The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

LIVING WITH LONELINESS

Delivered 8/13/00
Text: II Timothy 4:9-18 (Psalm 25:16-18)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Have you ever been lonely? Stupid question. We all have. We can identify with the Psalmist and the prayer, "Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am LONELY..." It does not matter how many friends we have, how close we are to our family, or how many people surround us everyday. There are times when we feel lonely. In most instances, those times are not devastating; we function all right and we soon get over them. But every so often, there comes a feeling of utter isolation. If we can deal with it quickly, fine. If we cannot, we end up in such a state that we are in serious danger.

I read recently of a fifty-five year-old woman who threw herself from her fourteenth-floor apartment to the ground below. Minutes before her death she saw a workman washing the windows of a nearby building. She greeted him and smiled, he smiled back and said hello. When he turned his back, she jumped. On a very neat and orderly desk she had left this note: "I can't endure one more day of this loneliness. My phone never rings! I never get letters! I don't have any friends!"

Another woman who lived right across the hall spoke with reporters. She said, "I wish I had known she felt so lonely. I'm lonesome myself."(1)

Loneliness. A universal problem. And I entitled this sermon "Living with Loneliness" on purpose - loneliness is a part of life. It is unavoidable. I did not entitle this "Getting Rid of Loneliness" because, I am sorry to report that there are no magic formulas or silver bullets to kill it. I cannot even say, "Make sure you are here in church from week to week in this fellowship of friends who love and care for you" - that helps, of course, but we know that, even in a crowd, we can still be lonely. There are not even any places in scripture to which I can point which will tell us, "This is the way to get rid of loneliness." However...and you KNEW there had to be a HOWEVER or I would never have brought this whole subject up...HOWEVER, in our lesson a moment ago, in spite of the fact that it seems to be nothing more than some personal ramblings of Paul to his young friend Timothy, I think there are some clues as to the way one of God's great saints dealt with his OWN problem of loneliness and enabled him to live with it when it struck. Listen again to his words:

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you because he is helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.
The Apostle was convinced that he had come near the end of his life. Just a few sentences before those we just read, he wrote, "...the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." He had been imprisoned in Rome awaiting trial before the emperor. It had been a relatively good incarceration as such things go. It was house arrest, not a dungeon. He was able to have visitors. He could preach and teach. Paul had been in prisons that were much worse. But still, prison is prison, and if he had his druthers, he would have been elsewhere, probably in Spain by now, as he mentioned at the end of his letter to the Romans. But he was not. He was in jail, and he was feeling low. Who wouldn't. And he was quite ready to die.

But that made no difference. Ready to die or not, he did not want to spend what he thought were his last days in loneliness. So he writes to Timothy, "Do your best to come to me quickly." And therein lies our first clue as to how to live with the problem of loneliness: DO NOT WAIT. Do not let the DOWN FEELING persist indefinitely.

Now that would SEEM like an obvious bit of advice...but too often we would prefer not to take it. We would rather wallow in self-pity. It is fun, in a perverse kind of way. It is nice to feel sorry for yourself sometimes, isn't it? After all, if YOU don't, no one else will. There have been times in my life when I WANTED to feel sorry for myself, and I would have been terribly distressed had someone tried to get me out of it. Of course, in the middle of feelings like that, I was not very useful...to myself or anyone else. But if God's people are called to be useful, and I think the scripture makes it plain that we are, then we are hardly fulfilling our commission as we sit closeted somewhere perfectly content to remain down in the dumps. Paul says to his friend,"COME QUICKLY, I cannot afford to stay like this." Self-pity? All right, you can get away with a little of it...but do not WALLOW in it. Get out of it as soon as you can.

Note something here: Paul makes no effort to avoid thinking about the cause of his situation. He acknowledges the problem: Demas took off because his priorities were not straight; Crescens, Titus and Tychichus were gone because they had other work to do. People that Paul had counted on were away, for one reason or another. He might have wished they were still there, but they were not. So...it is time to move on.

Far too often, we do not. We would rather live in the past, with all its problems and disappointments, than forge ahead boldly into an unknown future. We dwell on old HURTS instead of taking a chance on new HOPES. It is perversely comfortable... especially when we have the chance to plot against those we feel have deserted us or done us dirt. The Apostle is instructive when he writes, "Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done." If there is any PLOTTING to be done, we should acknowledge with Paul that it is out of our hands. OUR task is to get on with the business of living and to get out of the dumps.

Paul's method for getting out of them should also seem like an obvious one. If SOME of your friends are no longer around, surround yourself with some OTHER friends who CAN be around. FIND them, and their presence will help solve the problem.

Now, as we have already said, there is no question that you can be lonely in a crowd. There might be thousands of people physically very near to you but the feeling of isolation persists. From what little I know about singles bars (and I'm afraid my knowledge comes only from movies and television), they seem to be a perfect illustration: people packed in like sardines, each one looking for someone to join them in their lonely existence, but generally finding only disappointment instead of companionship. Paul would say, "Do not surround yourself with PEOPLE; surround yourself with FRIENDS."

Which leads to another consideration: not just ANY friends; SPECIFIC friends. The difference is probably that between friends and acquaintances. I have never been much of a "party animal" but I have gone to a lot of them. In many I was surrounded by people that I would have called "friends," but they were acquaintances more than friends, with the result that I did not feel particularly DRAWN to any of them. Instead, all I experienced was that "lonely in a crowd" feeling. Perhaps you have been in the same situation. Paul would say, "Do not involve yourself with that; if you want to get out of your doldrums, be selective."

It is interesting WHOM Paul selects. Obviously, there was Timothy to whom the letter is addressed. That would be an understandable choice since Paul acknowledges him as so close a friend that he considers him almost like a son. But he also says, "Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry"...a good man to have around. But, MARK? Wait a minute. As you Bible scholars recall, Mark caused the split between Paul and Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas had Mark with them on their first missionary journey as a helper, but when they left Pamphylia and struck inland on the hard and dangerous road to the central plateau of Asia Minor, Mark bailed out. It was too tough. Then when it came time for a second journey and Mark wanted to come along again, Paul said ABSOLUTELY NOT - he is a WIMP! So Paul and Barnabas broke up their team, and as far as we know, were never reunited. But now, here is Paul telling Timothy to go get Mark and bring him because he is such a good man. Good lesson: old hurts do not have to REMAIN hurts. People change; situations change and if we continue to live in the past, we never notice. Paul would say, "FORGE AHEAD, and let bygones be bygones."

Something else is interesting here. Paul tells Timothy to stop off on his way to pick up his old cloak that he left with a friend in Troas. Why would he bother? It would no doubt have been out of Timothy's way to stop off just for that. Could not Paul have just gotten himself another cloak? (He could have ordered one in the mail from Blair.(2) Well...) I suppose so...but it would not have been the same. It would not have been that "old friend" that had seen him through so much. This was Paul's special robe, and what made it special was that it was HIS.

That says something to us: if we are to escape the doldrums that inevitably come with our loneliness, we need familiar things around us. There is comfort in surrounding ourselves with old and valued possessions. How many times have you seen ads in the paper offering inordinate amounts of reward for the return of something that has what is described as "great sentimental value?" How many old things do YOU own on which you would never consider putting a price. The world might not think them very valuable, but to you they are of incredible worth. We need them because they give us a sense of our own history.

Have you heard advice given to someone who is especially down after the loss of a loved one or a divorce that says, "Why not take a trip; get away from it all?" Perhaps you have given that advice yourself. I wonder what Paul would say about that. I wonder if he would agree that getting away from it all is a good way to deal with loneliness. I doubt it. I suspect his advice would be "Do NOT try to cut yourself off that way. Surround yourself with good friends, and stay near those valued possessions."

But he would say more. Listen to what he asks of Timothy: "bring my scrolls," my books. There has been much speculation as to what those scrolls contained, but I do not think it matters. What Paul wants is the opportunity to STRETCH HIS MIND. He wants the chance to READ because he knows it will help.

In our day, we give short shrift to stretching the mind. A whole generation is growing up having their minds stretched only by things like the Simpsons, MTV and Jerry Springer...hardly a comforting thought as we look to the future.

Quite frankly, our day is not that unusual. There were centuries after books became readily available in which there was a certain antipathy to reading...even among the clergy. Listen to something that Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said on the subject:

Some of our...brethren think that a minister who reads books and studies his sermon must be a very deplorable specimen of a preacher. A man who comes up into the pulpit, professes to take his text on the spot, and talks any quantity of nonsense, is the idol of many. If he will speak without premeditation, or pretend to do so, and never produce what they call a dish of dead man's brains - OH, THAT is a preacher. How rebuked are they by the Apostle! He is inspired, and yet he wants books. He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books. He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books. He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books. He had been caught up into the third heaven and heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, and yet he wants books. He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books. The Apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, "Give thyself unto reading." The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men's brains PROVES that he has no brains of his own.(3)
HA! I think Paul would say, "Amen!" Let us do some REAL mind-stretching here; it will instruct us, inform us, challenge us and broaden our horizons ESPECIALLY when we are low in the pit of our own lonely depression. It is all a part of the AVOIDANCE OF WALLOWING. By getting your mind focused outward, you have neither the time nor the concentration to keep it focused inward.

If Paul would have any suggestions as to WHAT to focus on, I suspect they would be bound up in his further instruction to Timothy: "Bring the parchments...the scriptures." Here was a man who probably could have QUOTED you half of the Hebrew scriptures but still he wanted them near to remind him that even in a strange city, even in a prison house, even in the depths of loneliness...he was NOT alone.

It is fascinating how history repeats itself. Almost fifteen hundred years after Paul, William Tyndale, the man who translated the Bible into English, was also imprisoned. Listen to what he wrote: "I entreat your Lordship, and that by the Lord Jesus, that, if I must remain here for the winter, you would beg the Commissary to be so kind as to send me, from the things of mine which he has, a warmer cap...I feel the cold painfully in my head...also a warmer cloak, for the one I have is very thin...He has a woolen shirt if he will send it. But most of all, my Hebrew Bible, grammar and vocabulary, that I may spend my time in that pursuit."(4)

Paul was lonely; Tyndale was lonely; you and I are sometimes lonely. But the scriptures tell us of a friend who "sticks closer than a brother," who can lift us out of that loneliness and bear us on eagle's wings to the skies. We NEED to be reminded of his presence, and we get that reminder as we spend time in reading the Word.

Paul's program for living with loneliness:

  • do not wallow in it;
  • surround yourself with special friends, both the kind that walk and talk as well as the ones that just sit there - those valued possessions;
  • stretch your mind so thoughts can change from inward to outward;
  • and most important of all, spend time with the scripture, because THAT will be time spent with the source and subject of it, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

After all, it was he himself who said, "I am with you always...in your pain, in your heartache, in your loneliness... even to the very end of the age."(5)

Amen!


1. Luis Palau, Healthy Habits for Spiritual Growth, (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery house Publishing, 1994)

2. The John Blair Company is a nationally-known Warren, PA mail-order firm.

3. W. R. Nicoll, Jane T. Stoddart, James Moffatt, eds., The Expositor's Dictionary of Texts, Vol. II, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1953), p. 804

4. The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 11 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1955), p. 516

5. Matthew 28:20b

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