does condemnation have to do with loneliness?


Because I could tell you that when Paul says everything works together for good for those who love Christ, it was good that that scientist never called me again. I could speculate that I never could have handled dating such a loner dude. I probably couldn’t have.  I could further tell you that Mark closing the door, opened the door for me to have a much better relationship with a man much more suited to me.  And right now, that would be true.  But what if that had been my last date ever?  What if no one ever called me again?  It happens. It happens all the time. And in addition to not dating, there are many people in this world who are sick, dissatisfied, old, drug addicted and alone.  Where is the good in that?  How can God satisfy our desire for companionship in a world where sometimes we are desperately alone?

I would suggest that the deeper, and often undiagnosed problem, is this issue of condemnation; the real problem is guilt.  We all fall short of other people’s expectations and our own, and our instinct is to hide.  Witness Adam and Eve.  The moment they bit into that apple, they lost their fellowship with God and hid themselves.  They felt naked.  They felt it keenly, as if it hurt them.  As with Adam and Eve, our inadequacies cause us shame.  When our marriages fall apart, for instance, we are embarrassed.  We feel like we’ve failed.  We want to hide our failures, even though the only way to heal them, of course, is to share with others who can say to us. “Don’t worry.  We’ve all failed.  And we come through.  It’s okay.  I still love you.  Maybe your spouse will never love you again, but it doesn’t mean you’re not lovable. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”

Actually, sometimes we are bad people. Luckily, there’s an even better answer to our inadequacies, hidden in plain sight in this opening line of Romans 8.  There is “no condemnation” for those in Christ even though we are all guilty.  No one is good. I don’t mean we’re not lovable.  We are.  I don’t even mean we’re awful.  We’re made in God’s image.  But none of us lives up to the standards to which we aspire.  Even if we’re moral relativists and we’ve bought into the (philosophically untenable) notion that there is no right or wrong and the only standards which matter are the ones we set up for ourselves, none of us live up to even those.  My pastor, Tim Keller, once said that if we wore a recording device around our necks for a week which recorded every standard we say other people should live up to, none of us would live up to even that code.  Listen to ourselves.  We condemn others all the time:  “I can’t believe he did that.  Can you imagine?  I never would have done that.  I never would have treated anyone like that.”  Of course we all have.  We just forget. Or do we….

Because maybe a lot of our self-sabotaging behavior, perhaps all of it, stems from this guilt, a guilt God did not design us to be able to handle. So what Paul is talking about here is that when we are “in” Jesus Christ, there is no more of this condemnation.  Because Jesus took the punishment we deserve, He accomplished what all of our “trying harder” never could.  When God looks at us, He sees Christ’s record.  Christ lived the life we all aspire to but never can, and then He took the consequences we deserve.  When we are “in” Him, there is no more condemnation. There’s no more shame.  There is no more unremitting guilt.  There is no longer any need to hide. We don’t need to put on a mask to tell the truth.  In theory, being a Christian should mean the end to hypocrisy.  We no longer have to pretend we’re perfect.  “Sh*t,” we can say.  “I just f*cked up again.”  And then we catch ourselves, grin sheepishly, and realized we’ve just done it again.

Because perfection is like walking on water.  It’s something a human can only do in that moment of suspended time when we’re lost in prayer with the God who loves us, made us and died for us.  The rest of the time, we feel like we’re sinking and struggling not to go under.  We all have negative and critical thoughts.  We are hypocrites who condemn others with withering glares for the very things we do all the time.  We present ourselves as perfect.

Worse, I think, we engage in not just these covert sins, but overt ones.  Most Christians like to talk about their sins as something in their past that God has “saved” them from.  And that is true – but only in a sense.  The Christian journey is one in which we go from “glory to glory.”  Yes, sometimes God lifts us out of chemical dependency, sex addictions, dishonesty in the workplace, and a whole host of other behaviors which will guarantee an empty, miserable lonely life.  But sometimes we fall right back into the same behaviors.  The author of the famous Hound of Heaven poem, who so movingly describes God pursuing him as relentlessly and passionately as a bloodhound, is supposed to have died a lonely miserable death in the slums of London, falling prey to the same opium addiction that caused him to celebrate God’s victory.

So where is the victory there?  Where is the hope?  Where is the joy?  Where is the end of loneliness if we find ourselves sometimes doing the same old same old?  Why should anyone even want to be a Christian if the Bible doesn’t promise a pain free life?

The answer is all around us.  It’s shimmering in the air.  Romans 8 is quivering with it.  The answer is that no matter what happens to us in this world, whether it’s our fault or that of others or a mixture of the two, we have only to reach out and beg for God’s help.  We need only ask.  We need only crash through the walls of pride we’ve foolishly erected around our wounded hearts and cry out for the living breathing God: help me!!!!

And He will.  He does.  He is longing to.  He adores us.  He has every right to condemn us.  He knows everything we’ve ever done or thought.  And instead of condemning, He suffered for us.  He felt our pain.  He didn’t feel it in His imagination, the we we do when watching a movie like ’42’ or when looking at a painting like ‘Morning Sun.”  He did it in reality.  Jesus really suffered the eternal consequences of sin for us.  He really did.  And then He rose again, and holds out his hands to each of us, without condemnation, only love.

That’s what Romans 8 is singing about.  That’s why Paul writes about the joy of those who live “in” the Spirit.  We become united with Jesus.  We become one with Him.  We live “with” Him.  We can never be “separated” from Him.

How does that play out in real life?  What if we fall back into doing something we know is wrong, and find ourselves unable to dig ourselves out of the pit of our own making?  What if we’re not sorry yet – at least not sorry enough to stop?  Right here, in the unrepentant yet still believing heart is where grace and truth meet and dance.  It’s here where the believer lives.  How can God say through Paul that there is “no condemnation” for us even when we sin again and aren’t quite ready to stop?

All I know is this: no matter what we have done, continue to do, or will do, all we can do is hold onto Christ.  We can beg for more of His Spirit.  We can ask to drink from the river of life.  We can keep on crying out.  We press in.  We cling.  We ask, seek and knock.  We lean in – a phrase originally from the Bible not Sheryl Sandberg.

And if we sense that we don’t feel sorry, we can ask for the gift of guilt. Because guilt, real guilt, isn’t a bad thing.  It’s a gift of God that is meant to spur us on to true repentance.  And from that place of sorrow, deep remorse about the sin of sin, God can lift us up into the beautiful place of forgiveness.

Condemnation comes from hell.  It says we can never be free.  It’s a lie.  Godly guilt leads to sorrow, repentance and new life.  2 Cor. 7:10 (“the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.”)

A world based on forgiveness rather than condemnation is a beautiful place to live.  It’s a world that gives us the sweetness of God’s presence, and it has nothing to do with our behavior.  We’re “free” from the law.  We live in the Spirit.  All we need to do is groan from our hearts, and the Holy Spirits translates our groaning into the most beautiful articulate painting of a prayer ever imagined or created.  Romans 8:26.

And somehow in that world of freedom, it’s all going to be more than alright.  Somehow, we leave sin behind the way people on a rocket ship see earth getting further and further away until it’s a distant blue ball.  Somehow the more we recognize our weaknesses, the bolder we become.  Our poverty opens the door for the sweetness of relying on Him.

God’s ways are not our ways.  But they’re better. The artist is always there.  He sees us.  But what we forget is that He is watching us without condemnation.  He is watching us with love. He wants us to stop hiding from Him, lift our faces to Him, and enjoy the warmth of the morning son.

Because He loves us.  So yes, maybe loneliness is the right word for that painful ache we can feel at the most unexpected times.  We are all lonely for unconditional and undeserved love.  We feel alone in our pain, alone in our guilt, alone in our condemnation.  “I feel lonely,” we think, and the pain presses deeper.  Sometimes we feel guilty for feeling lonely, as if there were something wrong with us for being alone.  But loneliness is a gift if we use it well.  The pain can spur us on to seek the sweetness of the relationship we were created for.  Maybe we miss the mark because we look to this world to solve our loneliness, when we need to look to the source of love first.  We are already loved by the one who made us.  We are already forgiven.  If we look out that window, we will find the most beautiful view of all.  We’ll find the acceptance we’ve always hungered for.

God’s love so fills us to overflowing, He enables us to give to others.  He helps us take our minds off ourselves and love others – and in that kind of math, loneliness dissolves.  We discover we no longer think the words, “I feel lonely.”  So no matter how many people never call us again or hit us on purpose with baseballs or hate us sometimes even with good cause, we can keep on giving, keep on loving, keep on holding our heads high, because the more people take from us, the more room in our hearts there is to cry out to God and allow Him to fill us to overflowing with the thing we most want.  We are called to the purpose of helping Him love the world.  That’s what Paul says here in Romans 8 – we are the first of many to come.  We’re to give others the same helping hand Christ gives us.  And even when we fail miserably at that, there is no loneliness in our failure.  We can admit it, be deeply sorry, be deeply forgiven, and keep on engaging in God’s world, a world full of morning sun.

For as Paul says: if the only perfect one doesn’t condemn us, who can?

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on May 7, 2013