What's it like to be lonely? A lesson from Genesis

The government has decided to appoint a minister for loneliness. Tracey Crouch will carry forward the work of murdered MP Jo Cox, who campaigned on this issue among others. It's a good thing.

More than 9 million Brits say they always or often feel lonely. A staggering – and shameful – 200,000 polder people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.

If you're young and disabled, it's just as bad – up to 85 per cent of young adults with disabilities say they feel lonely most days.

PixabayLoneliness is a widespread problem.

Those figures were cited by the Prime Minister when she announced the move. But there's more: aside from its effect on mental health, research shows loneliness is as dangerous to our health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure are all increased by loneliness.

But what is is about this condition that makes it so deadly? And what can Christians say – and do – about it?

Right at the beginning of the Bible, there's a bald statement about the nature of human beings: God creates Adam, but almost immediately says, 'It is not good for man to be alone.' The result is Eve, but we shouldn't read back into the story a simple affirmation of marriage. It's much bigger than that: alongside the biblical affirmation of the unique individuality and value of every human being is the perception that we are designed to live in relationship with others. Other people tell us who we are. It's by our relationships with others that we're given value and status. People listen to us and we listen to them. At whatever level, we share our lives. Our lives matter because other people tell us they matter.

Some of us are more comfortable with our own company than others. But at a deep psychological level, we are hard-wired for companionship. Deprived of it, we wither. Take away our connections to the rest of humanity and you cut us off at the roots. We become less than human.

There's a linguistic survival that illustrates just how important other people are to us. The word 'idiot' is used as a term of abuse. It used to be used to describe people with learning disabilities. It refers to someone who is mentally or socially incapable of playing a full part in society. It's an offensive word.

But 'idiot' has a Greek root. It appears in words like 'idiom' and 'idiopathic'. It meant someone who was alone, who didn't participate in the life of the community. Idiots were apathetic and selfish. By extension it came to mean someone who was foolish or ignorant.

Today, people who are lonely are alone by other people's choice, not their own. They've lost their family or social networks. Perhaps they're disabled and not mobile. Perhaps they have communication difficulties. To the personal pain of loneliness is added the sense of social inadequacy. The potential of internet social media to alleviate loneliness to some extent shouldn't be under-estimated – it can be a genuine gift – but face-to-face contact appears to be humanly essential. But there's a catch – the lonelier someone is, the more likely they are to shy away from human contact because they come to see it as threatening. Loneliness begets loneliness.

The church of the New Testament is a model for a new community in which there are no lonely people. 'All the believers were together and had everything in common,' says Acts 2:44. The picture throughout is of people who care for one another, who share their lives together and leave no one behind. No one is inadequate; everyone is included; no one is left out.

The church today isn't bad at this. Congregations are often places where people find friendship and value. But crowds can be lonely places, too; and it can be even lonelier in a church where you don't fit than being on your own. When people get ill or frail, it's easy for them to drop off the radar; seeing people on Sunday is one thing, but making the effort to visit or call is another.

And as well as those who are part of a worshipping community, a church has a responsibility to those who aren't. There's lots churches can do for those who have no one, particularly if they have buildings and facilities that lend themselves to groups using them. Cafés, clubs, drop-ins are all valuable. But it starts with the church owning the problem, and making it a priority for its members. Because loneliness is about feeling you don't matter and nobody cares – and intentional, sometimes costly bridge-building is the only remedy.

It's good that there's a minister for loneliness. But you can't legislate for friendship. Only people can be friends. Disciples of Christ are called to be a blessing to the world – and the lonely are in desperate need of blessing.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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