The Answer to Loneliness?
Loneliness is a serious and growing problem. The stats are pretty heartbreaking. One study found that 9 million people in the UK are always or often lonely—that’s just slightly more than the population of London or the entire population of Austria. We often think of loneliness as a problem primarily affecting older people, but research published this year suggests that younger men in individualistic societies are the most likely to be lonely. And this is a serious matter, the effect of loneliness on physical health has been shown to be as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and worse than obesity, increasing the risk of death by 29%.
Recognising this problem, some scientists are now asking, ‘Can loneliness be cured with a pill?’ The proposal isn’t actually quite as it sounds. The idea, at the moment at least, isn’t to produce a pill that will completely end the experience of loneliness. Some researchers are proposing the use of a hormone that would reduce the anxiety caused by loneliness in the hope that this might bring individuals to a position where they would be more able to work through what might be underlying their experience. Another idea is to use oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’, in an attempt to accelerate the impact of therapy to help loneliness.
Could such treatments help? Perhaps, in a limited way, but I think that we, as Christians, have something to offer that is far better than any pill or hormone. In the gospel, we have the resources to truly tackle the growing problem of loneliness.
The Gospel Response to Loneliness
The gospel allows us to truly connect with others. In Jesus, we are fully known and yet simultaneously fully loved. This is a most wonderful but also most surprising truth. We tend to be acutely aware of the things which make us unlovable and so we find it hard to believe that we could be fully known and fully loved, but the gospel makes that possible. God knows us fully—even better than we know ourselves—and yet, because he has placed us in his son, he loves us fully.
Because this is true, we can be open with others, allowing them to know us fully because we know that we all have unlovable parts and yet, in Jesus, we are more loved than we could ever imagine. We can be open, vulnerable, and honest because we know that our identity is not rooted in a fake version of ourselves that we might try to present to others and in their opinion of us, but is rooted in what God says of us: we are his children. This allows us to have relationships where we are fully known and yet fully loved.
The gospel also gives us the resources to journey through other factors that might make it difficult for us to deeply connect with others: the grief of loss, the pain of rejection, the trauma of abuse, and many other experiences. Where we struggle to connect with others, the gospel brings us into a relationship that is a safe context in which to work through that struggle.
Not only does the gospel enable us to connect with others, it also calls us to do so. The gospel comes with new relational opportunities and responsibilities as we are birthed into a new family. Being a lone ranger isn’t an option as a Christian. We become part of a family in which we are called to love and to be loved, a family where deep friendships, shaped and empowered by the gospel, are formed and nurtured. In the midst of a radically individualistic culture—arguably one of the roots of our loneliness problem—the church should stand out as a community of interdependence.
And, of course, we don’t just have ourselves to offer, we also have Jesus. Now it isn’t true that if we have Jesus we don’t need anyone else; God has made us with a need for relationships with other people as well as with him. But it is true that friendship with Jesus can make a difference in our loneliness. Dane Ortlund summarises this beautifully in his treatment of the friendship of Jesus in Gentle and Lowly: ‘[Jesus] offers us a friendship that gets underneath the pain of our loneliness. While that pain does not go away, its sting is made fully bearable by the far deeper friendship of Jesus’ (p.120).
As church families, we have the opportunity to demonstrate the goodness of the gospel by building communities where every person can be known and loved. As we look around at a lonely society, we can be confident that we have good news and we can offer hope. A pill won’t bring a lasting solution to the loneliness epidemic, but the gospel could.