Do you ever feel lonely? During this era of COVID-19 social distancing, it’s an important question. The more isolated we are the more likely we are to feel lonely.
But it’s also possible to be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. Does that sound like a contradiction? It isn’t, you know. It’s entirely possible to be in a crowded shopping mall, on a packed train, at a lively party or even at a church full of people and still feel lonely.
Recent research confirms what we probably already know instinctively. In our increasingly crowded and frenetic world, there is a silent, less publicised epidemic impacting our society – the epidemic of loneliness.
The evidence is startling. Feeling lonely can pose a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity, according to research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Utah, USA….‘There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,’ Holt-Lunstad told the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in August 2017, adding, ‘Many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic’. The challenge we face is what can be done about it.’
Addressing this real challenge is no simple task. Loneliness is a complex state of being for which there is no simple solution. While connecting regularly with family or friends can certainly help to assuage the symptoms of loneliness, it doesn’t address the root cause.
You see, loneliness isn’t just a reflection of the state of our external environment, although that certainly can have an impact. Loneliness is primarily a direct reflection of the state of our internal environment. Loneliness emanates from within, it doesn’t penetrate from without.
While supportive ‘horizontal’ relationships with true friends can be extremely beneficial, it’s the quality of our ‘vertical’ relationship with the One who created us that matters the most. Given that we were all created in God’s image (cf. Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1-2), a right view of our Creator elicits a right view of ourselves as His image-bearers, which in turn provides the healthy attitudes and perspective necessary for quality ‘horizontal’ relationships with other image-bearers. Without the solid foundation of security and meaning in God, our life will be susceptible to the ravages of all the trials and storms that come our way (cf. Matt. 7:24-27), including loneliness.
Romans 8 arguably one of the most encouraging, and theologically significant chapters in the Bible. There is a brief four word statement towards the end of Romans 8 which encapsulates this foundational life-principle. Phrased as part of a rhetorical question by the Apostle Paul, it simply reads:
“God is for us”. (Rom. 8:31)
A proper understanding of each word in this statement may help us to better appreciate how critical this principle is to both our eternal wellbeing as well as our temporal experience of life on earth. It provides us with the anchor for our vertical relationship, on which hinges the quality of our horizontal relationships. Let’s briefly look at each word in turn.
God is for us
Who is this Being who is for us? A full grasp of the nature of God is impossible to attain. He described Himself to the prophet Moses as “I AM WHO I AM” (cf. Exod. 3:14), which “points to his self-existence and eternality” (John MacArthur). Because He is infinite and we’re not, we can never fully know Him. It would be like a two dimensional stick figure attempting to fully understand the child that drew it.
Thankfully, God has graciously revealed enough of Himself in His Holy Word to enable us to at least begin to understand and appreciate His magnificence. But, we need to study the Bible in order to glean its benefits.
Here are just a few of the incredible things we can learn about God by reading the Bible. He is the creator and sustainer of all life. He is omniscient – He knows everything. He is omnipotent – all powerful. God is omnipresent – He is everywhere all the time. He is immutable – which means He never changes and is 100% trustworthy. He is always just. He is always good. He is always loving – He knows and does what is best for us, always. Most importantly for a sinner like me, God is also gracious, long-suffering and forgiving. And to the point the Apostle Paul is making in Romans 8:31, because God is who He is, we have nothing to fear. There is nothing in this world that God does not have in hand.
God is for us
Never underestimate the importance of little words. The word “is” carries tremendous significance in this four word phrase. It connotes the present indicative tense. The subject (i.e. God being for us) is ongoing, never ending and continuous. Try a simple exercise to grasp the gravity of this point. Exchange the word “is” with the word “was”, or the phrase “will be”, or “may be”. It makes a huge difference to the meaning, doesn’t it?
Here’s the point: there has never been nor will there ever be any time when God is not for us. He is for us all the time. Guaranteed. It may not always seem like it from our limited point of view, but He sees the big eternal picture in ways which we can’t.
"My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts," says the LORD. "And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isa. 55:8-9)
That’s why Paul was able to truthfully and confidently declare earlier in Romans 8:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28)
God is for us
The importance of this word is pretty straightforward to understand and appreciate. God is on our side. God is our Saviour and our advocate. To state the obvious, God is never against us. In more colloquial terms, God has always got our back. As David the Psalmist wrote:
“You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psa. 56:8-11)
God is for us
Now here we need to be careful to properly understand the context in order to avoid misconstruing Paul’s point. Paul is not teaching universalism. Romans 8:28 quoted above helps to clarify the “us” to whom Paul is referring. God is for those who love Him. Those who are His children, His followers, His heirs, His elect who have been called by Him, those in whom the Spirit of God dwells and who are in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom. 8:1, 9-17). Paul went on to write:
“For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” (Rom 8:29-30)
God does it all! All we need to do is gratefully and humbly accept His free gift. If we fall into this group, then it truly is ‘good news’.
“Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15)
But, while God’s love extends to all people (cf. Titus 3:4), due to His holy and just nature He can’t be in the presence of sin. If we don’t have a relationship with God through the cleansing power of Jesus’ perfect atoning sacrifice (cf. Titus 3:5-7), then God is not presently “for us” and we need to urgently do some serious reflecting.
“Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” (Isa. 55:6-7)
So in those moments when we’re feeling lonely or anxious about the future, a good place to turn is to God’s Word, spending time getting to know Him better, sharing our deepest concerns with Him through prayer (cf. Rom. 8:26-27) in order to strengthen our vertical relationship with Him, remembering always that… God is for us!
“In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:37-39)