Listen: Simon Manchester presents Christian Growth
In this series, Simon looks at what Christianity has to say in difficult times. Pain and suffering continuously conjures up important and personal questions for everybody.
Thank You, our gracious God, for a new morning with new mercies, and we pray that as we spend these few minutes, thinking on Your promises, that You would help us to receive them, and then to live them, and we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
There’s a story of a politician and a matron, and the matron is showing the politician around a hospital and especially a new dementia wing of the hospital, and the politician says to the matron, “What is the test for admission into this dementia ward?,” and the matron says, “Well, it’s very simple. We fill a bath with water and we give people a spoon, a cup and a bucket, and we ask them, ‘Which is the quickest way to empty the bath?,'” and the politician says, “Well, that’s completely straightforward and easy. You obviously use the bucket.”
The matron says, “No, so you actually pull the plug on the bath. Would you like a bed in the corner here or over near the window?,” and there’s lots of challenges, of course, as you move into old age, and one of them, of course is loneliness, which is our subject today. Having said that, you don’t need to be any particular age to experience great loneliness, and you may know that in the United Kingdom and in Japan, they have a minister for loneliness within their government portfolio. In America, it’s estimated that one in four describe themselves as significantly lonely, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in Australia, it’s not much the same. Can I quickly say that this morning, we’re not talking about solitude.
Solitude is a voluntary thing. It can be a delightful thing, it can be replenishing. We’re talking about loneliness, which is involuntary and can be extremely destructive and depressing. Loneliness can be a very painful experience, a sense that you are isolated, that you are unwanted, perhaps neglected, misunderstood, and the answer is not as you know, to just walk into a crowd. You can feel extremely lonely in a crowd. It’s not necessarily to go to the pub or to join a group, or even to walk into a congregation like this.
It’s possible to feel very lonely in a crowd, and believe it or not, I have turned up at church on many occasions and felt extremely lonely, and you may do the same. If you never do feel lonely, that’s wonderful. Wonderful, but if you do, it’s very common. Obviously, in the last 18 months, there’s been a lot of social isolation, which has increased the sense of loneliness for many, but just as painful is the sense that you actually have no friend in the world, or that your life is meaningless. Because we’re thinking about faith and loneliness, it’s worth remembering that in the scriptures, there are many, many great people who were very lonely.
Moses was lonely, Elijah, Job, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, and Jesus Himself was often alone with nobody humanly who He could lean on or look to. Now, the text that I hope you’ll remember comes from John’s gospel chapter 16, verse 32, and it’s only really four words, and I’m going to test you over the morning tea to see whether you can remember this very lovely text. It is so simple, so short and so important for you to walk out today remembering these four words, and they come from John 16:32, where Jesus says to His disciples, “You’ll leave Me alone, but I am not alone, for My Father is with Me,” and the four words are alone, yet not alone. Alone, yet not alone. If, again, I say this subject is a little bit too sentimental for you and a little bit too soft and mushy, well, I’m glad for you, but for those who do understand loneliness, what Jesus said for Himself, “Alone, yet not alone” is exactly what the Christian is able to say as well.
I want to think about this quickly under two headings this morning. The first is that God has given us two solutions, and the second is that God has given us two invitations. There are two solutions from God to the subject of loneliness. Now, before we just look at the first one, let me say that one of the mind-boggling things about God is that He didn’t need us for friends. He didn’t find Himself desperately lonely and think, “Gee, I’m just not going to be happy until I’ve invented people.” Of course, He loves us deeply, but He wasn’t lonely before the creation because being Father, Son and Holy Spirit, if I might put it like this, He had friends, nor did He start loving when we arrived, as if He’d never loved anybody until we came.
He was a lover before creation, but you’ll remember if you read your Bible, that He made the man and the woman to relate to Him and to each other, and there was no loneliness at all in the beginning, but there was very great loneliness after the fall when the man and the woman turned their back on God, went their own way. There was very great loneliness, and suddenly, the couple became very fearful, restless, uneasy, argumentative and lost. The first solution that God gives us is the gift of His Son, the Lord Jesus, who we’re told, came to seek and to save the lost. Here’s a very wonderful thing. Here we are in the world, and we are cut off from God’s happy friendship, and we are feeling the restlessness of this world, and He decides to come and look for us in the person of His Son, because the disease behind a lot of loneliness is actually to be lost.
Lost is the real problem, and it’s very important to get this because we’ve been made to relate to God in a vertical sense, but of course, when we don’t want to relate to God in a vertical sense, we go looking for horizontal substitutes, and they fail us, and so we remain restless and lost without Christ. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a man called George Herbert, but he was an Anglican Minister in the 1600’s, and he was a very delightful poet. He wrote a very clever poem, which is called The Pulley. You might like to look it up sometime. You might like to Google The Pulley. He says this in the poem, that, “When God made man,” this is him using his imagination, he says, “God had a glass of blessings that He was waiting to pour into us, and so He poured in a little bit of strength, and He poured in a little bit of beauty, and He poured in a little bit of wisdom, and then at the bottom of the glass, He had what is called rest or security or contentment.”
George Herbert says in the poem, “God decided that He would not pour the rest, the security, the contentment into people, because said God, ‘Then they would find themselves happily independent of Me,'” and so the poem finishes like this, “That God would act in such a way so that if goodness,” this is the quote of the poem, “Leads a person not to me, perhaps weariness may toss him to my breast.” In other words, what God is saying is He doesn’t want people to be independent of Him and secure without Him and distant from Him, but He’s going to make sure that there is a certain restlessness so that if His goodness doesn’t lead them to Him, which it should, may be weariness, restlessness, loneliness will toss us to His breast. Now, how is it, of course, we can approach God when He’s a perfect judge and we’re sinful people, and the answer is the cross of Christ. This is where Jesus agreed to pay the price of our sin, and the price of our sin is to be cut off from God, and Jesus was cut off from God in our place for us at the cross. That’s why He cried out, “I’ve been abandoned,” and the invitation, because He was cut off, then comes to us to not be cut off, “But to come to Me,” says Jesus, “And I will give you rest.”
He also said that, “Whoever comes to Me,” in John 6, “I will never turn away.” Why do people not come to Christ? Well, I think the answer is I’ve been in ministry for a long time, is normally either pride or pleasure. It’s either the sort of pride that says, “I’m just not going to face my sins, I’m going to pretend that I’m a great person,” and so there’s no solution for you, or the problem is pleasure, the refusal to give up certain sins, but when a person does truly repent and they put their trust in Jesus as Saviour and Lord, they’re no longer lost. They’re found, and they’re no longer outside the family of God, they’re inside. This is the first great solution of God from God for loneliness.
It’s the gift of His Son, who brings us to the Father, and the Father says to us, “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you,” and that is a great rock on which the believer can stand. The second gift or solution from God is the Church, and I’m not pretending that the Church is perfect or easy. I’m not talking about the building. This is just a building.
The Church is the people, the people of God, and the people of God have the same Heavenly Father and the same Saviour called Jesus, and the same Holy Spirit living within them, and these people from God are a gift for us. I’ve been to many parts of the world because of ministry, and there is an instant and miraculous bond with other believers. It doesn’t matter what country I’m in, I suddenly find that I’m with people who believe the same things and they seek the same things, and they love the same things, and it is an absolute joy to be with them, and the Church, for all its faults, the people of God is the family of God, the flock of God, the bride of Christ, the army of God. It’s the great gift from God, a new community, and therefore, you see, we’re not alone in following Jesus. We can follow Him together.
We can serve one another and be served, we can love and be loved. The church is a little outpost of heaven, which is designed to glorify God, to build our faith and to be a signpost to those who are lost. It’s not always easy to come to church. You’ll know that yourself, especially in winter months, and there’ll be certain times where you just feel too flat to go. I’m reminded of the story of the mother who says to her son, “It’s time to get up and go to church,” and he says, “I don’t want to,” and she says, “Well, I’ll give you three reasons why you should, it’s Sunday, they’ll miss you and you’re the minister,” but when people do go to church, with the prayer as they walk up the hill, that they will learn something helpful, that they will contribute to somebody who’s needy, that they will grow as a believer.
It is a great bunch of people to be with. You just imagine everybody who ever comes into this building, as they walk up the hill, they say, “Dear God, help me to learn something today that I don’t know. Help me to serve somebody in some small way,” and you find yourself in a company like that. It is a great company to be with, so there is another reason why you can say alone, and yet not alone, not just that God has given His Son who’s made it possible to know the Father from whom you’ll never be cut off, but also that you’re part of a family of God to help you to go forward. Those are the two solutions.
The son of God is the first and the Church of God is the second, and now, just two invitations from God. There’s a lot of invitations from God in the Bible. The one I want to mention, if you belong to Him, is the promise in James 4:8, which says, “Come near to Me and I will come near to you.” In other words, God says to His people, “Keep approaching Me. Keep coming to Me in prayer.”
“Now that I’m your Father, keep coming to Me. Don’t keep away. Don’t talk to Me once a week. Don’t talk to Me once a month. Keep coming to Me.” In the past week, I’ve experienced a little bit of a attack in social media, and I found it incredibly important this week to pray on a regular basis using the words of Psalm 46, that God would be my strength and my refuge, and I have asked Him again and again in this past week to be my strength and refuge, and He has been my strength and refuge again and again this week, and so His invitation to you is keep drawing near to Him.
Hold onto His promises. Seek His help, and He will draw near to you in some remarkable way. Let me give you an example of God drawing near to somebody in a remarkable way, and this is a missionary called John Paton, who worked in the New Hebrides, what is now Vanuatu in the 1860’s. When John Paton went to the New Hebrides, it was basically just a land of headhunters. On one particular occasion, he was told by a friend, “You must run for your life, or you will be eaten,” and John Paton ran and climbed a very large tree, and he wrote this in his diary.
“I climbed the tree and I heard the yells of the savages, yet I sat there among the branches, safe in the arms of Jesus Christ. Never in all my life, never in all my sorrows did my Lord draw nearer to me or speak more soothingly, ‘Alone, and yet not alone,’ so if it’d be to glorify my God, I will not grudge to spend many nights in such a tree,” and there is somebody in a most extreme circumstance drawing near to Christ and finding that Christ draws near to him, so I want to say to you, friends, you and I miss a lot of peace by keeping away from Christ, and you and I experience a lot of peace when we draw near to Him. The temptation, of course, is to go anywhere and everywhere, except to Jesus Christ, and so we go to people for help and we go to busy-ness, and we go to distractions, but a few minutes of drawing near to Him, and Him drawing near to you drives a lot of loneliness out of your heart and brings a lot of joy into your heart. Some of you I know live alone. Alone, but not alone.
The second invitation from God is the invitation, the very common invitation, to love one another. John 15:12, “Love one another.” Now, this doesn’t mean wait for feelings to come over you, so you feel a gush of emotions for somebody. That may never happen. It doesn’t mean that we should gravitate to the nice and the easy people.
It’s always natural to do that. It means that we say something like this, “Since Jesus Christ has loved me and does love me, and has put a new love in my heart, how can I pass some of that on to somebody else? How can I be used by Him to love somebody else?,” and so maybe it’s a simple thing like asking how the week has been. Maybe it’s asking what you can pray for for the coming week for somebody. Maybe it’s asking how God has kept you and blessed you this last week, or what kindness can be shown? A phone call, a note.
What kindness can be shown? What prayer can be offered. Somebody said once that when we come to church, sometimes we’re so flat and we’re so empty and we’re so low, we feel like a cup with two drops of water left in it, and it is as if God says, “Now, I want you to take those two drops and I want you to give them to somebody else,” and we say to Him, “Lord, that would be ridiculous because if I pour out the last two drops, I’m finished,” and He says, “You pour out the last two drops,” and we pour out the last two drops in serving somebody else, and we suddenly find that the cup has been refilled. That’s been my experience again and again, so don’t be too quick to disappear, but do your best to love and care for those who belong here. They’re the two solutions for loneliness, and they’re very great solutions because God has given His Son and Christ has died for us and brings us to the Father, who will never leave us or forsake us.
We cannot be alone. Because He’s given us the Church, with all its faults to be a family of supporters, we’re greatly benefited. Then, these two invitations come near to your Heavenly Father. Don’t keep away and seek to love in a practical way those who belong to the Church. I want to close by saying this to you, I wonder whether you’re feeling terribly lonely at the moment, and I wonder whether it’d be good for you to talk to somebody, maybe one of the pastors about whether you might actually be lost and not just lonely. It’s also worth asking whether we’re the sort of people who drive people away from us.
Sometimes we do unconsciously drive people away. It’s also important to remember that if we’re disobedient and we walk in the darkness, it’s very difficult to have good fellowship with those in the light. I wonder whether if you do have times of loneliness, even as a Christian, you say to yourself, “This is pretty normal,” because it is. God may be using this time of loneliness to increase your fellowship with Him, and I wonder whether you feel the Church here could do better at supporting one another, and no doubt it could, and so please pass on your good ideas as to how we might be a better community in supporting one another. I finish by saying to you Jesus died on the cross, and He called out, “I’m alone,” and because He paid our debts, it is impossible for the child of God to be really alone. It is the unbreakable bond of the gospel that assures us that we are not alone, so we may feel alone.
We may feel alone, yet not alone.
We thank You for these very precious words of the Lord Jesus, when He was left alone and yet not alone, and we pray, Heavenly Father, that You would help us to take hold of Your great gift of Christ to appreciate the gift of the Church, and then to take up Your invitation to draw near to You and to seek to love one another. We pray that these things would be real to us and that they would decrease our sense of loneliness and increase our sense of gratitude. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.