Restored From Loneliness

I read a news story posted on the WebMD website about a survey on loneliness in the United States. It concluded that our nation faces:

“widespread loneliness, with nearly half of Americans reporting they feel alone, isolated, or left out at least some of the time. The nation’s 75 million Millennial’s (ages 23-27) and Generation Z adults (18-22) are lonelier than any other U.S. demographic.

In addition, of the 20,000 people sampled, 54% of respondents said they feel no one knows them well, and four in 10 reported they ‘lack companionship,’ their ‘relationships aren’t meaningful’ and they ‘are isolated from others.’ Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health, said the findings of the study suggest that the problem has reached ‘epidemic’ proportions…’. Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,…’(1)

Initially, I was somewhat surprised to see such results, particularly in the younger generations that seem so “connected” via phones, tablets, computers, and other tools that grant them access to a myriad of social media sites.

One would think that our newfound capacity to communicate would have reduced our sense of loneliness. In fact, the average person in the U.S. is more connected than anytime in our country’s history. Statistically, a typical American today comes into contact with more people in a single year than most did over an entire lifetime 100 years ago. (2)

Data from just one social media company, Facebook, illustrates the degree by which we have adopted our connected lifestyles. In the U.S., 156 million unique monthly visitors access Facebook each month.(3) A disproportionate number of these are younger people, presumably the most connected of all in our society. 48 million users or 88% of all 18–29 year old’s, and another 52 million users or 84% of all 30–49 year old’s are among those that connect regularly with Facebook.(4) (5) And that’s just one social platform among many where such connections occur.

In the presence of this data, how is it possible for our country to be facing an “epidemic” of loneliness along with its accompanying health consequences?

All of this caused me to ponder what loneliness really is. One of the more common clinical definitions I found in several resources described loneliness as a condition …marked by painful feelings of sadness and longing and almost always by the absence of, yet felt desire for, relationship with others” (6)

Bottom line: Without meaningful relationships we’ll quickly find ourselves living in a state of misery.

Social media often gives us the appearance of meaningful relationships, but in reality, social media “relationships” are a far cry from the depth and quality of real-life relationships. We as human beings are living, breathing, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beings. We’re fundamentally designed to live in relationship and community. We have a basic built-in need to interact with one another in real-time. To live outside of this reality is to promote isolation, and isolation fosters loneliness and stress.

To illustrate the stress of isolation on the human mind; many years ago an English doctor built an experimental room to test its effects. This soundproof room was more akin to a large box suspended by a series of nylon ropes. Volunteer subjects were all given padded gloves and translucent goggles to eliminate the sense of sound and sight. All meals were eaten in the isolation chamber and the volunteers were observed via a one-way screen. Volunteers were allowed to exit the experiment at anytime. In the end, most could not tolerate more than five hours of isolation. In fact, even after as little as an hour, with the knowledge that they could exit at any time, most volunteers had increasing feelings of panic and anxiety.(7)

No doubt, numerous factors contribute to the high level of loneliness being experienced by our society today, yet I couldn’t help but notice that the very same demographic experiencing the highest levels of loneliness, are coincidentally the same groups that are increasingly distancing themselves from God’s offer of a loving, meaningful, and personal relationship with their creator.

About a third of older Millennials (adults currently in their late 20s and early 30s) now say they have no religion, up nine percentage points among this cohort since 2007, when the same group was between ages 18 and 26. Nearly a quarter of Generation Xers now say they have no particular religion, or they describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, up four points in seven years. (8)

The religiously unaffiliated population – including all of its constituent subgroups – have grown rapidly as a share of the overall U.S. population. The share of self-identified atheists has nearly doubled in size since 2007, from 1.6% to 3.1%. Agnostics have grown from 2.4% to 4.0%. And those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” have swelled from 12.1% to 15.8% of the adult population since 2007. Overall, the religious “nones” have grown from 16.1% to 22.8% of the population.(9)

To be sure, there are many drivers that no doubt contribute towards a society plagued with loneliness. However, we can be rest assured that loneliness was never part of God’s original plan for us.

A few examples:

1. God desires to partner with us in carrying the burdens of this life:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”-(Matthew 11:28)

The rest implied here isn’t like a vacation, rather it’s a type of rest that gives us room to breath and strength to continue, it allows us to manage through the challenges of life that often weigh upon us. Jesus has access to the Father and the resources of the Father, His invitation is extended to everyone that recognizes their spiritual need for a relationship with Christ. Our access to Christ, means our access to the Father and his resources. Christ equates the Christian life with spiritual rest which does not allow us to escape the hard life, rather to experience rest and refreshment in its midst. (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

2. God is committed to walking beside us through all of time.

“…And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mathew 28:20b)

One of the great hallmarks of a meaningful relationship is when one chooses to come along side another over a lifetime. I know of several friends and married couples that have successfully navigated the challenges of their lifetimes through loving mutual support found in their relationships. Yet even this level of dedication to one another, pales compared to the promises of Christ. Christ promises to not only walk with us through this finite human life, but to remain with us through all of time and eternity.

3. God loves us with a deep sacrificial love that goes beyond any human capacity to love.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

God loves you and I in the ultimate sense of the word. His love for us is sacrificial in nature. It has no bounds in terms of his sacrifice, which has afforded us the opportunity for an eternal relationship that starts the moment we say “yes” to his offer of forgiveness and reconciliation.

4. God’s love for us is perfect.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

God is capable of loving us more perfectly than any human being could love another. This is so, because only God can know our hearts and minds with absolute completeness. No human relationship can claim that level of relationship. Only God can know our heart in its totality, capturing and understanding all of our true motives and feelings.

5. God has demonstrated his love and desire for us to be in relationship, even when we were living outside of relationship with him

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)

God desires a relationship with us entirely on the basis of grace, our relationship is not founded on how good a person might be, or how many good things I’ve done in this life. It’s founded entirely on his grace. This is evidenced by his intentional love for you and I, even in the face of our rejection of him.

6. God enables us to grow and fulfill our God given purposes in life whenever we choose to walk in relationship with him. In so doing, we are connected to him in a deep and powerful way.

“I am the vine, you are the branches, if you remain in me and I in you will bear much fruit, apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)

No other relationship in the world can enable us more than our personal relationship with God. When we are close to God and surrendered to him in our personal relationship, his character will be expressed and lived out in our lives. The Apostle Paul included in his list of qualities that God values, such things as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (See Galatians 5:22-23)

Among these qualities, the one held the highest is love, but not in an emotional sense, rather in an outgoing and self-giving series of actions sense.

Are you one of the lonely?

I encourage you to look deep into to your heart and be totally honest with yourself.

If you find that you are lonely, feeling disconnected and living out your life without deep and true purpose, then the first step is to move towards total surrender of yourself to Jesus, for he loves us without condition or pretense.

If you already have a relationship with Christ, but perhaps have grown distant, then take a moment and pray, ask God to help you drop your guard and allow him full reign in your life. Let no aspect of your life be off-limits to God, put it all before the cross. He can’t fix our hearts until we allow him in to do so. Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart as we speak, don’t ignore him, don’t turn aside, he loves you and desires more than anything in this world to welcome you into an abiding eternal relationship with him.

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

If you have never followed Christ, and you sense the desire to do so, then pray and ask God to receive you into his family. Commit your life and surrender it totally and completely to Christ, trusting in faith that the work Christ did on the cross for you will be sufficient to save you for eternity.

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

You can talk to God by praying, using your own words. There are no special formulas. Just pray from your heart to God, and He will save you. If you feel lost and just don’t know what to pray, here’s a prayer of salvation that you can pray:

“Dear Lord,

I admit that I am a sinner. I have done many things that don’t please you. I have lived my life for myself. I am sorry and I repent. I ask you to forgive me. I believe that you died on the cross for me, to save me. You did what I could not do for myself. I come to you now and ask you to take control of my life, I give it to you. Help me to live every day in a way that pleases you. I love you, Lord, and I thank you that I will spend all eternity with you. -Amen”

Because we know that we are designed to be a people in relationship, if you prayed this prayer, or if you have recommitted your life to Christ, you need to find a Bible believing church that you can join in your area. Perhaps where you live there are no formal churches to attend, (Often this is the case for those living in countries where Christianity is feared by the authorities and has been banned.) if so, ask God through prayer to find a way for you to connect with other believers. He will honor your prayers.

Once you find either a church or a group to fellowship and pray with, commit to meeting regularly and supporting one another. Study the scriptures and allow God’s word to grow within you as he grows in relationship with you.

Only through the power of Christ will you be released and restored from the grip of loneliness.

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(1) Tate, Nick. “Loneliness Rivals Obesity, Smoking as Health Risk.” WebMD, WebMD, 4 May 2018, http://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20180504/loneliness-rivals-obesity-smoking-as-health-risk.
(2) ibid, 754
(6) S. A. Cappa, “Loneliness,” ed. David G. Benner and Peter C. Hill, Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology & Counseling, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 698.
(7) Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 753.Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 753.
(9) ibid

Bringing Positive Change by Seeking to Understand First

Some years ago there was a young lady who traveled for the first time to a very poor part of the Dominican Republic. Her name was Rebecca, and she went with a group that volunteered their time to build homes for the poorest of the poor. When I speak of “homes,” keep in mind functional simplicity. The finished product was a basic structure built upon a crude concrete slab, hardly a home by most standards, little more than a shed in most places. But for many of the recipient families, these structures might be the first reliable and safe homes they have ever known.

In recalling this first visit to the Dominican Republic, Rebecca shared that she knew very little Spanish at the time,  but each day she made every effort to communicate and practice her language skills as she went about her duties during her stay. One day, while walking to a job site, she encountered one of the many children that played in the streets. The young girl was about ten years old. She asked what Rebecca’s name was, so she told the little girl that her name was “Becca,” thinking it would be easier for her to pronounce than “Rebecca.” The little girl looked perplexed and said “Bocca?” Rebecca replied; “Becca with an ‘eh’,” she told her. The girl seemed surprised as her mouth slowly formed “Bocca” again.  After a “conversation” that was part verbal and part sign language, they parted ways each going about their respective day.

The following day they once again met, but this time at the work site. On this particular occasion there where a bunch of kids that had joined the little ten year old to watch Rebecca help build a  house. During the course of the day, Rebecca noticed that every time she walked by the kids, they would ask her her name and then whisper “Bocca.” Immediately thereafter, everyone in the group would break out in uncontrollable laughter. The laughter would soon die down until she had to walk by the group again, and the entire process would repeat itself.

Finally, in mock anger, Rebecca tossed down her gloves in frustration and asked “what does ‘Bocca” mean?” One girl looked at her and slowly replied, “Cow.” That’s when it hit her, they where saying “Vaca,” Spanish for “Cow.” It was then that everyone, including Rebecca, broke out in laughter. It was an amusing moment and illustrated for her how difficult it was at times to understand some of the nuances of  language. But it also proved to be a learning experience for her as well, and in the end this clarified understanding of her name resulted in a deepening bond between her and the families she was serving.(Reflections: A Journey to the Dominican Republic)

One of the greatest challenges we often face in life is in the ability to simply understand accurately what another person is attempting to communicate. While we may not always agree with what someone might share, it’s important that we at least ensure we understand and can articulate their position back to them. In this way they we might confirm our understanding of what they just shared to us.

Over the years I’ve found there are times when I’m not the best listener, and I don’t always practice good communication skills like feeding back the topic to the speaker to ensure I actually understand their perspective. I have a feeling I may not be alone in this regard.

As followers of Christ we are actively living in a culture for which we and others we encounter may not always agree. If we are to influence our culture positively, we need to start by first ensuring that we understand and can distinguish our own views from that of the popular culture around us. This first step is necessary so that we know upfront where we are in agreement and where we might be out of alignment with popular ideas.

Scripture says that just as we have been brought into a right and healthy relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we’re to help those around us see the same love and grace that God has bestowed upon each of us, and to communicate His desire to be reconciled with each person. In that way, we are to be  “ambassadors” for Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

Our credibility for engaging the culture around us must be founded in our genuine love for those with whom we engage. Jesus said that our love for one another would be the way in which others would know that we are followers of Christ. (John 13:35 ) The scriptures share that if our love for others is not real, than we’re no better than a loud gong or clanging symbol. We’re just another voice in an already noisy world of erroneous beliefs. (1 Corinthians 13:1 )

When we encounter a contrary cultural viewpoint, we should always start our conversation by asking the Lord for wisdom and knowledge on how best to respond. Secondly, we need take the high road and not plan on “winning over” the person for whom we are in conversation. Rather, our goal is to hear out the other person’s position completely without interruption, and then to respond in a manner that leaves them with something worthy of consideration that cannot be easily swept aside.

Greg Koukl, author of numerous resources on apologetics, suggests that our primary tool in separating fact from fiction in any conversation is “reason.” In his book, “Tactics” he pointed out that the Apostle Paul often appealed to reason and other practical approaches to engage others around him. (Acts 17:2-4) Koukl also suggested that our conversations should be handled fairly, reasonably, and with a high degree of grace. In fact, we should allow enough room for our own views to be challenged with evidence, reasoning, and from Scripture.

The bottom line is that when discussing cultural values that run contrary to God’s desire for those whom he loves, we need to keep in mind that our goal is to testify by word, deed, knowledge, and reason. We’re not to take personal responsibility to change a person’s heart. That’s the job for the Holy Spirit. Heart change is something that happens from within, and only God can move a person’s heart. But that movement often starts by engaging the mind. That’s our job.

Don’t be discouraged when conversations don’t go as planned. Each encounter is an opportunity for us to learn. Accept that we personally may not succeed in seeing a person’s perspective change immediately, instead remember that in love, and as an ambassador for Christ, the purpose of our conversation may simply have been to lay the groundwork for positive change in that person’s life for some time in the future.

Differing Measures

One of the largest and most powerful warships of its day, and the pride of Gustav II Adolf, the King of Sweden, was launched on August 10, 1628. The “Vasa, named after the ruling Vasa Dynasty, boasted an array of 64 bronze cannons, was crewed by 150 sailors and capable of carrying some 300 soldiers. She was in excess of 200 feet in length with a displacement of over 1,400 tons. With over 13,000 square feet of sail, this 17th century vessel was a force to be reckoned with.

An excited public watched and celebrated along the shores of Strömmen, as the great ship prepared to depart on its maiden voyage. On that particular Sunday morning, the Vasa hosted over a hundred crew members, along with family and guests, which were allowed to join the ship for the first leg of its passage through the Archipelago.

Incredibly, after having been under construction for over two years, the maiden voyage lasted only twenty minutes. The Vasa traveled less than one mile before a gust of wind unexpectedly caused the ship to heel over to its port side. The resulting massive flooding, as water rushed into the open lower gun ports, sank the ship within minutes, taking with it the lives of thirty people.

Subsequent inquests spread the blame for the untimely sinking amid a variety of people and causes, but no one cause or person was identified as the primary reason for the ship’s demise; the inquest concluded that the ship was “inherently unstable.” The actual mechanical reasons that caused the instability of the Vasa would remain entombed with the ship for nearly four hundred years.

In 1961, the remains of the incredibly well preserved Vasa were located and raised, and over a period of several years the ship was restored and ultimately placed in a Swedish museum for others to view and study. Archeologists studying the Vasa identified several factors that might have contributed to the ship’s sinking; including a lack of adequate ballast and a top heavy design. But these factors by themselves did not possess sufficient explanatory power to fully explain Vasa’s hasty demise.

In June of 2012, a major four year study was completed in the hopes of identifying the source of her instability. The study was headed by Vasa Museum’s director of research Fred Hocker. The project set out to document and measure all the timbers used in the construction of the Vasa. Doing so required the team to map some 80,000 separate points on the ship, using advanced digital 3D technology.

To their surprise, after analyzing the data, the project team learned that the ship was actually built in an asymmetric shape.

The ship was built lopsided.

In this case, there were more ship building materials on the port side of the ship, than on the starboard side. If this had been unknown at the time of construction, then the ship would indeed have been highly unstable, and likely to roll to the left side when faced with a strong wind or rough ocean.

But how did such an error, which resulted in this unstable shape, insert itself into the final construction work at the shipyard?

As part of their examination of the Vasa, Hocker and his team had earlier discovered within the ship, four rulers left behind by the original shipbuilders. The significance of this piece of historical evidence had not been fully understood at the time of its discovery. But that would change.

Upon careful examination, it turned out that these rulers were based on two different measurement standards.

The team also determined from historical records that the carpenters who built the Vasa, originated from both Holland and Sweden.

Two of the rulers were in Swedish feet and the others were in Amsterdam feet, which were slightly different in lengths. As the ship was being built, it was speculated that each carpenter used their own measuring standard to cut the timbers used for the ship.

Because no single objective measuring standard was used, the resulting vessel that was built came out lopsided and therefore highly unstable. This final part of the puzzle provided the last explanatory piece of data to close out the mystery behind the mighty Vasa’s demise.

Scientists concluded that the lopsided ship tended to naturally lean to its port side, because it was built based upon two different definitions of how long a “foot” was, and when the gust of wind arose on that fateful day, the ship simply keeled over to its naturally heavy side. Because the ship was not balanced properly, and was considered top heavy, when the water flooded in, it was not able to recover and return to an upright position. Instead it remained on its side and immediately sank.

Thankfully, in today’s world, we generally have agreement on objective standards to determine how long a foot is, how much volume a gallon actually contains, or how hot or cold something might be. Having objective standards allows us to operate in a predictable and safe manner.

But are such objective standards limited only to physical attributes in our lives? What about behavioral standards of conduct that govern how we relate to God and one another? Are there objective standards available for us to live our lives by? If so, what are the consequences of attempting to live outside of God’s ideal for us?

Jesus was once asked by a religious official, with respect to the laws and commandments they lived by, which one was the most important? Jesus responded by citing not one, but two commandments; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your entire mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30–31)

In his response Jesus looked past the legalistic and religious intent of this official, and responded by summarizing all of the commandments into two simple objective relationship truths.

In essence, these principles state that the most important relationship we could ever have is the one we have with God. We need to give our all to God, our heart, Soul, and Mind. If that relationship is healthy, we will have the foundation to carry out the second great relationship truth, and that would be to love those around us and to love ourselves. Choosing to adopt God’s objective truths about relationships permits us to live our lives fully, as Jesus intended us to do. (John 10:10)

Of course, when we as a people choose to reject God’s truth claims, and substitute our own personal truths, our relationships in this life inevitably become unstable. In the end, by choosing to use a multitude of differing “measurement rulers” to live by, we are left with no objective standard to assess what is healthy in our relationships, no basis in which to grapple with real world issues. Instead we are armed only with a shifting social framework, dictated by the winds of an ever changing public opinion. Frequently God’s “Truth” with a capital “T” becomes lost in the myriad of individual truths, with a lowercase “t.”

No one has to be a sociological expert to recognize that we live in an incredibly unstable society. For the most part, much of our society has accepted, as normative, a variety of unhealthily relationship models that lie outside of what God desired for his creation. Additionally, our news is filled with stories of theft, corruption and embezzlement, along with a seemingly endless list of violent acts that we as humans seem so easily and capable of perpetrating upon one another.

Yet despite all of our poor choices, Jesus still loves us. (Romans 5:8) He knows that true love can only be true, if the object of his love responds willingly and voluntarily to Him and his offer of an eternal relationship. With that relationship, and obedience to God’s objective truths, come peace and purpose in this life. (Proverbs 3:1-2)

God will never force his plan for our eternal salvation upon us. It becomes our choice entirely as to how we will choose to respond to His love for us. Our behaviors are ultimately a product of our choices. Our choices a product of what we believe is true.

In this life we have the choice to either humble ourselves and willingly trust and obey God’s objective truths, or to trade these truths for our own contrived, and often self-serving concepts of truth with predictable results. (John 3:19)

How do I want to live and build my life? Do I want a life built like the Vasa was built, with many differing standards, or will I anchor my life securely in God, resting upon His set of objective principles as revealed in the Scriptures?