Loneliness. Sometimes it just seems like it doesn’t go away. What may be most befuddling about loneliness is how it can arise so suddenly, out of nowhere. Lives and ministries which had been apparently rich, fulfilling and rewarding somehow quickly become overwhelmed by inexplicable feelings of loneliness. Certainly the immediate, short-term and long-term affects of loneliness can all take their toll. The price of loneliness can range from an unsettling sense of detachment from anything meaningful to a total misdirection of life and energies toward a path of personal and professional ruin. From Where Does This Loneliness Come? Gilbert Meilaender in Faith and Faithfulness: Basic Themes in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 1991) perhaps best pinpoints the origin of loneliness. In chapter three, “Human Nature: The Sinful Human Being,” Meilaender relates loneliness to sin, specifically the sins of pride and sloth.”Our sin is best characterized as failure to master the intricate simultaneities required by the duality of our being…In pride we seek only to be free; in sloth we want only the security of finitude and its limits.” (Meilaender, p. 59)Pride’s Pitfall It is relatively easy to relate pride and sin. But it may be harder to acknowledge our own pride as sin. Leaders, Christian or not, are habitually bent toward extending the boundaries, going beyond the limits and going “where no man has gone before.” After all, it’s where the fruit is. The dark side of such proactive, change-directed leadership is that it may be driven by a hideous refusal to accept the natural limits of our creaturely condition. The failure to accept these human limits, Meilaender noted, is a failure of trust.”That failure of trust is pride, and within Christian thought it has signified a failing more fundamental than mere vanity. It is the attempt to exercise freedom without limit—without, even the limit that is God. In pride we pretend that the limits of our nature are of no consequence—that the inner meaning of history is simply the process of human self-determination.” (Meilaender, p. 60)St. Augustine characterized Satan’s sin as pride: “He refused to be subject to his creator, and in his arrogance supposed that he wielded power as his own private possession and rejoiced in that power.” (Meilaender, p. 60).Satan’s greatest mistake, Augustine concluded, was that “he has refused to accept reality.” (Meilaender, p. 60) The Reality Of Pride This denial of reality can be a major, motivating component of pride. Vision-driven leaders are de facto driven by a vision which transcends reality. Whether the vision be of God or of human origin, the nature of vision-driven leadership is to direct energies toward the creation of that which is “unreality” in the present. In order to attain and realize the proposed vision, one must have a will which can overcome the “real” obstacles. Finances, human resources, stamina, persistence, willingness to pay the price, and the ability to manage conflict while upholding and promoting the vision are virtually overwhelming tasks. They require extensive, extraordinary energies. The two main sources of such energies are God…and pride. The key challenge for leadership is to continue to make energy “reality checks.” Where is the energy coming from? To what degree is one’s own pride taking part in the achievement of the vision? Who is really in control? Given the necessary day-to-day hands-on monitoring of the progress of the vision, it is easy to believe one is in control. The more the vision needs to be kept in control, the greater the potential for pride to slip in and place us into the same mistake Satan made. He refused to accept the reality of Who is really in control. Enter: Loneliness The moment when leaders recognize they are no longer in control is the instant in which loneliness creeps in and tries to overwhelm the out-of-control leader. Instances in which leaders may recognize they are out of control may include:* Sudden, dramatic change in physical health;* Transformational spiritual crises which highlight how vastly different what you achieved and what you expected really are;* The realization/completion of the vision which leaves one exhausted and wondering, “Is that all there is?”;* The irreversible dashing of expectations;* Conflict and/or congregational dynamics that, though carefully monitored, have gone out of control and keep evading control;* Loss of key admirers (family, significant others, leaders and members) through death, rejection, or moving;* Loss of constant sources of admiration and adulation;* Critical environments which drown any affirmation;* Loss of respect.The Problem Of Pride These and other factors all point to a common symptom of pride: a general inability to let God be in control. The more prolonged and intense the experiences listed above are, the greater the loneliness crash will be. Unfortunately, by focusing on the grief of having lost control, the wrestlings of loneliness may blame God for His inability to control. It is this blaming which exposes the hideous denial. Somehow we have equated our control with God’s control. Somehow we have assumed that because we are God’s people exercising His control that His control would conform to our “sanctified” well-intended, God-inspired control. We may have “fooled” everyone with this holy aura of God’s leading. Whatever the appearances, the one who may have been fooled most was the one most deeply captivated by the vision, the dream, the fantasy, the unreality of their being in control. The price one pays when one finally comes to reality is a loneliness never before experienced in one’s life. The Deep Experience Of Loneliness Such loneliness is what always laid in the deepest parts of the leader’s psyche. Their need to be in control may have denied it quite effectively for so many, many years. When control is no longer possible, the veneer of denial is shattered. Loneliness, previously so well-controlled for so long, is uncontrollable and unbearable. The results of being so utterly out of control is solitude…excruciating solitude. Unless the unreality of one’s control is given up, the loneliness will ensue and overtake its bearer. The healing can come only when one, as Augustine noted, “accepts reality.” That reality is the recognition of just how extensively their pride—regardless of the “holy” and “honorable” consequences and results—had consumed them. Sloth Sloth, like pride, is symptomatic of alienation from God. Like pride, sloth seeks freedom from God’s control. Pride seeks freedom from God’s control by wresting that control for one’s self; sloth seeks this same freedom by isolating oneself from the influence of God. Pride and sloth are also related in that when the proud fall they may become slovenly. Regardless of the nature of the crisis or trauma bringing about the fall, pride can do a “flip-flop” transformation to appear as sloth. On the outside, pride and sloth appear very different. The slothenly may appear disinterested, apathetic, unkempt, and unmotivated. Their sluggish disinclination to action and their seeming outright laziness seems to be anything but pride. But it is. The slothful use their idle disinterest and detachment as controlling behaviors to avoid God’s calling. Such behaviors are rooted in a pride which, instead of over-running and out-powering God’s control, simply chooses to avoid it altogether. Their prideful contempt of God’s will simply exclaims, “It doesn’t matter what God thinks. I’ll do whatever I very well please…if I am to do anything!” On the inside, however, pride and sloth may appear virtually identical. They are both driven by the same escape from the reality of God’s control. They share a common contempt and disregard for God. Both aim to out-maneuver God’s control by the disregards for His willed boundaries and limits for His servants. Dealing with the Consequences of Pride The deception is that though we may be quick to point out the evils of slothfulness, the evils of pride in controlling behavior may not be so obvious…or vice versa. Meilaender writes,
“The end of both pride and sloth is the solitude that is hell. In pride we seek to make everything and everyone else subject to our will—a world in which the swollen ego is secure because [it is] alone. In sloth the self is equally alone, unable to delight in anything outside itself. ‘The solitary self to which pride is developed in its final stages is at one and the same time the bored self.’
But that is the end of the road—when pride trusts nothing outside the self and sloth hopes for nothing beyond the self…Since they are ultimately the same destination—isolation within oneself—it makes little difference which path we take” (Meilaender, p. 61).
The Root Of Loneliness Meilaender correctly points out that the root of loneliness is the product of an unresolved dilemma between creature-obedient and creature-defiant, old man and new man, sinner and saint.”The sinful creature is precisely that: a creature made for God, who cannot entirely shake off the longing for that appointed designation or close his ears to the address for God; a sinner who rebels against any goal she has not set for herself or who draws back from the dangers of a journey beyond the familiar. And because the sinful creature is both, pride and sloth must be chiefly descriptions of our ultimate destination apart from grace” (Meilaender, pp. 63-64).
Toward Healing Given this struggle, the identification with Paul in Romans 7 is striking: “What a wretched man I am! Who can deliver me from the body of death?” Such despair is reminiscent of the first two steps of the “Twelve Step” process. These steps indicate that one must first recognize there is a higher power. Second, one must submit to Him. It is this loneliness-driven despair which is the working of the Law to bring the Christian “control freak”—whether proud or slothful—to Gospel transformation. When one can finally let go of all the multitudinous areas of “me,” one also begins to receive relief from loneliness. For where God is, where light enters, the darkness of the deepest night fades into brightness. Loneliness is so difficult because it’s the soul’s certain—but disguised—rejection of God. Pride and sloth have kept God out. Where God has been shut out, loneliness enters. When loneliness overcomes and overwhelms, the hope of the Gospel is at risk. It can become diminished. It can be doubted. Tragically, it can even become destroyed. Coming Nearer To God In this context James’ words, “Come near to God and He will come near to you,” become more than just another spiritual platitude. They become the ultimate comfort and invitation to release pride, sloth—or whatever causes one’s loneliness—and let God in. The message of the Gospel is specifically this: even in the most unimaginable, uncontrollable, hellacious scenarios, God is in control. Even on the cross Jesus cried out of the darkness of His vicarious loneliness for us, “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?” When Jesus died, His greatest action in this loneliness was that He submitted Himself totally into His Father’s control, yielded to His Father’s calling to Him, and committed His spirit into the gracious, controlling hands of Him who has dominion over all. Most remarkable, perhaps, was not simply Jesus’ action and response in this loneliness. When others saw how, even in loneliness, Jesus didn’t try to take control…but humbled Himself even unto death, they marveled. With the soldier they proclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God.” You’re Not Alone! Jethro, in Exodus 18, recognized how his son-in-law, Moses, was burned out, tired, and lonely. In his spiritual wisdom, this priest of Midian gave Moses this advice.”The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone. Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God.” (Exodus 18:17-20 KJV)Did Moses also have to deal with this control issue? It certainly appears as if he did. As He got nearer to God, he had to leave his controlling pride until the time he willingly walked up Mount Nebo to surrender himself totally to God in death. You, God, And Control Are you trying to control God? If you are and don’t recognize or acknowledge it now, your loneliness will tell you the truth. It will painfully, by God’s working, show you the excruciating pain those who demand to be in control reap as they sow pride and sloth. Is God in control? Or are your sinful pride, sloth and loneliness. Let God be in control. After all, He is anyway, isn’t He?Thomas F. Fischer