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How To Conquer Loneliness

Philippians 1:3-11

The story appeared in the newspaper not long ago…

A young airplane mechanic in New York wanted to get away from it all, so he stole a private plane, took it out on the runway, gradually boosted the speed in order to take off. The little plane never got off the ground. It crashed. The young man was killed. I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to that story, except that the article noted that just prior to stealing the plane, the young man wrote a note to be opened in the event of his death. It said: “I will be at the controls of that plane all alone, just as I have been most of my life—all alone.” Those words grabbed my heart and wouldn’t turn loose: “all alone.”

Couple that with the statement of a prominent physician who said recently: “The most devastating disease in our country today is loneliness—just plain loneliness—and we doctors can’t cure it.”

I’ve been thinking about loneliness recently and I’ve been searching the Scriptures to discover how to conquer it. Scripture has much to say on the subject, but this morning I want us to focus on these few verses from Philippians.

Paul was in prison in Rome. He wasn’t in a dungeon. Rather, he was incarcerated under what we would call “house arrest.” He was confined to a house, perhaps it was even a house that he maintained, but he was under guard 24 hours a day. Rather a sad picture, really—this great Apostle whose wanderlust had carried him across the premier empire of his day from one end to the other, now totally confined to a small house on a back street in the city of Rome. It’s sad indeed to think of “the great lion of God” caged.

But while caged he wrote a letter. It was the letter to the Philippians. The amazing thing about the letter is that it is not a sermon, though there is much in it upon which to build a sermon. It is not a theological treatise, though the distinct truths contained within it are sublime. It is, in its essence, an expression of great joy. Paul uses the word “joy” more in Philippians than he does in all of his other letters combined. I find that to be intriguing—to be under house arrest in a city far from his home, separated from those to whom he had ministered, unable to finish the task he felt called to perform—yet in the midst of that kind of circumstance, he wrote a letter filled to overflowing with magnificent joy. He obviously knew how to conquer, to defeat loneliness. The glory is that he shares with us his secret…

In Philippians 1:3, he says: “I thank my God for my remembrance of you.” Paul had learned the value of good memory.

I want to suggest to you that a good memory is not a memory that is able to remember everything it wants to remember. That’s an efficient and effective memory. A good memory is a memory that remembers good things. There’s a sense in which the mind is like a fine camera. Science tells us that everything we see, every picture our minds take is held in storage somewhere in our brains. What we have to learn to do is to take the pictures which have been-recorded, on our minds and to-project upon the screen of our memories those pictures which will bring us the greatest joy. In other words, in those moments when loneliness begins to wrap us in its chilling grip, we should fill our hearts and our souls with memories of happy times and loving people out of our past.

The problem is that too many of us have a tendency to major on the minors. You know how it is—we have a tendency to remember the picnic when it rained cats and dogs, not the picnic when everybody had a good time. But we have to get beyond that. We have to learn the fine art of remembering things that will strengthen us in our moments of loneliness.

That’s what Paul was doing when he wrote, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you.” Make no mistake, there were some things that happened to Paul back in Philippi that weren’t so good to remember. That’s where Paul was severely beaten with rods. That’s where he was unjustly jailed. That’s where he was finally driven out of town. Those were bad memories that he blocked out of his mind. Instead, he focused on the uplifting memories of the friends he had made there, the people whose lives he had touched there, and the church he had started there. Those were the memories that filled him with joy and helped to ward off the loneliness of his imprisonment. He had learned the value of a good memory.

Then in Philippians 1:5, Paul says: “I am thankful for your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now.” Paul had learned the value of a shared Christian love.

The occasion for the writing of the Philippian letter was the visit of Epaphraditus who came bringing a gift of money and other things as an expression of the Philippians’ love for Paul. Through Epaphroditus they said: “Paul, whether you win in this trial or lose, we are with you.” Unfortunately, Epaphroditus was stricken ill, seriously ill. Paul—typical of him, always thinking of others more than himself—nursed Epaphroditus back to health and then sent him back home to Philippi. But when Epaphroditus went home he took with him this letter in which Paul says to the Philippians, “I am thankful for your partnership in the Gospel.” The word “partnership” means “to share.” It is not one person ministering to some other person. Rather it is two people or a group of people engaged in ministry to each other.

The congregation I served at the Shandon Church in Columbia, South Carolina taught me so beautifully the meaning of this phrase from Philippians. While I was minister there I was asked by the Moderator of the General Assembly to deliver the sermon at the opening session of the General Assembly at Charlotte, North Carolina. I was terrified. I am always nervous prior to preaching, but on that occasion it was much worse than usual. I would be preaching to people I didn’t know, and a highly critical group at that. Well, those great people at the Shandon Church knew what I was feeling. Early on the morning I was scheduled to preach I was studying at the motel. The phone rang. The voice at the other end said: “Is this Howard Edington?” I replied, “Yes, it is.” She said: “I have a telegram for you. Would you like for me to read it?” With my assent, she began: ‘We are thankful for our partnership in the Gospel. We love you and we are with you.’ That’s the message, sir, but I can’t read who signed it.” “Why not?” I asked. “Well, because, sir, there are nearly two hundred names here!” That made me feel “more than a conqueror.” It cut right into my heart and flooded my soul with joy.

You see, most lonely people are not isolated; they are insulated—and the only way to get inside that insulation is to cut through it with the warmth of genuine Christian love. There’s an interesting story about Oscar Hammerstein—he was the Hammerstein of Rodgers and Hammerstein. On one occasion, Mary Martin was rushing into the back of a theater for the rehearsal of “The Sound of Music.” Hammerstein was standing near the door as she entered. He looked very tired and pale. He reached out and handed her a slip of paper and said: “Mary, I don’t know if we are going to use this in the show or not, but I would like for you to have it.” She was in a hurry, so she shoved the paper in her pocket, said “thanks” and went on. Later, Richard Rodgers came up to her and said that Oscar Hammerstein had gone to the hospital for major surgery. Hearing that, Mary Martin reached in her pocket, took out the slip of paper and read these lines:

“A bell is not a bell until you ring it,
A song is not a song until you sing it,
And love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay,
Love isn’t love until you give it away!”

She never saw Oscar Hammerstein again—he died in the hospital—but that note is for her a treasure. And it should be a treasure to us to realize that love isn’t love until you give it away.

Paul understood that. He understood that Christians ministering to one another in love, even from a distance, would go a long way toward conquering loneliness.

Now, in Philippians 1:7, he writes: “I am thankful to be a partaker of grace.” Paul had learned the value of Christ’s companionship.

Every day Paul was with Jesus—and he knew it. Doesn’t your heart jump a little bit when I say that “to be with Jesus”? Regardless of the circumstances, our Christ is with us. Even in the midst of terrible loneliness, He is there. That’s not just wishful thinking. Ask Overton Stephens.

He is a medical doctor in Toronto, Canada. Several years ago, he was told that he had a malignancy in his abdomen. Surgery was required. However, the operation served only to confirm that the cancer had spread too far. He was told there was no hope. They sent him home to die. It was suggested that he receive regular radiation treatments to slow the progress of the disease. On the first day he was to receive the radiation, they put him on a table and rolled him into a room—a great big room, lined with lead—a cold room, with nothing in it bright or encouraging. Above him was this huge radiation machine. They put protective padding on the parts of his body they didn’t want to be radiated, then they left. The lead door slid shut behind them. The lights went down. It was cold and it was dark. He said that he never experienced such silence. Then after a few minutes, the great machine above him began to hum. Yet Overton Stephens says that he never felt so close to Jesus as he did in those moments—that as he prayed, Christ entered into him as surely as those rays were entering into his body. Tears rolled down his face, tears of unrestrained joy. Thirty-six times he had those treatments and thirty-six times it happened.

Think of that. A great big room makes us lonely. A huge machine. You can’t have a relationship with a machine. Lead all about and cold—cold accentuated loneliness and dying—that’s lonely. Nobody can do that for you. You have to do that by yourself. Yet in that circumstance thirty-six times “Jesus with him.

Now, I don’t know how serious your—loneliness is. It may be that serious. But it can’t be more serious. And just as Jesus was with him so Jesus will be with you. You see, Jesus understands loneliness. Don’t you think He was lonely when the disciples ran away and left Him? Don’t you think He was lonely when He was on trial for His life and not one word was uttered in His defense? Don’t you think He was lonely when they mocked Him and ridiculed Him and beat Him and spat upon Him? Don’t you think He was lonely when the crowds jeered at Him along the road? Don’t you think He was lonely when they strung Him up to die? He knows all about loneliness. That’s why when He is with us, in the midst of our loneliness, it means so much. Because He understands. He stands with us…

So, take this to heart…

With the uplifting power of good memories, with the winning power of Christian love, and with the presence of Christ Himself—with those things, we shall encounter times of loneliness, yes, but we can never, ever be defeated by loneliness again…Never.

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