Last Tuesday during our spiritual leadership small group, we were discussing how suffering is a leadership quality. Suffering is actually my number two spiritual gift, and while it may not seem like a "gift," I have learned that it in fact is. Being able to withstand suffering not only allows you to build an endurance and strength that can't be built any other way, but teaches you to rely on God to see you through, and finally allows you to share the hope that you gained through it with others. As Romans chapter 5 states:
3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Part of that suffering for me has come in the form of having to know loneliness in a way that not many people understand. Knowing this, I have been reminiscing about my life and realized that I have always been good at being "lonely" and having walls up. As a young child, I was very intelligent for my age, and did not relate to kids my own age. I was overly intelligent, and because of this I was labeled a "weirdo" and avoided by most kids. It was very hard for me to make friends, because I could not relate to them on their level. I also was very detached from my family- my mom and sister shared a closeness (and still do to this day) that we never had- try as we might- and for many years it led me to feel rejected, unwanted, and alone in my own home. Once I hit my early teens, I used drugs and alcohol as a way to isolate myself even further- because it helped me to justify and feel in control of my loneliness- They weren't rejecting me, but I was using the alcohol to separate myself from them. I wasn't going to allow people to hurt me anymore, so I was making the choice to be alone rather than letting someone make it for me. I wasn't physically alone- in fact by that time I had become quiet popular and had a lot of friends- but I was very much emotionally alone. I could never truly get close to anyone. My walls just got higher and stronger as I continued throughout life, because every time I would let my walls down, I would be hurt horribly. I had some very, very painful experiences and was deeply hurt by people I loved and allowed to get close to me. My loneliness led to deep depression, and feelings of despair. Before I knew God, the loneliness that I had carried with me my entire life and tried to fill with people, substances, and things was so overwhelming that I could never imagine myself not being alone. The silence was deafening, and the hole of loneliness and isolation that I had dug for myself was deep. I had buried myself alive.
The loneliness was actually a blessing in disguise. It drove me to look for God. Once I gave my life to Jesus, I realized that he had been with me all along. God had always been there every step of the way, always beside me- even when no one else was. For many years after I was saved, Jesus was ALL I had. I had no friends, no relationships, and didn't see my family- it was just me and God. While it was still hard to not have people in my life, I learned to lean into him. God being all I had was all I needed. We built a bond that would have never been accomplished if I had the distraction of other people in my life at that time. It was very, very hard to see it then. I didn't understand why God wouldn't bring people into my life, to help my loneliness go away. Surely he didn't want me to be miserable? It's only in retrospect that I can see that he needed me to see that he was the one who would fill me, would sustain me, would comfort me, not people. I needed to learn to depend on him and him only.
2 Timothy 4:16 At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth.” (NIV)
Psalm 27:10 When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up.
Looking back on my life, I can see that God was using my circumstances- my loneliness- to prepare me for the ministry role that I have today. Since I have dealt with loneliness most of my life, it was not a huge culture shock to be in the lonely position of ministry leader. I know how to handle the loneliness, and I also have a deep sympathy for the lonely people in the world- the outcasts- the ones who have no one rallying for them. That is why I have the passion that I do for the people I work with- I have been there, and I know what that all encompassing isolation feels like. I can help comfort people who are in the same spot that I was for years, and still sometimes find myself.
1 Corinthians 1: 4 The God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer;…
I would be lying if I were to say that I don't still get lonely- even though I have Jesus, and God has brought AMAZING people into my life. I have an incredible husband, a beautiful little boy who is the absolute light of my life, a close and caring church family, fabulous friends that I adore, and my relationship with my parents is at one of the best points it has ever been. I am blessed beyond belief with the wonderful people God has given me- and I am not complaining. I love each and every one of them and am lucky to have such great people in my life. Sometimes though, even with all that, loneliness creeps in. My husband is constantly on the go helping people, and I am selfish in the fact that I would like more uninterrupted time with him. Having an actual weekend to spend together like other couples would be nice- but we all know that addiction doesn't keep business hours and people's needs aren't restricted to Monday through Friday. In fact, when we renewed our wedding vows last month, as we were walking out the door we got an emergency ministry call and we had to make a detour to go help someone on our way to saying "I Do" (again). Sometimes I yearn for a friend who understands what I go through in being a recovered addict, working hands on in a frontline 24 hour a day ministry, raising a little boy, going to school full time, dealing with the craziness that comes with working with drug addicts, the insane demands on our time, and having a minister for a husband. I have friends who understand parts of my life- sometimes even multiple parts, but not the whole. It is easy to throw a pity party for myself and whine about how no one understands. I Still have family members that reject me, and people who say cruel things about me. It's easy to yearn for things to be easier, to yearn for relationships that "normal" people have.
But then I realize that I do not need to yearn for anything. I have everything I need in Jesus. I just need to remind myself of that. When loneliness creeps in, God is there. We are doing God's business, and we are living sacrifices. When we told God that we gave him our lives, we meant it. And this is what he chose to do with them. I can't complain, because my life is great- BEYOND great. The devil would like nothing better than to convince me that I am alone or that no one understands me, or that my life is somehow lacking. An attitude of gratitude and gratefulness is a must in my life. I may not have tons of people who understand everything I go through, or people I can disclose everything to, or uninterrupted bonding time with my husband- BUT I HAVE GOD- who knows exactly what I am feeling, and is with me always. The Isrealites spent 40 years in the desert because they were focused on the few things that they perceived as God not providing for them the way that they thought he should have- murmuring and complaining about insignificant things- instead of focusing on the great miracles, provision, freedom and love that God had shown them- and the fact that he was in their midst, leading and guiding them the entire time. I do not want to be like them, but sadly I am- more often than I care to admit. It is important for me to realize, however, that people were never meant to fill the "God shaped hole" in me that only God was meant to fill. Relationships are not meant to sit on the throne of my heart, but Jesus is. Focusing on what is lacking in your life only serves to make you miserable. Knowing that God is more than enough keeps you content- a lesson that the Israelites learned far too late. Despite what they were "lacking", Never once did they ever walk alone, and when it comes down to it, I know that neither have I. God knows exactly where I am in this season of my life, and he has equipped me for it. My "loneliness", past and present, serves a purpose. HE is with me.