Meeting God in the Empty Place – Turning Loneliness to Solitude

Libby and I used to talk nearly every night.  Often for a couple of hours. The topics varied greatly: basic logistical issues, smoothing over relational friction, concerns weighing on our hearts, big ideas, silly dreams.  Honestly the topics almost didn’t matter, it was having someone to share life with.  It’s been three months since we had a good two way conversation. The last couple of weeks before Libby went home to God she wasn’t really up to talking.  More than anything, I miss those evening conversations.

When Libby passed from this world it felt like a huge hole was ripped in my soul.  There was an emptiness.  For a week I was numb, but then I felt a huge hunger.  I wanted the hole to go away.  I wanted it to be filled up. I knew that that the emptiness wasn’t going to be filled anytime soon, but that didn’t make the desire, the longing any less.  Ironically, it took more than two months for me to recognize the emptiness has another name, loneliness.

Each time I talk with someone, it seems like a small bit of the hole is filled in.  Just a shovel full of filling for a 500k sq ft building foundation. At this rate I will die of old age before the hole is fully filled, but after each interaction with someone I have a sense of hope.  That it won’t always hurt this much.  That the emptiness will someday be filled.

Something more important has come to me though… I have found that I can sit in the emptiness.

I don’t have to rush out and find someone to fill the hole, nor do I need to throw myself into activity to distract myself.  The emptiness is not pleasant, but it can be transformative.   I can see more clearly my longings. I can hear and seeing God a more clearly and God reveals what I truly believe, what’s in my heart. It’s only when the heart is revealed that healing and lasting change can happen.

God is not filling the emptiness, but He is meeting me there.  In these moments, the loneliness is transformed into solitude.  No longer is the focus on what is lacking, but a time of looking with God’s eyes. I wish I have better words to describe it, but I don’t.  I can share one of the small ways I have see this change in the last week.  I am very aware of how much I miss Libby and how important community and relationships are.  I am particularly aware than I want to spend time with people who are comforting and encouraging. Even when I am not with these friends, I end up thinking about them.  Typically wondering if it would be ok to call them, or if I am going to make myself a pest by calling too frequently.  As I am pulled from loneliness to solitude, my focus chances.  Rather than being focused on my lack, the loneliness, I find myself thinking about how I can bless others, to love and serve them.  What are their needs, what is God doing in their lives, is there some way to be a blessing to them.  I am seeing God’s heart and it is changing me and I can feel at peace.  I am able to love, not because I hope to get something in return, but because I know that I am loved by God.

I have wondered, if God is with me always, why do I feel lonely, why not a constant sense of peace.  Couldn’t God fill that hole Himself once and for all.  I think the answer is He could, but He won’t, because it won’t be good.  Partly because we need to sense the emptiness before we stop and turn toward Him.  But I don’t think that’s the only reason.  We were designed to be in relationship with God AND with other people.  We are made for community.  Desiring people in our lives is good. The mistake we make is to try and control how it happens, to arrange things so the hunger is fed rather than trust God to take care of us as we participate in community.

We are called to follow Jesus’ example.  Choice to love and serve those around us.  Yes, we should welcome the companionship of others, even to ask for it, but ultimately, we have trust that the Lord will take care of us.  To live with open hands, welcoming God to works in our lives. Jesus was deeply involved with people.  He spent most of his waking hours with others.  He would also take time to withdraw, to find quiet times with His father.  But even with perfect commune with His Father, and empowered by the Spirit Jesus experience the difficulties of life just as we do.  We see him cry.  He experienced loneliness, lose, and pain. This used to be a mystery to me.  If you could see God clearly, wouldn’t everything be ok.  Wouldn’t seeing God’s goodness be like a fire that burns everything else away, leaving you in a state of constant awe: content, even happy?  The answer is no.  So long as we live in this broken world, there will be loneliness, pain, suffering, in a word, sorrow. It will be set right, but not yet.  Anyone who is responding to Lord will feel these things.  How could we not because things are not right.

This is a painful season of life, but it is also exciting because I can see how my life is being changed. While I want the loneliness to end, the hunger to be sated, I find myself appreciating how loss is pull me toward God, and how the loneliness is being transformed into solitude. I believe that in time, much of the acute loneliness will pass, but I pray that the solitude that grows from it will never waver.

Update 2011/12/30: I just realized that loneliness to solitude is the first section of Henri Nouwen’s excellent book Reach Out.  I would recommend checking this book out for a much clearly discussion of this transition.

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