I was facing one of the most difficult seasons of my life. And it didn’t help that I felt so alone in it. So there I was—an American, on the other side of the world (China), pouring out my heart to a friend and fellow missionary (from Australia)—hoping for some wisdom and clarity. She delivered.
“Oh Paul, just because you are alone,” she said, “doesn’t mean you have to be lonely.”
Something in me rejoiced at this new, yet necessary distinction between aloneness and loneliness. It helped me to deeply feel the nearness of God, as I clearly saw the limits of friendship. It allowed God to be God, and people to be people—giving glory to One, without diminishing the value of the other.
You see, we can unintentionally sell one another a bill of goods in our earthly friendships. We over-promise and under-deliver. We say things like: “We’ll be best friends forever. You’ll never be alone again. Anything you go through, I will be there, and I will understand.” Even in our churches, we say: “Get in a small group. We will do life with you. We will walk beside you, and we will fight for you.”
But here’s the hard truth: Some paths in life, I will walk alone.
How do we know this? Because the greatest Person who ever lived walked certain paths alone—namely, the path to the cross. And, a follower is not greater than his or her Leader. Consider what Jesus tells his disciples in John 16:32 – “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone…”
Even the great Apostle faced some trials alone, though he made it a point to bring along others with him. Consider what Paul writes to Timothy, in 2 Timothy 4:16 – “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me…”
Yet here’s the greatest comfort: I am not truly alone.
Listen the second half of that verse in John 16: “…Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.”
And read the very next part of 2 Timothy 4: “…May it not be charged against them! For the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.”
From our earthly vantage points, we may walk alone—but, with our spiritual eyes, we know that we aren’t truly alone. For God is with us—always.
In fact, He sometimes ordains that we walk alone. Why? So we grow closer to Him. So we identify with the One whose image we are being conformed to. To remind us that we will ultimately stand alone before Him on the Day of Judgment. To show us that nothing can ever separate us from His love, even when people fail us. To display yet again that He alone gets the glory. Just to name a few…
And here’s a wonderful gift: Though I may run certain legs of my race alone, I can still invite others to cheer me on. I don’t have to be lonely.
Healthy boundaries begin with this: “God is God. People are not.” Yet they continue with this: “People cannot play the role of God in my life. But they can still be a very important part—as my friends.”
Paul uses the image of a race to describe our walk of faith. So imagine that you’re running a marathon. You come across a leg of the race that is windy, difficult, and lonely. You know you can’t ask anyone to run this part for you—you’d be disqualified. Plus, it’s too much to ask—it’s not their race to run.
So what purpose can they serve? You can invite them to stand along the sidelines and cheer for you. You can accept their nourishment, as they hand it out to you along the way. You can stop at their drink table for some refreshment. You can still value their presence, and draw inspiration from them. They can even help pick you up, should you fall…
But don’t expect them to take off your number and take over your race. Good friends wouldn’t accept that offer, even if given the chance. Instead, they will point you to the One who has numbered your days and ordained your race. They will tell you to fix your eyes on Him who is the author and finisher of your faith. They will remind you—“I may have to run this leg alone, but I’m not alone…for the Father is with me.” And they will be there to show you—“Just because I’m alone, I don’t have to be lonely. I’ve got a cloud of witnesses cheering me on.”