A Walk Into Lonely Places by Corey Patrick White
“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Luke 5:16 (NIV)
A man stood in front of rapt audiences. The crowds were awed by him; they were moved. An electricity followed him as he journeyed, spreading a sound unlike anyone had ever heard. This man wasn’t a rock star. Nor was he a traveling troubadour, a persuasive politician, or a captivating circus ringmaster. He was a carpenter from Nazareth who carried with a him a message of hope, healing, and the gift of a relationship with the creator. And he performed miracles, curing the sick, raising the dead, and giving sight to the blind. The crowds grew as he voyaged across the land, sharing his divine dispatch.
Yet, this man was well aware of what was to come. He could see it as a mountaineer might see the jagged rocks demanding to be scaled in order to reach a summit. The cheers of the crowds would fade, a cross would be raised, nails would be hammered into flesh, blood would flow from a crown of thorns, and there would be an excruciating death. The death would be his own, and no one would halt it.
My favorite verses of the Gospels are not those in which we find Jesus’ divinity, but instead his humanity.
I’m particularly fond of Luke 2:52 “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” This verse reminds me that Jesus had to mature not only in size but in experience. He had to mature his understanding alongside his developing physical frame, a rite of passage common to us all.
In Luke, we find Jesus’ parents enduring a three-day search for their twelve-year-old son when he goes missing during a trip to Jerusalem. They eventually find him in the temple courts, conversing with the teachers. When Jesus’ mother Mary asks her son why he disappeared, Jesus answers with all the precocious rebelliousness of a pre-teen who can’t quite understand his parents’ surging concern. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). In these words, we can witness the evolving courage and intensity that Jesus would undoubtedly need to fulfil his mission on Earth.
Jesus, now into his thirties, walked and preached and performed miracles. He had just cured a man of leprosy, and the news of his feats were growing, as were the crowds following him and the multitudes of sick asking for healing. As the desire for his attention flourished, Jesus savored the times he could be alone.
“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” (Luke 5:16, NIV)
Can you imagine the weight Jesus must have carried as he walked the earth teaching, feeding the multitudes and performing miracles? Can you imagine the heaviness of his mission? Many of us feel like we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. Yet, Jesus actually carried with him the salvation of humanity. And because of this, he would go through extraordinary suffering. He would endure this extraordinary suffering alone.
Jesus knew his mission, and he knew the pain he would have to brave to effectively fulfill it. This unflinching intuition into his own future could not have been easy to transport. I must believe that processing such a thing would require enormous contemplation and preparation. Such a thing could only be done in solitude.
So, Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed, as we read in Luke 5:16. These “lonely places” have been translated differently. “Lonely places” has also been translated into “wilderness”, “desert places”, “desolate places”, “deserted places”, “seclusion”, “aloneness”, “out-of-the-way places”, and others. It is safe to say, this was a place of isolation, where Jesus went, when he needed to pray. It wasn’t a meadow of the mind. It wasn’t a relaxing retreat. I think it was an opportunity for him wrestle with what had been and what was to come and maybe to find a bit of peace in a world that would both welcome him and also rebuke him. Finding this peace could only come by spending time alone with his creator. So, Jesus would retreat to a quiet place, bow his head, and pray.
In 2019, the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration declared a “loneliness epidemic.” It found one in five Americans feel lonely or socially isolated. A 2018 survey by Cigna found that over half of Americans feel lonely. This troubling trend is especially acute in young people, specifically Generation Z, the generation born between the mid 1990s and early 2000s.
If you want to find a place of loneliness, it is not hard to find one today. One must only reach into a pocket and pull out a device. You will find a desert there, in the apps that dot our screens like vultures circling a lost and parched traveler. We have created the greatest communication tool in the history of mankind, and yet the greatest communication tool in the history of mankind has made us feel more isolated. It has made us feel more alone.
When I feel lonely, when I feel depressed, I hesitate to admit, I find myself reaching for my device. I run my fingers over the app that features a blue “F” or the one that features a colorful camera. I look for salvation from that contained within those apps. It’s as if I believe some sort of happiness is going to be found by scrolling, my thumb pushing content from bottom to top in endless repetition, in a quixotic quest to end the pain I feel in my heart. This act must provide me some sort of numbing relief or I wouldn’t endeavor it. Yet, I return to reality, my digital interlude having ended, feeling no more satisfied than when I left the pain of reality and began my virtual vacation.
I have the world at my fingertips, and I use this incredible tool to escape my reality, to seek happiness through simulated connection. I could use this tool to feed my soul, instead I use it to feed my mounting earthly desires. I use it to feed my flesh.
The loneliest place on earth lies inside the mind. A mind is a prison with a single, solitary inhabitant. Each one of us resides inside our own prison. For most, this incarceration is a tolerable experience. For some, it is not.
According to the World Health Organization, every 40 seconds a person will commit suicide. Recently, we have seen admired celebrities and a dedicated pastor each voluntarily choose to end their own life. Each left behind a celebrated career, a promising future, and, most importantly, people who loved them very dearly.
Suicide is a selfish act. It is the act of a person saying that the pain I feel now is greater than the pain you will feel when I leave. Therefore, it is an act of selfishness. Yet, it is also an act of mercy. The only person who can truly understand one’s suffering is the person enduring it. We cannot fully appreciate the agony of another. We can recognize, we can sympathize, we may even empathize. In the end, however, a person’s pain is theirs alone. A journey of suffering is a journey walked alone. Yet, make no mistake. No person has ever left this world without leaving someone behind in grief, in mourning.
We are all very willing to openly admire milestones in our physical health. When we lose weight, we share photos of our vanishing poundage on social media. When we train for a marathon, we map our runs and post them for the world to see. We celebrate these physical feats: more weight on the bench press, a mountain scaled, an ironman completed. Yet, when it comes to our mental health, we are much less public. We jealously guard this area of our lives, often unwilling to allow people to gaze into it.
A person struggling will not openly celebrate with their network their decision to see a therapist as they might a personal trainer. A person will not jubilantly disclose days of sobriety as they would disappearing body fat. We seek a cure for cancer. We deal with depression.
The strongest people I’ve known in my life are not one’s with chiseled abs and bulging biceps. They are ones who fight a battle of the mind. They are not muscular athletes; they are recovering addicts. They are not bodybuilders; they are the anxious, the depressed, the broken. The strongest people I’ve known in my life are the ones who contend every day in a challenge that doesn’t have a buzzer or a finish line, who engage in a contest no one can really see, an inward battle that often goes unnoticed and unheralded. It is a great shame that we do not celebrate these people, and their quiet accomplishments, as we do our athletic achievers.
The pace of life now moves at light speed. Technology has played an oversized part in this. We spend our days seeking Inbox Zero. We spend our nights binge-watching Netflix. We get notifications from Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, GroupMe, and Slack. Our phones ping with text messages. We fill our daily commutes with podcasts. We never shut it off. It is a perpetual cycle of content bombarding our brains. Most of it is junk.
We are losing the very needed ability to reflect. Why would you be still when your twitching thumb could scroll through social media? Why would you quiet your mind when there are selfies to share and stories to view? Why would you wait to answer that email when you could respond right now? Why would you open the Bible when there is peak TV waiting to be consumed?
Is it any wonder that we feel lonely, that we feel depressed? There is a feast laid in front of us, and we choose to eat fast food. Our eyes no longer look to the heavens. They are bathed in the blueish light of our smartphones and smart televisions. We forget to fold our hands in prayer, yet strain our necks peering down at our devices. We are surrounded by notifications, pings, beeps, apps, friend requests, blogs and vlogs, but not the Word. We have built an ornate house filled with gadgets and connected things, and yet it is not a home because it is empty. We have crowded our lives with stuff and we still feel deserted. Our hands are constantly in motion, reaching for something more, an unquenchable desire, a ravenous hunger for greater connection. Yeah, we’ve connected our devices, but in doing so we’ve sacrificed a connection, a connection to ourselves and to the spirit.
Life can be a lonely endeavor. No matter the amount of loving people we surround ourselves with, in the end, our journey remains our own. We may find ourselves in places of depression and loneliness. When we find ourselves in these places, we should seek help. That help might come in the form of a compassionate friend. It might come from a professional or someone with experience, like a counselor, therapist, or sponsor. These are all important and viable avenues for sharing grief or suffering, and I encourage anyone hurting to seek out such positive outlets. Yet, too often we seek refuge from this loneliness in drugs or alcohol. We seek it in sex. Today, we increasingly seek it in the virtual connections that are contained within our devices. We often look to the world, physical or digital, when we feel the stab of mental isolation or depression. When we find ourselves in that place, instead of reaching for a substance or social media, we should find a place for reflection and restoration. For some, this could be a retreat to a quiet place, where you can bow your head and pray.
Corey White is a Content Specialist for TriCorps Technologies. To read more from Corey White, visit his blog at www.placidpress.com.