“So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As a young mother, I felt incredibly lonely, and I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why. I was at home with my boys, which accounted for some of my loneliness—but there were people all around me, including the very children and husband I’d at one time longed and prayed for, the church people I loved, the women I served alongside, and the friends I could call for playdates.
As I got older, I realized it hadn’t been loneliness I’d felt; it was longing. I knew this because the feeling has never left me. I still long for friendships in which I won’t hurt or be hurt by others. I long to fully understand my friends, just as I long for them to fully understand me. I want to love and be loved perfectly, and as I’ve expected to find this in my relationships, I’ve been continually disappointed in myself and in my real-life relationships.
I now know that longing attaches itself to even the best and most intimate relationships, because the closer we walk with people, the more clearly we see that no relationship we’re in will ever be perfect. We can know be known by others only partially. Longing is the desire we feel for this imperfection to be made right. This is in fact an innate, God-implanted longing, because we were created for Eden, but we currently live in Babylon. Loneliness teaches us this isn’t how it’s supposed to be and begs us to search for where our longings are finally fulfilled.
Babylon, with all its crushing imperfections, is passing away, and a baby’s birth announcement many years ago tells us so. This baby—Jesus—grew into a man who proclaimed a coming Edenic kingdom, inviting all who would come through him.
This man knows many things we never will. He knew total isolation, left and betrayed by his closest friends. He knew what it meant to watch God turn his back in wrath. He knew what it meant to serve those who don’t recognize the depth of service and who reject it outright. There is no one who has ever been or will ever be this lonely, and he entered loneliness so we might have God’s friendship without end.
Even better, he knows us fully. The Apostle Paul describes our longing well when he speaks of love: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.” Now, in Babylon, we know love in part. Then, in a restored Eden, we will know God’s love fully as, Paul continues, “even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). In other words, in our loneliness and in our longing, we are right now fully known by God. He sees us and knows every inch of our hearts. We’re never truly alone.
Perhaps I try to avoid the sense of longing that’s attached to my friendships because I so often associate longing with lack. But longing becomes a gift when we look toward the perfection to which it points and recognize how we’re both known and loved perfectly by Jesus. Our specific longings, then, cause us to look toward Jesus and find their fulfillment ultimately in him. Loneliness teaches us to abide in his love, trusting he knows and loves us fully even though we can only grasp it partially. It also teaches us not to mold other people into idols, pressing them to love us as only Jesus can.
Instead, we learn to love others as Jesus loved us. His love, when received and kept as our ultimate love, begins to drive us:
“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5:14–15 NIV)
When we abide in the companionship of Jesus, we are compelled to bring others into the undying nature of God’s love. In other words, we can act on our longings in our everyday relationships, loving them in honor and imitation of Jesus and how he loves us. We enter into a mutual love relationship with Jesus when we love and serve others. Jesus said love looks like laying down our lives for our friends, just as he did. To love others is to lay down what we want out of a friendship and instead seek that very thing for the other person. When we do this, we proclaim the coming kingdom that was proclaimed to us at Jesus’ birth announcement: what we long for will one day be!
And loneliness will forever go the way of Babylon.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION/ APPLICATION:
What currently are your greatest longings in relationships? How did Jesus experience the same kind of hurt or lack that’s led to your longing? How did he respond and how can you imitate him in his response?
Are you feeling lonely? If so, take your loneliness to God. Ask him to help you know his presence and his help in your daily life.
How has God loved you? Where is he compelling you today to love and someone else in honor of him?
Christine Hoover is a pastor's wife, mom of three boys, host of the "By Faith" podcast, and author of several books, including Messy Beautiful Friendship and Searching for Spring: How God Makes All Things Beautiful in Time. Originally from Texas, she and her family live in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they planted a church in 2008. Find Christine at her home online, Grace Covers Me.