Loneliness is a nasty thing.
There’s a big difference between being alone and being lonely. I’m usually alone, but I enjoy my own company rather a lot. I don’t feel lonely very often. I’m really okay with being single. I like my space, my time, my freedom to not do the dishes if I don’t want to. But sometimes I would really like someone contractually obligated to sit in the room with me. Not necessarily to talk to me or engage or listen, but just to be. This week has been one of those times.
Rosemary died on Tuesday. It seems like a year since then. God was very good to me; He knew I needed to not be alone, and He worked it out so that for almost 4 days I wasn’t unless I was thoroughly exhausted. Special unplanned stuff at church kept me out until almost midnight on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Not only was I extremely blessed and encouraged, but I was so tired that I actually forgot to eat until I got into bed . . . I ate supper in bed twice last week. Never done that before. Special things happened, like getting two emails from my dad and being blessed to attend a special worship service in San Jose led by Jesus Culture (if you haven’t heard them, you need to). A lot of stuff that God’s been speaking to me were preached back at me on Tuesday night, reassuring me that I’m on the right track. I was busy, tired, and not really grieving . . . just a dull spot in my gut whenever I thought about Mama Rose, whenever I had to do something this week that I would have called her about. But I was okay.
Until Friday. During the day I felt the tension starting to build. Everything was irritating me. Things that don’t normally bother me were really pushing my buttons. Sometime during church the whole week caught up with me and I crashed. I was exhausted, devastated, overwhelmed, depressed, and lonely. On Thursday night I was reminded of the 5 love languages; this was extremely timely because I needed to remember that my own primary love language is physical touch, and I needed to realize that this is a language not readily available in my current circle of friends. I started sliding into self-pity on Friday night, secretly hoping others would see that I was sad and readily push their love on me. If they did, it was in another language because I wasn’t catching it. I was convicted of trying to manipulate attention and reminded of all the ways God had been caring for me all week long.
Sunday was especially difficult. Several people were supposed to come over after church, but no one did. It wasn’t that they flaked on me, things just happened. Jobs were available, engagement picture appointments were changed because of lighting, families were visited, sleep was extremely necessary. It’s the first time I was really alone since Rosemary died, and it’s the most lonely I’ve felt in a really long time. I needed a hug more than I can ever remember, and there was none to be found. I had no desire to talk to anyone, but just to be in the same room with another human. We all need this sometimes.
I struggle a lot with feeling guilty about this pain and this loneliness. It’s one thing to grieve; it’s another thing entirely to fall into self-pity. Self pity is the worship of self instead of God during times of hardship. Does it mean my faith isn’t strong enough, that I don’t lean enough on God? Is it so horribly selfish to crave compassion from others? I have been thinking all week about joy, contentment, and hope. We treat these ideas like emotions, but they’re not really. They are choices.
You know how pain is a temporary sensation in our physical body that’s triggered by an outside event or invader? (This is a highly simplistic definition, but let’s go with it for now.) We don’t have a whole lot of control over physical sensation because, generally speaking; it’s a communication system that God built into us that alerts us to what’s going on in our environment and helps us stay safe. It is completely reactive. Well, emotions work the same way. Emotions are temporary sensations in our minds that alert us to potential dangers and help us understand the world around us based on our past experiences. (Again, highly simplistic, but it’s a theory.) When we “talk about our feelings,” we’re not sitting there discussing the emotions of sadness, depression, or joy. We’re discussing what’s going on around us that are triggering these sensations. Emotions and pain are generally out of our control . . . and temporary. (As a clinician I would be highly remiss not to throw in a statement here differentiating normal emotional responses and serious mental health problems. There’s a huge difference, and if your responses aren’t normal get some help.)
I don’t have control over my emotions, but I usually have full control over what I do with them (again, if you don’t, get help). Scripture does not promise us a spirit of power, love, and emotional stability. This is a good thing, because most of us struggle in this area at some point. Even Jesus got so overwhelmed that He cried tears of blood (Luke 22:44). Elijah went running off suicidal right after God worked an incredible miracle through him (I Kings 19). And David, dear King David . . . how we love the Psalms: they speak to our deepest fears and longings and pain and joy and loneliness and hope and peace and anger and desires for revenge . . . because, quite frankly, David was an emotional basket case who journaled an awful lot. What made David and Jesus and Elijah different was not their feelings, it was their choices.
What we are promised is a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind instead of a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7). There is a theory that the basis of emotions is fear and safety. If we believe we are safe, we experience emotions that welcome others in, such as happiness and peace. If we feel endangered, we protect ourselves with defensive emotions that push others away, such as anger and sadness. I like this theory a lot, especially because this verse so speaks to it. When we are fearful, we’re an emotional wreck. Paul was not telling Timothy to feel happy, nor did he tell Timothy that God gives happy feelings. Paul was telling Timothy to recognize the source of his fear and to respond with his head. When our body hurts, we respond with choices: take some medicine, sleep it off, go to the doctor, eat certain foods. When our feelings hurt, we need to respond with “sound mind” choices, too.
It is possible to learn how to do this in our own strength, but to truly live freely without fear requires the grace of God. We must learn to respond to our hurting emotions with the tools that God has given us. God’s a therapist, you say? Absolutely! And He’s given us nine – that’s right, count ‘em, NINE – options to deal with hurting feelings. There’s only one little catch, one requirement to be able to learn and use them: we must live by the power of God. Galations 5 talks about freedom in Christ, which involves a lot of loving others. You cannot command an emotion, but you can command a choice. “Through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Paul goes on to describe people who do not walk by the Spirit; his description includes enmity, jealousy, angry outbursts, arguing, envy (5:19-21) . . . look at that, all feeling words! Do people who walk in the Spirit have these feelings? Sure. But when we walk in the Spirit we develop some skills, perfect some options of how to respond to all those feelings that stem from fear: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-24).
These skills are fruits. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus connected fruitfulness and joy in John 15, and it is fitting to remember this at Easter. Jesus begins to speak to the disciples about abiding in Him and in His love. When we abide (which is truly a fantastic word), we will bear much fruit; when we do not abide, we will wither up and be pruned away. I have always been taught about this portion of Scripture in the context of ministry and underscoring the importance of living a Godly life. Only today am I seeing the connection between the fruit that comes from abiding in the security of God’s love and developing the fruits of the spirit. Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:11). Not “so you feel safe and happy.” Not even our own feeling. It is God’s joy, stuffed inside us until we’re overflowing, like a big fat Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas stocking.
But immediately after desiring for the disciples’ joy to be full, Jesus launches into this long speech about how terrible everything’s going to be: everyone’s gonna hate you, make you outcasts, kill you thinking they’re following My will. Oh, and I’m taking off soon. Don’t worry, I’ll send you another dude called the Holy Spirit; you don’t know Him, but trust Me, you’ll like him. He’s kinda like Me. And you’re not going to see me anymore and you’re going to be really really sad, but everyone else is going to be really happy that I’m gone. And you’re going to be scattered. “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
If it was me, I would not be feeling particularly comforted.
Jesus didn’t tell them how to feel. In fact, He told them they were going to feel pretty crummy. What He did tell them was what to do with the crummy feelings: Abide in me. So simple, yet so very difficult as Paul explains to his dear Timothy. It is difficult because our humanity senses fear and bristles, we put up walls of anger and sadness or even a false peace to shut out the world from our inner turmoil. Jesus says to rest in it, to choose peace and joy and patience and all the rest of the fruit basket.
I’ll be honest: I’m not that great at making a spiritual fruit salad when my emotions are hurting, and especially when I’m so lonely. My determination withers up and dies. My mind goes blank and I forget all the things I know about God and hope and joy and peace. I forget where to read and how to pray. I forget I’m a Christian. But I’m doing my best lately to keep reminding myself of who I am in Christ. So this week I forced myself to tear down some of those walls. I apologized for my pathetic attempt to manipulate attention. In the moment I honestly didn’t perceive much more than a draft coming through the openings in my walls until I started doing my best to pick out the other love languages; I deciphered quite a bit, and I think there was a lot more coming my way that I didn’t catch. That’s encouraging to me. Most of all, I continued claiming and demanding a “sound mind” response.
My coworker told me today that we grieve the depth of our love; I like this a lot. I will miss Rosemary for a very long time, I will love her forever, and her absence will smack me in the face when I least expect it. Every time I get out my highlighters this week I feel a sharp pain in my gut, a twinge of guilt when I see an email she wrote all in caps that I didn’t respond to in time, something she wrote that just made it to my inbox. I think God’s fine with this. He knows the comfort I need and has provided it in very special ways, and I don’t think He’s upset that I’m still sad anyway. All He wants is for me to trust in His love. Abide in me, so that My joy can abide in you. Let me cover you in this warm, soft, cozy blanket of love to protect you and cuddle you as you grieve, to swaddle you out of your fear. As you experience My love, you will understand the blissful gratitude of joy that comes from simply experiencing Me. And as we walk through this grief together you will become more and more like Me so that when it’s over, you will be more fruitful than ever before. Abide in me. That’s the opposite of self-pity.
I think that choosing the fruits of the spirit can feel backwards a lot of the time because we confuse them with emotions. I might feel peaceful at times, but I can choose to walk in peace all the time regardless of how calm I feel in the moment. The fruits of the Spirit are miraculous because they go against our natures. To be able to use the sound mind God has given us, through the strength and support that He offers us, to ward off fear and claim His freedom is, well, pretty darn cool. . .