The Burden of Loneliness

Psalm 23:4

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

Dear Friends in Christ,

I came across a story recently about a fellow named Steve who worked at a pharmacy while attending the University of Texas in Austin.  His primary job was to deliver supplies to nursing homes in the area.  There was however one other task that he took care of every four days that involved a short trip next door.  He would shoulder a large jug of water and carry it fifty feet or so to an apartment building just behind the pharmacy.  Inside of that building resided an older woman, perhaps in her 70’s.  She lived alone in a dark, depressing apartment.  A single light bulb hung from the ceiling of her living room.  The wallpaper was stained and peeling.  The shades were drawn.  Steve would deliver the jug, receive the payment, thank the woman, and leave.

Over the course of time, however, he grew puzzled by this woman’s purchase.  He learned that she had no other source of water, that what he brought her every four days she relied on for washing, cooking, and drinking.  He knew that city water was much cheaper, that it would cost her only $12 to $15 per month while the water he brought her added up to $50 a month.  Why then didn’t she choose the less expensive source?

He soon discovered that the answer was in the delivery system.  Yes, the city water cost less.  But the city only sent water; they didn’t send a person.  She preferred to pay more and see another human being than pay less and see no one.

Could anyone really be that lonely?  When you read some of the psalms of David, it appears as though he was at different times in his life.  In Ps. 25:16, for example, he offers this prayer to God: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”  In Ps. 35 he speaks of a loneliness brought on by enemies that were trying to ruin him and even kill him.  He says: “Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me… May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay.”

Indeed, David was no stranger to loneliness.  He knew it in his family.  He was one of eight sons belonging to a man from Bethlehem named Jesse.  But when the prophet Samuel showed up at their home one day to anoint one of those sons as the next king of Israel, guess who wasn’t even invited?  David!  Jesse paraded his seven oldest sons before Samuel, but when God made it very clear to Samuel that none of them was his choice to be the future king, he asked Jesse if he had any other sons.  Jesse’s reply was less than flattering to David, though it kind of gets lost in the translation.  He says: “There is still the youngest, but he is tending the sheep.”  The Hebrew word that is translated “youngest” there literally means “the runt.”  Some of you here today may know what it’s like to be the runt in the family.  The runt is the one the others have to put up with and keep an eye on.  “It’s your turn to watch Joey today.”  “Sorry, but I’ve got other things to do.  Besides, I watched him yesterday.”  It’s no fun being the runt.  And on the day the prophet came to Jesse’s home, the runt was left out.  How would you feel if a family meeting was called and your name wasn’t?

And sadly, things didn’t improve for David when he changed households.  Because of his musical abilities he was invited to join the household of Saul who was the king of Israel at that time.  Saul was a moody man, prone to unexpected outbursts of anger.  And David’s music was supposed to soothe the savage beast in him.  Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t.  And soon David found himself on the receiving end of the king’s moody blues.  In fact, on a couple of different occasions Saul actually tried to pin David to the wall with his spear and had David not ducked, David would have never lived to write his many psalms and be the next king of Israel.  But David not only ducked.  David ran.  He ran from the presence of Saul.  For ten years he ran.  Into the wilderness, into caves, onto mountaintops.  He was hated by Saul and hunted down like a wild animal.

So you can see as I said before that David was definitely no stranger to loneliness.  And I would suspect some of you are not either.  Two thousand years ago when Jesus walked this earth, 300 million people populated this planet.  Today there are more than 7 billion.  Yet those who work in the field of psychology tell us that one of the biggest problems people face today is loneliness.

Some years ago a pastor offered the following prayer on Sunday morning.  He said: “Thank you, Lord, for all our friends.  We have so many we can’t spend time with them all.”  Following the service a successful businessman came up to him and said, “You may have more friends than you know what to do with, but not me.  I have none.”  That reminds me of the first Bible study we had after the first Promise Keepers gathering that some of us attended back in 1993.  Since one of the goals of Promise Keepers was to get men together, one of the questions that was asked that evening was “How many of you men have at least one close personal friend in whom you can confide besides your wife?”  Not a single man raised his hand.

What that tells us is that loneliness is not necessarily the absence of people.  A person can be surrounded by masses of people and still be lonely, can’t they?  Loneliness then is not so much a matter of being alone, but rather feeling alone – feeling as if you are facing death alone, facing disease alone, facing the future alone.  Loneliness plants in your heart the question: Does anybody really care about me?  If I were to die right now, would it really matter?  Would anyone even notice?

And while it would be very easy for me to say at this point that loneliness is one of the devil’s most frequently used instruments in his bag of tools, I want to suggest something else to you that you may not agree with right away, but just stay with me and work with me on it.  Could it be that loneliness is not so much a tool of the devil as it is a gift from God?

Now I know what some of you are thinking.  “You need that associate pastor to get here real soon because you’re not thinking very clearly to make a statement like that.”  Loneliness, a gift?  How could that be?  After all, loneliness heavies my heart.  It leaves me feeling empty and depressed.  It’s something I want to avoid rather than embrace.

I understand all of that, but again I ask you to just work with me on this.  Suppose you were to borrow a friend’s car while yours was being repaired.  The radio doesn’t work, but the CD player does.  So you start rummaging through his collection of CD’s, looking for your style of music which, for the sake of this illustration, let’s say is country-western.  But you find none.  Instead all you find are CD’s representing your friend’s favorite style of music which is classical.

Well, you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to classical music, so you listen to nothing.  But it’s a long trip.  And you can stand the silence only so long.  So finally, you reluctantly reach for a CD.  You’d prefer Garth Brooks and some steel guitar, but you have to settle for soaring sopranos accompanied by oboes and violins.  At first it’s tough.  You wonder how anyone could listen to this stuff.  But at least it breaks the silence.  And as you listen to it more and more and your ears grow accustomed to the rolling of the kettledrums and the sweet sounds of the cello and the challenging vocal parts, you actually start to enjoy it and appreciate it.  You’d never tell your country-western friends that, but in the solitude of the car you have to admit that “Hey, this classical stuff ain’t all that bad!”

Now, let me ask you.  Would you have made that discovery on your own?  Doubtful, right?.  So what led to it?  What caused you to hear music you’d never heard before?  Simple.  You had no other choice, no other option.  When the silence was more than you could bear, you took a chance on a style of music you thought you couldn’t bear.

What’s my point?  God has music that he wants us to hear.  He’s got songs that will fill our lives with joy and bring peace and hope to our troubled and anxious hearts.  But first he has to get our attention which isn’t always easy because our world is so noisy, cluttered, and chaotic.  It’s so busy and hectic.  And the sweet voice of our Shepherd can’t be heard above all that other racket.  But when loneliness sets in, that’s when we discover what David discovered and wrote about in our text when he says to God, “You are with me.”

I have to admit that it’s been during the loneliest times of my life that I heard the sweetest music of my Lord.  I recall my first year of college.  I was attending St. Paul’s College in Concordia, MO where I didn’t know a single soul on campus when I arrived and I wasn’t the most outgoing of individuals.  I remember spending many a Friday night by myself watching TV in the lounge of our dorm.  I remember taking long, lonely walks around the track under the cover of darkness, pouring my heart out to God and letting him fill the void that existed there.  I remember lying in bed at night talking to him before drifting off to sleep, not necessarily asking things of him, just telling him about my day because I didn’t feel comfortable doing that with anyone else.  And over the course of that unbearably lonely year, I made two discoveries that I know now I needed to make for my future ministry, namely, that Jesus is the best friend I have in life; and secondly, when God is all I have, I quickly discover that God is all I need.

That’s the sweet song that God wants all of you to hear today and to take home with you.  Though you may be facing a serious illness and perhaps even death, you are not facing it alone; for the Lord is with you.  Though you may be facing unemployment, you are not facing it alone; for the Lord is with you.  Though you may be dealing with marital struggles right now, you are not having to deal with them alone; for the Lord is with you.  Though you may be facing a tough year of farming or school or a very uncertain future, you are not facing them alone; for the Lord is with you.

Your family may turn against you, but God won’t.  Your friends may betray you, but God won’t.  Your spouse may walk out on you, but God won’t.  How can I be so sure of that?  Simple.  Because it was this same God who came to us in the human flesh of a helpless baby.  He even gave himself the name Immanuel which means “God with us.”  And it was this same God who took your place and bore your sin and suffered your punishment on an old rugged Roman cross so that the wall of sin that separated you from him could be torn down forever.  And it was this same God who triumphantly rose from the dead so that you could be with him and he could be with you for all eternity.

So listen to the sweet song of your Shepherd, my friends.  Listen to him as he declares to you, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Listen to him as he reassures you over and over again in his Word, “I will never leave nor forsake you.”  Listen to him as he proclaims in Rom. 8 that nothing in all creation will be able to separate you from the love of God that is yours in Christ Jesus.  And by faith, place your hand into his nail-scarred hand and know that with him by your side you will never be lonely again.

Amen