art creativity spirituality suffering to stand in tension

to stand in tension :: loneliness

This post is one of my series on To Stand in Tension: Groaning with God in our Feelings. For more information about the project, please see my website


It has been a couple of weeks since we talked about loneliness at Redeemer, but I have been thinking about it a lot. I have read numerous great articles the past couple of weeks on smartphones and distraction, the best of which was this one from Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine. If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage you to do so. Sullivan articulates our distraction, loneliness, and the constant noise of our culture with startling precision. At one point he calls cell phones our culture’s antidepressants. That stopped me in my tracks!

In the five years I’ve owned a smartphone my life has felt increasingly more hectic, part of which is certainly just due to the fact that life has gotten busier for me. A certain measure of this busyness owes nothing to my smartphone; I work both as a painter, photographer, and an adjunct college professor, so my life is bound to feel exhausting and splintered at times. But because I’m addicted to the digital distraction of my phone and reach for it so automatically, I find myself feeling strung out and exhausted so often, desiring rest but cheating myself out of it by scrolling through Pinterest or Instagram (which is not restful!). And the consequences for me go deeper than rest, as I’m realizing both as a result of this project and the teaching that goes along with it. Our preaching pastors at Redeemer have been raising awareness on the effect of cell phones and social media for a lot of 2016, which I appreciate, and Kevin’s sermon on loneliness was no different. My addictive digital behavior also keeps me from truly dealing with difficult emotions in my life. It is hard to face hurt, sadness, and loneliness when I can just reach for my phone instead. When I’m scrolling through social media feeds, reading good articles, and pinning beautiful images I don’t have to feel anything.

Loneliness is a good and beautiful emotion; it shows us that we cannot be complete on our own. We need intimacy to be complete, which cannot be gained on our own and certainly not with a phone in our hand. This is something we need to accept: we are always separated with a phone in our hand, whether that is from the people we are with, from God, or from a part of ourselves. Apple and Android advertising only shows us how cool, connected, and exhilarated we’ll feel when we use our phones. And it’s true that we do feel that way sometimes with our phones. It is easier to get in touch with old friends, find inspiration, share what we’re up to. But this kind of connection is not a substitute for intimacy, for staring into another person’s eyes or holding someone while they weep. What cell phone companies don’t do is show you the dissatisfaction, loneliness, and fear that comes from having constant distraction and counterfeit relationships at our fingertips. In The Voice of the Heart, Chip Dodd points out three levels of intimacy: intimacy with self, intimacy with others, and intimacy with God.

Though we are alone with our phones, I would argue that we cannot truly be alone with ourselves when we’re distracted by the digital noise of scrolling, consuming, always taking in some sort of information. Honestly, I thought I was such a good multitasker, but I am not. It’s hard to sort through what you’re feeling when you’re constantly taking in information.

We certainly can’t experience intimacy with our friends and families when there is a phone in our hand. We may be together in body, but not in mind. Anytime I prioritize answering a text or email or take a phone call when I am with someone else, even if I’m just checking my phone quickly, I am putting the person I am physically with second. Our brains cannot be in two places at once, period. Children feel the pain of this, watching their parents choose a screen over them. Husbands and wives feel this when they go to bed at night and bask in the false relationship of their screens, together in bed and yet alone. “Why is it so hard to connect with each other?”, they may wonder.

lonelinessprocess-13

Intimacy with God is something I would also argue is not possible when you’re staring into a screen. I say this despite the fact that we can have practically every bible translation at our fingertips, most major bible commentaries, plenty of cross-referencing, endless blogs from great Christian thinkers, and google as a tool every time we have a question, all on our smartphone, tablet, or computer. It is definitely more convenient, but is it better? Does it make us better Christians than those 30 years ago? Do we have more tools to fight the enemy and spread the Gospel, or do we have more distractions?  I recognize the answer is not black and white, but in some tense place between.

I can now follow “C.S. Lewis” on twitter (or whoever is tweeting for Lewis, since he passed away in 1963) and read 120-character, out-of-context nuggets that make me feel more spiritual, which I can mistake for actual intimacy with this relational God of the universe. Christians in this culture (including me) love to share Facebook posts, repin artfully designed bible verses, and like Instagram posts with beautiful photos and spiritual insight. The problem is that we often fall into the trap of believing that this is what makes up the fabric of our spirituality. We mistake information for relationship. Because we increasingly live in an online, consumption-based reality where we have constant streams of more information funneled toward us, it feels like this is what sets Christians apart from anyone who doesn’t believe. We can find ourselves thinking we have more information than that person who doesn’t believe. Yet, the problem isn’t social media or the presence of this seductive, easy-to-consume “Christianity.” Don’t misunderstand me: there is a place for inspiration, for standing in awe of God, and feeling good about what God has done and can do. The problem is that is only a fraction of the picture of the Christian spiritual life, and we know it. We know that Christians also have sadness, that Christians also struggle with sin, Christians don’t feel satisfied 100% of the time, and life is hard for Christians, too. Are you a Christian and is this making you uncomfortable? What about Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Or his struggle with sin (Rom. 7:15)? Or his loneliness?

After posting, sharing, or reposting Christian inspirational material, our hearts still are not satisfied and if that is where our spiritual life stops, we are as distant from God as we were beforehand. This leaves us feeling cheated. “Isn’t God holding out on me? Why don’t I feel better than that person who is living without God?” I suspect if C.S. Lewis had written The Screwtape Letters in the context of our current culture, Screwtape would have been telling his nephew to encourage his subject to confuse all of this activity with real relationship with God.

What makes Christians different from other people is not that we are better or more special than others. Christians are broken, fallen, and desperately lonely, like everyone else on the planet. Yes, God has the power to start transforming us in this life, but that is not like flipping a switch and it looks different for everyone. We don’t live in a magical reality TV world where we trade in the empty bank account, fear, and loneliness for our seemingly instant big reveal:perfect marriages and relationships, authentic community, plenty of money, and comfort. That might be the American Dream, but it has gotten mixed into the gospel and diluted gospel truth. The American dream is not what the gospel looks like on the ground in the Christian life.

Christians can have the opportunity to live redeemed lives with full relationships and blessings, but not because of our possessions, our bank accounts, the moral laws that govern us, or the extra spiritual information we possess. Those things are wonderful, I will be the first to say it! As Christians, we are not immune to filling ourselves up with counterfeit pleasures from the world. They might look more spiritual, but they are still not the real thing. Instead, we can put down our phones, reach for our bibles, read, study, and spend time with God, in silence. In fact, it is our awareness of our need for God and our subsequent reliance upon Him that sets us apart from those who do not believe. And it is important to state this: relying on God like that, trusting God like that, is difficult. We are not inclined to do it. We are wired to trust ourselves, to get control of our loneliness and pain by feeding ourselves with more information and by making better plans. Until we can be by ourselves, give up control, and interrogate our hearts, we are going to feel like something is missing. Yes, silence is scary, and we will have to feel the acute pain of loneliness and emptiness in us; we must face the sting of current and past trauma. We are required to feel the darkness, the way the Psalmist in Psalm 88 (below) does. Only then can we bring our suffering to our closest family and friends and the relational God of the universe, stepping into the light and beginning the process of healing.

One of the most profound things for me that Sullivan said in his articles was this: For if there is no dark night of the soul anymore that isn’t lit with the flicker of the screen, then there is no morning of hopefulness either. How can we bring our loneliness, our fear, or our sadness to God if we don’t let ourselves feel it? How can we have our wounds healed if we can’t even find or feel them in our distraction?

I am writing this post for me. I need this advice. It might sound like I’m preaching to you, but in reality, I am preaching to me. If it helps you, that’s just a humbling benefit. If it resonates with you, I would love it if you commented below. When I say this series of paintings is changing me, this is the kind of thing I am referring to. Am I quitting social media and selling my cell phone? No. So what does this look like for me? It has taken discipline for me to just slow down and make a decision about that. I have been talking about it for months. So here goes: I have decided to create no-cell phone spaces my day, both during my workday (it turns out an endless source of inspiration is really stifling to my creativity), during scheduled alone time, and at times when I am mindfully spending time with friends and family. Lots of people are doing something like this. I would love to hear if you have limited your usage of digital devices and what has worked for you!

After all of that, here are the two paintings I came up with to reflect the concept of isolation/loneliness (beautifully and painfully cried out in Psalm 88) and restored intimacy.

2panelslonely

Left panel: 
My companions have become darkness
Acrylic ink and gold foil on canvas
24″x48″x1.5″

Right panel:
The light shines in the darkness
Acrylic ink, acrylic, gold sumi, and gold foil on canvas
24″x48″x1.5″

Psalm 88 (ESV)

O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!

For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

But I, O Lord, cry to you;
In the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.

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