By Pastor Glenn Pease
Bjornsen, the great Norwegian poet, who received the Nobel Prize for literature was once asked what incident in his life gave him the most pleasure. He replied that is was an occasion when his house was attacked and his windows broken. This sounds slightly odd and paradoxical, but before you jump to conclusions about his sanity listen to the details concerning this painful incident which brought him pleasure. Bjornsen had aroused the anger of the Storthing, which was the Norwegian Parliament, over some issue, and certain members of that body were so aggravated that they went to his home and smashed his windows. Having expressed their contempt for Bjornsen, they then marched away singing the Norwegian National Anthem, "Yes, we love this land of ours."
Bjornsen chuckled to himself in spite of the damage, because he was the author of the National Anthem. They could smash his windows, but they had to sing his song. The paradox is double, for not only did Bjornsen get pleasure out of this persecution, because the persecutors sang his song, but because the persecutors expressed their pleasure by singing the song of the one they had just persecuted. Here is a good example of the saying that truth is stranger than fiction. The facts of history and experience demonstrate over and over again that paradox is a part of the reality of life. That is why we find so many paradoxes in the Bible.
The title of my message is a paradox, for to say, alone, yet not alone seems to contradict itself. How can two opposites be true? How can one be alone and yet not alone at the same time? This is only one of several paradoxes of Jesus in the closing two verses of chapter 16. He also says His disciples are to have peace in tribulation. They are to be of good cheer in spite of His prediction that they will forsake Him and suffer. Then He tops it off with a proclamation of victory when in a matter of hours he was going to be nailed to the cross in apparent defeat. This passage is a paradise for those pursuing paradoxes. Practically everything Jesus says here sounds like a contradiction, but each is a profound truth that can be experienced in life. We are going to take just one of these paradoxes for our study now. Jesus makes the statement of being alone, and yet not alone, and this opens to us two channels for exploration concerning the subject of loneliness. First let's consider-
I. THE REALITY OF LONELINESS.
Jesus knew what it was to be left alone. He knew the feeling of being forsaken by all, including those He most loved. He is about to go into the garden of Gethsemane and face the most agonizing inner struggle of His life, and He will have to do it alone. His disciples will be careless and indifferent, and they will sleep rather than watch with Him. It is likely that no one has ever experienced the depth of loneliness like Jesus did. Alexander Maclaren does not hesitate to say, "Jesus was the loneliness man that ever lived... He knew the pain of unappreciated aims, unaccepted love, unbelieved teachings, a heart thrown back upon itself." Jesus spent much of His public ministry in the midst of crowds, and yet He was alone, for not only His foes, but His family and friends misunderstood Him, and could not share His deepest thoughts and goals. Jesus experienced to the fullest the reality of loneliness.
In a Peanuts cartoon, Linus is admitting that he is afraid to go into the public library. His friend Charlie Brown is trying to comfort him by explaining that everybody feels lonely in some place or another. When Linus asks, "What is your place?" Charlie Brown replies, "Earth." In another cartoon Charlie is asked, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" He replies, "Lonely." Studies in many fields show that Charlie Brown has a vast crowd with him in the same boat, for earth seems to be the place where the majority of people are lonely. It is one of the great paradoxes of our world that loneliness is a major problem side by side with the problem of population explosion. No number of people can change the fact which Amiel writes of in his journal. "In all the chief matters of life we are alone: We dream alone, we suffer alone, we die alone."
This was the reality experienced by Jesus. He bore His ideals and His suffering alone, and upon the cross it was alone that He died. So it is with all of us. However much we rub elbows with the crowds, we are still essentially Robinson Crusoes on the lonely island of self. You can be perfectly healthy, and have a well rounded personality like Adam and Jesus, and still be very lonely, for it is normal to be lonely. Matthew Arnold wrote-
Yes, in the sea of life exiled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless, watery wild,
We moral millions live alone.
Like all the atoms of the universe, no two of which touch each other, so are we as persons. As close as we are crammed together in large cities, we are yet islands with vast spaces between, and many cry out like the Ancient Mariner,
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
Billy Graham said that loneliness plagues more people today than any other single problem. Many doctors say it is the major malady of our time. One doctor went so far as to say, "Ninety-nine out of a hundred individuals is lonely. The one who says he isn't probably is." A poet put it-
Way down deep within our hearts
Far within their secret parts
Makes no difference how they smile
How they live or what their style;
Once in a little while
This may be too strong, but if we consider the loneliness that comes at different stages along the path of life, it is certainly close to the truth to say that everyone at some time is lonely. We all know of the child's longing for love and security, and how they can find comfort in a doll, teddy bear, or blanket when they are left alone. But there is no substitute for real persons who can give love and affection in return. A child who is not given this love can become insecure and lonely for the rest of life. No parent wants to banish their child to a lonely island, but they accomplish the same sad end by neglect and lack of affection.
What is surprising is that the supposedly independent carefree teenager needs attention as much, if not more, than a child. Studies indicate that the liability to loneliness is at its peak in adolescence. The teenager fears loneliness like the plague, and yet they are constantly struggling with it. You asked why they are so willing to go along with the crowd, and do even the most foolish and destructive things? It is because they cannot stand to be alone, to be left out, and to be different. The teenager lives constantly in the fear that he or she is different and possibly not normal. They worry about whether or not they are developing and maturing as they ought. They will do just about anything to demonstrate that they are. In their desperate attempt to be mature they often do what is very immature. They wrestle with their sins and inner thoughts about the future all alone, and they feel that no one really understands them. At no time in life does one need to sense love and concern more.
The facts indicate that both parents and society, as a whole, are too busy trying to escape their own loneliness to give youth what they need to come through this crisis period. Parents are like the disciples of Jesus. They walked with Him along the smooth path, but when the road got rough they fled, and they left Him alone. So parents enjoy the years of innocence with their children, but tend for forsake them in the turmoil of the teen years when they wrestle with the forces of temptation on every side. Thank God, the teenager who knows Christ has the company of one who understands.
The battle with the reality of loneliness goes on even after the period of adolescence, however, and, in fact, never ends. Thomas Wolfe, the American novelist, once thought that only he and a few others experienced loneliness, but after some study he wrote, "The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. As youth looks ahead in fear, those who have reached middle age look back in frustration. They feel lonely because of what might have been, but isn't. They could have done this or that, and now it is too late, and they regret it. Ideals have been unattained, and dreams unfulfilled.
Rupert Brooke was leaving Liverpool and he felt lonely for everyone seemed to have somebody on the dock waving goodbye. He went and found a boy who was dirty but unoccupied by the name of William, and he paid him to wave. When the ship pulled out he shouted goodbye William, and as the vessel slid away the last object to be seen was a small boy faithfully waving his handkerchief. Such is the measure men will go to in order to hide the reality of loneliness.
Older people feel it ever more intensely. Life has passed, and they feel they have been set aside on the shelf. They fear to face the short future alone without family and friends. The point of all this is that loneliness is a reality, and it is a reality that Jesus experienced that he might know and understand a basic problem that all people experience, and more important, that He might provide a remedy. That is our next point.
II. THE REMEDY FOR LONELINESS.
Jesus was left alone, and yet He says He was not alone, for the Father is with me. The ultimate remedy for loneliness is to be aware of the presence of God. All other remedies give moderate and temporary relief, but this alone will insure one of never being alone however lonely they might be. Only those who practice the presence of God can go through every experience and stage of life alone, and yet not be alone.
The Apostle Paul knew what it was to be alone, yet not alone. He wrote in II Tim. 4:16-17, "At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me....but the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the Word fully, that all the Gentiles might hear it." All deserted him, and yet he was not alone and defenseless, for the Lord was by his side. Paul, like us, never saw Jesus in the flesh while He walked this earth, but he claimed the promise of Christ to be with him always. Maltbie Babcock expressed Paul's feelings-
I need not journey far this dearest friend to see.
Companionship is always mine, He makes His home with me.
I envy not the Twelve; Nearer to me is He;
The life He once lived here on earth He lives again in me.
This can be the experience of all who have opened their hearts to Christ. The Christian has this remedy for loneliness, for he has the only friend who can fully understand him, and who is also ever present. This does not mean that Christians are never lonely, for they are still social creatures made for fellowship and companionship with other people, and when this is lacking they will be lonely, even as Jesus was. The Christian, however, no matter how lonely, is never alone, for God is present, and this can make the difference between defeat and victory.
Christina Forsyth, who was called the loneliest woman in Africa lived for 30 years alone in a native village seeking to win the people to Christ. She could say, "I am never alone." She was lonely, but not alone. This paradox is repeated over and over in countless lives through the centuries. Men and woman have experienced the full force of the reality of loneliness, yet, because they have also experienced the remedy in the presence of God, they were alone, yet not alone. Being active in the service of others has been the way many Christians have overcome the waste of loneliness. It is not wasted when you use it to get motivated in service. The world is full of need, and much of it is being met everyday by people who are lonely, but who are using their loneliness to be a blessing to other. There are 40 people who are specific people healed in the New Testament, and 34 of them were brought to Christ by friends. Only 6 came on their own. This is a marvelous witness to the power of service, for so much that happens in this world is because of people who care enough to help others find God's best.
Bernard Shaw in his St. Joan has Joan of Arc say as she is led away to the stake to be burned, "Yes, I am alone on earth. I have always been alone...But do not think you can frighten me by telling me that I am alone....It is better to be alone with God: His friendship will not fail me, nor His counsel, nor His love. In His strength I will dare, and dare and dare until I die." She went through great loneliness, but she did not go through it alone.
Once having discovered this ultimate remedy for loneliness, the Christian who follows the leading of the Lord soon learns to make an asset of his experience of aloneness. Those who have not yet opened their heart to the presence of Christ, but seek to solve their problem of loneliness by self-prescribed remedies often try and follow the "Isn't this fun," method. They go here and there, and everywhere joining in whatever the action. They try to impress themselves and others that life is really a ball. They are afraid to stop because they fear to be alone. The Christian should be one who learns to enjoy being alone. A famous philosopher felt that the real test of one's faith is in what he does with his solitude.
One can by a wise use of solitude make more friends of eternal benefit than in any other way. I have a whole host of godly friends who counsel me, guide me, inspire me, and fill me with greater devotion to Christ. I have never even met them. The list begins with Moses and includes Matthew, Peter, Paul, and John, and thousands more living and dead. No one has a richer heritage than the Christian, and no one can find greater riches and more friends through reading than can the Christian. In fact, the Christian can make the paradox even greater, and say as one did, "Never less alone than when alone." Every Christian can say, "Alone, yet not alone." But only the Christian who is a seeking, praying, and reading Christian can say, "Never less alone than when alone." Not only is God present to the seeking Christian, but so are hosts of His chosen servants who can guide us to a greater fulfillment of His will.
The Christian is one who must find value and meaning in all of the realities of life, and that includes the reality of loneliness. Jesus was lonely, but He did not waste it. He used it to wrestle before God in prayer, and He gained a victory that enabled Him to go to the cross with both peace and joy. Never was so much value gained for so many by a wise use of solitude. Everyone of us is obligated to follow Christ, and use our solitude for the glory of God and the good of man. We need to stop wasting our loneliness, and begin dedicating to God. There is no total escape from loneliness, for it is a part of the reality of a fallen world. Jesus could not escape it either. But in His loneliness he expressed His love, and this is what He will guide us to do if we claim His presence in our loneliness.
Alone, yet not alone am I,
Though in this solitude so drear;
I feel my Savior always nigh,
He comes the weary hour to cheer;
I am with Him, and He with me
Even here alone I cannot be.
Albert Einstein was not a Christian, but he had something to teach Christians. He wrote, "I have never belonged wholeheartedly to country or state, to my circle of friends, or even to my own family. Such isolation is sometimes bitter, but I do not regret being cut off from the understanding and sympathy of other men. I lose something by it, to be sure, but I am compensated for it in being rendered independent of the customs, opinions, and prejudices of others, and I am not tempted to rest my peace of mind on such shifting foundations." Einstein found values in his loneliness, and he used his solitude to fulfill the goals to which he dedicated his life. How much more ought Christians to say with Wordsworth, "I must be, else sinning greatly, a dedicated saint." A Christian as dedicated to Christ as an Einstein was to math will be able to face the reality of loneliness with a remedy for loneliness, and be alone, yet not alone.