Loneliness touches each one of us. None of us escapes it completely. Loneliness is no respecter of age or rank. Whether a young student, a stay-at-home mom, a busy executive, a retired pensioner, a grieving widower or widow, or even a pastor working with people every day, we all know what it means to be lonely.
Loneliness may be one of the most painful experiences that we go through in this life. Perhaps we find ourselves living in the midst of it at this very moment.
Strikingly, many people who live alone never feel lonely, yet some who live with others in crowded cities know only too acutely how loneliness can infect our lives.
When we think of loneliness we often visualize the aged who live alone, but a young adult moving to a new city, an entrepreneur beginning a business, a partner in a struggling marriage, or a leader in a challenging corporate environment can be as lonely as a solitary elderly person in a one-room apartment.
Only genuine and real friendship with God and others can transform loneliness. Perhaps this is why the first Christian book I ever read made such an impact on me. Soon after I started following Christ at the age of sixteen, a friend gave me a book. I read it over and over, savoring its many insights for my new life of faith. The other day I took it off my library shelf and looked through it again. Its title still speaks to me of the essential gifts of the Christian faith. The book, written by British Methodist minister Leslie Weatherhead, is titled The Transforming Friendship: A Book About Jesus and Ourselves.
Weatherhead’s title emphasizes two important dimensions of our experience with God.
First, it presents friendship as a helpful analogy for the intimate kind of relationship God wants with us. Put simply, the gospel invites us into friendship with God. This is a staggering reality. The Creator God who loves us, who spoke the whole universe into existence, and who sustains our lives in the immediacy of each moment wants our intimate friendship. Absolutely mind-blowing! I hope that as we explore this good news together, we will be encouraged to see our faith and our lives in totally new ways.
Second, Weatherhead’s title clearly states that friendship with God transforms us. Learning to trust God as our Divine Friend has a transforming effect on every aspect of our lives. It affects how we pray, our relationships with others, and the way we understand our everyday existence. Trusting God as our Divine Friend changes the way we think and feel, what we desire and long for, the way we see each other, and how we seek to live in the world. Our friendship with God creates the environment in which we become the people God wants us to be.
In this book I explore these two interwoven themes of friendship and personal transformation. I have been engaging these themes for many years in pastoral conversations, spiritual direction, retreat settings, sermons, lectures and conferences, and I am continually struck by people’s positive response. They often find themselves strongly drawn to the possibility of growing a friendship with God and the ways this could change their lives for the better. I believe that the gospel idea of a transforming friendship with God is one whose time has come. Let’s discuss why I believe this to be true.
The pull of friendship
First, I have noticed that people resonate with the idea of God’s transforming friendship because the concept of friendship is easy to grasp. Most people know what a friend is. A friend is someone we appreciate, someone we enjoy spending time with, someone we are glad to see. Moreover, a friend is someone we trust, someone we commit ourselves to in some way. He or she is someone with whom we find ourselves sharing who we are, sharing stories and ideas we might not share with everyone. A friend is also someone whom we want to serve and help. These experiences of human friendship give us an accessible way of talking about what a relationship with God involves.
Second, God’s transforming friendship excites our interest because we know how human friendships change us. For example, we may value one of our friend’s qualities, and it begins to rub off on us. Or our friend says something that really hits home, and it turns our thinking upside down. Or a friend poses a difficult question no one else would risk asking that leads to discoveries about ourselves we otherwise would not have made. When friends get together, they mutually influence each other. If this takes place so naturally in human friendships, think of how much more our friendship with God can change the way we think and live.
Third, God’s transforming friendship is invitational and promises an unfolding journey. Friendships do not mature overnight. They take time to grow as two people share together, listen to each other’s life stories, and slowly move into each other’s worlds. The same progression is true of our relationship with God. God does not force all of God’s self onto us at once, and we do not give all of ourselves to God at once either. The adventure of forming a friendship with God takes a lifetime of walking with God. Rather than putting people off, I have found that this possibility draws people powerfully into the pilgrimage of personal growth and development.
Fourth, the prospect of a transforming friendship with God attracts people who are frustrated with cold religion, impersonal churches and anonymous worship experiences that can intensify loneliness. An answer to the problem of loneliness in our Christian faith can be found as long as we help one another to experience genuine friendship with God and with others along the way. Often these two experiences go hand in hand. Telling a lonely person that God is his or her friend can sound very hollow. It only becomes meaningful when we make the divine friendship real by modeling it in our own relationships.
Lastly, 40 years as a pastor have shown me that a friendship shaped hole exists in all our lives. Loneliness is a painful experience because we are created with a longing for intimacy, connection and relationship. Most people intuitively understand that there is a longing within them; yet, others resist the longing. When we hear about God’s offer of transforming friendship, I hope we will recognize it as what we are really looking for so that we can explore it further. I believe that if we experience such a relationship, our deepest loneliness may be healed.
This article is re-posted by permission.
Renovaré: The Listening Life will cover these topics:
- Listening Comes First
- Listening to God in Scripture
- Listening to God in Children
- Listening to God in our Pain
- Listening to God in our Longings
- Listening to God in the Great Cloud of Witnesses
Trevor Hudson has been a partner with Renovaré over the years, especially in his role as a teacher with the Renovaré Institute. As a part of the Methodist movement in Southern Africa for more than 35 years, Trevor has served primarily around Johannesburg. He also travels widely, preaching, teaching and lecturing in the areas of spiritual formation, spiritual direction and pastoral therapy. He lectures at Fuller Seminary, in their Doctor of Ministry (Spiritual Direction) program, and is the author of 15 books including Discovering Your Spiritual Identity.
Other speakers at The Listening Life are:
- Lacy Finn Borgo teaches and provides spiritual direction for the Renovaré Institute and the Doctor of Ministry in Spiritual Direction at Fuller Theological Seminary
- Christopher A. Hall, president of Renovaré. He is associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and his books include Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers and Worshiping with the Church Fathers.
- Carolyn Arends is Renovaré’s director of education. A local resident, she has written and released 12 albums and is the author of three critically acclaimed books.