Loneliness. Isolation. We’ve all been there. We’ve all experienced it. Perhaps it was just a moment of recognition. Perhaps it was weeks of feeling like there was no one there, who cared enough to reach out. Regardless, it’s a common experience.
At first blush, it appears that the Christian should never experience any kind of loneliness or isolation. After all, we know that Christ is with us through the presence of the Holy Spirit until we come to see him once more in the eschaton.
This “real presence” suffuses our lives and gives us constant companionship. Yet few of us have such a deep sense of presence. Too often, this makes us feel guilty that we are not living out the Christian life or inclines us to blame God for not coming to our help in times of need. But I wonder if something else occurs during these seasons of isolation.
The history of Christian spirituality has often brought up the idea that God withdraws himself from ourselves for a period of time in order to aid our growth. I’m reminded of Elijah who after his miraculous victory at Mount Carmel flees to the wilderness to escape Jezebel (1 Kings 19). After being sent on a forty day journey by the angel of the Lord, God comes and visits him in a cave. Isolated, alone, I imagine that Elijah was primed for the pity party he hoped God would throw him.
However, the Lord offers not pity, but a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God tells Elijah to leave, reminding him that he is not, in fact, alone – that there are seven thousand others who have not bowed to Baal.
God doesn’t provide intimate companionship for Elijah. In fact, God comes across as somewhat aloof in this encounter with his prophet. God simply reminds Elijah of who he is, his commissioning, and then points to others.
Perhaps the reason that God feels far off in our times of isolation is because he is maintaining his distance to point us to others. Yes, in one sense, God is all we need. But he has also created us for community, for the Church.
Maybe in our moments of profound isolation God is inviting us not into immediate comfort but into future comfort. He reminds us: “there are others.” He invites us: “go find them.” And when we do, he indwells our relationships. It’s not a quick fix nor is it easy, simple or even that mystical. Being driven to relationship and to dependence upon others is, in fact, hard, stretching and challenging. But it’s the invitation we are offered.