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Considering Loneliness

Truth In Love 408

Why is loneliness more prevalent in a hyper-connected society today?

Apr 3, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me a dear brother, Lou Priolo. He’s a graduate of Calvary Bible College and Liberty University. He holds a Doctorate of Divinity from Calvary University. He’s been a full-time biblical counselor since 1985. He’s the author of several books, including “The Heart of Anger,” “People Pleasing,” and most recently, the subject of our conversation today, “Loneliness,” along with several other titles. Lou is a member of the International Association of Biblical Counselors, a Fellow in the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, and the Director of Biblical Counseling at Christ Covenant Buckhead in Atlanta. He travels frequently throughout the US and abroad, training pastors, laymen, and fellow counselors as well as conducting a wide variety of seminars through Competent to Counsel International. A nonprofit organization which he founded in 2013. Lou and his wife Kim have been married since 1987 and are the parents of two grown daughters, Sophia and Gabriella. Lou, it’s so good to have you here on the podcast today. I’m looking forward to our conversation. 

Lou Priolo: It’s good to be here. Thanks for the invite, Dale. 

Dale Johnson: I’m looking forward to talking about this topic as well—this topic of loneliness. You’ve recently published a book on this topic, and I wanted to sit down with you to just have a conversation about this topic of loneliness, probably more pervasive in our age as any which is really strange considering that we’re such a quote-unquote connected society. I’m interested to see where we’re going to go here. So I want to start with this topic. You say that we have an epidemic of loneliness. Why is that Lou? 

Lou Priolo: The United Kingdom as of January 2018, now this is before covid instituted a title called the minister of loneliness. So, it is a worldwide problem even before COVID, and then of course, with the onset of covid and meeting people being more isolated, it’s become a greater epidemic. Loneliness can be excruciatingly painful, and it actually can be deadly. Some of the research I looked at indicates that persistent loneliness like loneliness that lasts for more than two weeks may be deadlier than alcohol abuse, obesity, cigarette smoking, and people who are lonely are at a greater risk of other issues like stroke, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, anxiety. So it’s a pretty serious, pretty common, increasing kind of problem. And it’s very painful, people who experience loneliness often attempt to tranquilize their pain with reckless behavior like excessive drinking, illegal drugs, sexual promiscuity. I mean you name it, they will tranquilize themselves because it is so painful. Some of us who are married or in relationships, we kind of forget how hard it was, you know when we were alone, but it can be a very painful kind of experience. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I would agree with that, and I’ve certainly seen people who have experienced deep devastation because of how isolated they feel from people. Now, I want to distinguish here before we get too far into this. Some people may be asking the question, okay, I get what you’re saying about loneliness, but what about this idea of being alone? So I want you to articulate for us, if you can, what’s the difference, if there is any, between being alone and what it means to experience loneliness. 

Lou Priolo: Sure, Jesus said to some of his disciples, “The hour is coming, yes, and has now come that you will be scattered each to his own and will leave me alone, yet, he goes on to say, I am not alone because the Father is with me, these things I have spoken to you, that in me, you might have peace in the world. You will have tribulation, but be in good cheer. I have overcome the world.” So Jesus knew He was going to be forsaken by the disciples, but He also knew that He really wasn’t alone because the father was with Him, going to be with Him, so He viewed being left alone and being alone as two different things. His mindset was not, I will necessarily be lonely because I’m being left alone but seems rather “look, as long as the Father is with me, I will not be lonely, even though all forsake me.” He knew that God’s presence and provision were more than adequate to make up for the loss of all other company. 

Dale Johnson: I think that’s a helpful distinction. You even mentioned in the book along with what you just said here, about some people in the Scriptures who tend to one degree or another to experience this idea of loneliness, can you elaborate a little bit more on some of those that you saw in the Scripture?

Lou Priolo: It’s funny the first person that comes to mind is Anna in the New Testament, who is married for seven years, and then she served in the temple for the rest of her life. Then we can think of Naomi, who was bereft of her husband and her two sons. Again, don’t lose sight of the fact in her case that God provided Ruth who was apparently better to her than seven sons. We have Jeremiah the weeping prophet who was told by God not to marry and whose life increasingly became more difficult. Elijah, another example said “I’ve been very zealous for the Lord, the god of hosts for the people of Israel has forsaken your covenant, throw down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left.” And God said, no, not exactly. And then King David was also well acquainted with loneliness. Look to the right and see. He says “there is no one who takes notice of me, no refuge remains to me, no one cares for my soul.” Then as the apostle Paul who was abandoned by one of his closest friends and left alone, he says to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me.” And then he says, “Get Mark who at one point in time be deemed to be so unfaithful that he didn’t want him to come with him on journeys, right? “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. And then Dale, one of the most interesting fascinating accounts of the New Testament, God opens up a door of ministry to Paul yet he doesn’t go through it. Some believe it may be because his loneliness caused him to take a different path. He says, “When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.” So here God opens up a door for ministry and Paul because of loneliness or depression or something doesn’t go through that door and then if you read the text later on, it’s really cool because he basically says, but no matter where I go, the spirit uses me. So I mean, that’s a pretty cool comfort as well. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I appreciate your articulation. It is pretty interesting sometimes when we just read in a cursory way over moments like that. We sort of dehumanize people. We take these moments out of that narrative as if they weren’t real and they weren’t experiencing some of these types of things that we would feel today. I’m thinking particularly about Jesus; there were several times, obviously, in the Scripture where he retracts away from people. He wants to be alone. He wants to be with the father and I’m thinking about this idea of loneliness, can loneliness itself ever be a good thing?

Lou Priolo: Sure. Years ago, I learned from Wayne Mack. This illustration of our emotions, especially our painful emotions sort of being like God’s smoke detector. When there’s a fire in our house, the smoke detector goes off, and the solution is not to smash the smoke detector or take the batteries out of it. The solution is to find the fire and put the fire out and ultimately the smoke will go out. Well, all of our emotions were designed by God, and they have purposes for good, but they also can be the result of sinful thinking and sinful behavior, not always but sometimes. And so painful emotions, like loneliness, can be a good thing because they help us look for a fire in our life that may be blazing, and God uses the pain to let us know that there’s a fire and we need to try to put the fire out using biblical resources of course.

So to answer your question more specifically, loneliness can be beneficial. For example, when it motivates us to prayer, loneliness can be beneficial when it motivates us to memorize, internalize, and meditate on Scripture. In the book, I have Scripture references for all of these along with this can be beneficial when it motivates us to self-examination. Loneliness can be beneficial when it motivates us to develop compassion for others, right? 2 Corinthians 1:2-4, “Blessed be the Father of mercies and God of all assistance, who assists us in all our tribulation, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the same assistance that we have received from God.” Loneliness can be beneficial when it motivates us to be more aware of the needs of others and really more aware of our need for others. Sometimes, it’s easy for us to think that we can get by without the church without friends without people who are in the body of Christ that God put there among other things to minister to us when we are hurting. Loneliness can also be beneficial when it motivates us to know Christ better, right, Paul who taught us so much about Christ said what that I may know Him. Well, I thought you knew Him. Well, yeah. But I want to know Him better than I might know Him and the power of His resurrection being made conformable to His death. 

Dale Johnson: Now, I love the way, Lou that you’re nuancing this because you are describing some potentially very healthy benefits, the way we can steward times when we are alone or when we’re feeling lonely. But one of the things that we’re primarily concerned about is how loneliness really can lead us into sin. I want you to describe several ways that we see a potential pitfall here with loneliness and how we can be led into sin.

Lou Priolo: I don’t know if you’re old enough, Dale, to remember that old commercial. How do you spell relief? 

Dale Johnson: I do, actually. Should I admit that? 

Lou Priolo: Anyway, you know, whenever again when we have these painful things in our life, our temptation is like, how do you spell relief, right? BOOZE, or you know PILLS or JESUS / BIBLE, you know how do you spell relief? So when we experience any kind of emotional pain this is especially true of loneliness. It’s easy to try to tranquilize the pain, and again, it is painful, with sexual sin or substance abuse, even just developing unhealthy friendships. Friendships that are going to lead you away from Christ, and of course, because you’re looking to these people to comfort you rather than the people and things that God has given you biblically to tranquilize your loneliness. Then you’re not in a position to really minister to them and lead them to Christ. So don’t be misled bad company corrupts good morals. So you’re going to put yourself in a situation to be influenced by them. “He walks with wise will be wise, the companion fools will be destroyed” in the wrong way. Any kind of inordinate pleasure-seeking, you know, sensuality, streaming social media, lurging, snacking, shopping, I mean, you name it, anything to kind of kill the pain. And again, it’s not that some of these things are not useful. If we give thanks for pleasurable activities, sort of as a form of worship, nothing sinful, of course, but we don’t look to these things as resources that God has given us. We look to them as a means in and of themselves to stop the pain. And that’s not what they were designed for. 

Dale Johnson: I love the way that you’re helping us to look at this subject with our eyes wide open and knowing some of the potential benefits, but also the ways in which we’re tempted to sin, and this is a common scheme of the evil one, for sure. I want us to talk about maybe some practical ways that Christians can respond to loneliness. 

Lou Priolo: Yeah. If I could just say the book is like only 50-something pages, uses only 59 pages, and that includes a couple of appendices. Half the book, half the content of the book identifies the cures for loneliness. So, there’s really a lot in here to help readers consider what kinds of lawful things and resources God has given them to deal with loneliness in a God-honoring way.

So I’ll just I’ll read a few of these. Okay, learn to view loneliness as a blessing rather than a curse, right? Trials are unavoidable; they’re designed by God for our good as Christians. Well, loneliness is a trial, and a little bit of loneliness even when you’re in a relationship, even when you’re married sometimes is a tolerable trial; not all loneliness can be avoided in this life. So, again, it’s your perspective. Consider it all joy not if but when you fall into various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. So as Christians, we can learn to live with a little bit of loneliness, and like I tell my counselees, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. So, you can do all things, and then they react sometimes, well, this is really really hard… okay fine. You can learn to do all things through Him who strengthens you. How about that? 

Dale Johnson: I love it, Lou, and I think this is so helpful, and again you mentioned a very short book here, Loneliness, published by P&R. We’re going to link that to our show notes here today. Lou, this has been very helpful for us to think through so many people, as we mentioned, even in a highly connected society are struggling with this issue of being alone and feeling the pressures of loneliness and often responding in ways that are sinful and not pleasing to the Lord. Thank you for helping us to right-size this issue and think biblically on it, brother. I appreciate your time. 

Lou Priolo: My pleasure. Thank you, Dale.

Helpful Resources:

Loneliness: Connecting with God and Others by Lou Priolo. Use the discount code ACBC23 for a 40% from P&R Publishers.

ACBC’s Resources