It comes as a surprise to many Christians that the first problem in the Bible is not sin but loneliness. When I started in ministry, I learned to read Scripture through a specific lens: God made creation good. Humans fell into sin. God redeems through Jesus. I never questioned this framework – until I experienced pressing and persistent loneliness, and needed fresh perspective.
It turns out I wasn’t alone. Loneliness is an urgent contemporary issue. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy coined the term ‘loneliness epidemic’ in the title of his 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review .1 In this piece, Dr. Murthy noted that the rate of loneliness had doubled to more than 40% of the adult population. In the six years since, our sense of disconnection has only accelerated. COVID-19 restrictions, political polarization, and racial injustice have all contributed. We are more connected than ever, and yet, we’ve never felt more alone.2
As a minister to college students, I see loneliness every day. The anxious teen hidden behind a screen is lonely. The over-scheduled high achieving student is lonely. The student struggling to feel safe in their identity is lonely. Observing this phenomenon over and over again, I wanted to understand how the Bible could speak into loneliness, and so I went on a journey of discovery that ultimately helped me see that the story of the Bible is about relational connection.
According to the Scriptures, humanity requires connection, not simply coupling. We are created for connection – for trusting, loving, union. We long for it. We’re disoriented, fearful, anxious, and enraged without it. In short, it’s not good for human beings to be alone. This line of thought begins in Genesis 2:18. Humanity requires connection, not simply coupling. We are created for connection – for trusting, loving, union. We’re disoriented, fearful, anxious, and enraged without it. In short, it’s not good for human beings to be alone. Click To Tweet
This inciting incident is heftier than it looks. The poetry of Genesis 1 holds together by a sevenfold refrain where God sees creation and declares “It is good” (Genesis 1). But, in the last line of the Hebraic poem, this refrain intensifies. God calls creation tov me’od, meaning ‘very good.’ Please note that the English word ‘very’ translated for the Hebrew term me’od is weak. Me’od actually means ‘forceful or mighty.’ Here in Genesis 1, God affirms the whole of creation, especially human beings crafted in his own image. God says that creation is, in my own paraphrase, ‘powerfully, thoroughly, essentially good.’ Here in Genesis 1, God affirms the whole of creation, especially human beings crafted in his own image. God says that creation is, in my own paraphrase, ‘powerfully, thoroughly, essentially good.' Click To Tweet
With this refrain echoing in our ears, Genesis 2:18 introduces dramatic change. After seven affirmations of the goodness of creation, God declares something isn’t right. God says, “It is not good that the man (‘adam,’ meaning ‘human’) should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). For the first time in the Bible, there’s a point of tension and a need for dramatic resolution. Human loneliness becomes the inciting incident. It’s a challenge to the integral goodness of the story.
Seeing loneliness as prelapsarian, before humanity’s ‘fall’ into sin, creates new possibilities. What if loneliness isn’t an indication that there’s something wrong with us? What if the pain of loneliness is like the pain of hunger, an indication of need not of deficiency?
This human need for connection seems self-evident in our technological culture. Facebook launched in 2004. The iPhone launched in 2007. Together, these technologies alone dramatically accelerated our capacity for connection. We can communicate instantly, with everyone, all the time. It would seem that our desire for connection has a technological solution. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be the case. While scholars debate the individual correlation between social media use and mental health, the trend is moving toward loneliness and disconnection.3 Ironically, the generation that grew up with social media struggles with social anxiety.
While scholars debate the correlation between social media use and mental health, the trend is moving toward loneliness and disconnection. Ironically, the generation that grew up with social media struggles with social anxiety. Click To Tweet
Scripture and Facebook agree that it is not good for human beings to be alone. But can the biblical story help us in our loneliness? Not if it ignores or minimizes the actual root problem.
Christian storytelling tends to emphasize sin, often expressed in moral and legal terms. Human disobedience at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil gives way to moral corruption. This has dire consequences. As Hosea concludes,
“There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing” (Hosea 4:1-3).
Hosea is right, of course. Human collusion with evil is a significant theme within the Christian story. Still, I’m convinced it’s a secondary one. The long drama of human redemption in the Bible doesn’t start with a crafty serpent and forbidden fruit. It starts with the problem of loneliness.
Human collusion with evil is a significant theme within the Christian story. Still, I’m convinced it’s a secondary one. The long drama of human redemption in the Bible starts with the problem of loneliness. Click To Tweet
Sin doesn’t create loneliness, but it does make loneliness worse. In his most recent book, Good and Beautiful and Kind: Becoming Whole in a Fractured World, pastor and author4 Rich Villodas offers a powerful reflection on sin in relational terms. Rich draws on North African Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s articulation of sin as incurvatus in se (‘curved in on oneself’). Both Rich and Augustine are right. Human beings are both corrupted and corruptible. However, corruption is most destructive as it turns humanity inwards on itself and away from loving union with others. If at its heart, sin is a failure to love, then discipleship with others in shared pursuit of Jesus is a turn towards love and relationship.
A strong relational emphasis threads through the whole Bible. God makes covenants and reveals his character, repeatedly. God promises fidelity and invokes the image of marriage and family. God wants to create a people to bless the world. Jesus models loving union with the Father. He gathers an unlikely community of tax collectors, zealots, fishermen, leaders, and women as disciples. The epistles emphasize one new humanity in Christ, a common table, unity, and love. As Paul writes, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15b-16). Even John’s apocalypse (the book of Revelation) includes images of a wedding feast, holy city, and renewed community.
These biblical images speak to our contemporary context. In a world of loud disconnection and quiet desperation, author Gem Fadling emphaizes our need to connect. She writes, “Many of our cultural issues stem from a basic need for people to be seen, known, and loved.”5
The Christian story climaxes in Jesus’ embrace of death by crucifixion. In the tragic violence of the cross, Christians see the unflinching offer of relationship with God. God pursues connection in the face of absolute and brutal rejection. In the resurrection of Jesus, we encounter a relationship greater than death itself.
The ache to be seen, known, and loved is the ache of the Christian story. It’s also the ache of our time. The biblical narrative offers perspective on this experience. Within its pages we encounter connection and hope. We encounter God himself.
3 See Orben & Pryzbylski’s The Association Between Adolescent Well Being and Digital Technology Use and Twinge, Haidt, Joiner, & Campbell’s Underestimating Digital Media Harm for two academic perspectives on the influence of social media and loneliness.
4 *Editorial Note: And Missio Alliance Leading Voice!
5 Gem Fadling, Hold That Thought: Sorting Through the Voices in our Heads (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022) p 28