Short Memories Make For Shallow Souls
Someone has wisely said that “short memories make for shallow souls”. I believe that to be true, and so I want to spend some time today deepening my own soul. For what I have to share with you is essentially by way of remembrance.
As I look back over the years of my ministry, I am convinced that there is no subject on which people have asked me to speak more often than the subject of loneliness. I have dealt with the theme before, but I come to the theme again today because I don’t want to forget those people and the sense of aloneness which they feel. And I don’t want to forget the loneliness which has sometimes been a part of my own experience. I want, therefore today, to show you a very lonely man…
Evidently this man’s illness was chronic, for the Bible says that he had been sick for thirty-eight years. You know, for years I read this story and felt that this man’s physical infirmity was his biggest problem, but then, not long ago, as I was reading this story, the words leapt off the page and into my soul—“Sir, I have no one to help me.” And I realized in that moment that as bad as a thirty-eight year illness might be, what was worse, was the awful loneliness this man experienced. The Bible says, “There was no one…” There was no one to help him into the healing water. He was alone and he was lonely, and that loneliness lingered for thirty-eight years.
Mark this down. Our society is producing more and more loneliness. The emphasis on having a career is creating greater numbers of single people. More marriages are disintegrating in divorce, resulting in lonely partners and lonely children. There is more mobility in our society, resulting in families being spread from one end of the country to the other. Oh, the advertisement is true, I suppose … a phone call is the next best thing to being there, but it is a poor number two. No phone call I have ever received felt as good as a hug. With increasing life spans, when a marriage is broken by death, the period of loneliness for the surviving partner can be quite long. Yes, there are a lot of people in our society whose hearts are broken because they are lonely.
When I say that their hearts are broken, I am speaking quite literally. Dr. James Lynch has a book called The Broken Heart—the Medical Consequences of Loneliness. In the book he makes the point that loneliness has a negative impact upon us physically. The evidence he offers is irrefutable. For example, single, widowed and divorced people die prematurely from heart disease five times more often than those who are in significant relationships. Every kind of terminal cancer is more common in lonely people than in those who are not lonely. Those who lose themselves in their work because they cannot lose themselves in a loving relationship with another person run an infinitely greater risk of debilitating illness. And so we use words like “heartbroken” and “heartsick” as figures of speech, but many times they are not just figures of speech, they are literally true. There are a lot of people trying to conceal their loneliness, and that loneliness is quite literally killing them.
So here was a man who sat by a pool alone for thirty-eight years. You know a lot of people and I know a lot of people who could say: “I know how he felt.” In fact, it may be that right now you are whispering to yourself: “I know how he felt because I have felt that way too.” But having shown you this lonely man, now I want to show you something else. I want to show you that nothing happened to this man’s loneliness until he met Jesus. Jesus did two things to that man which ended his long loneliness. Pay close attention, please, because we are close to the heart of the matter here.
The first thing Jesus did when he met this man was to reach out to him.
Jesus, you see, never became preoccupied with His own problems. He never became absorbed in His own pain. When He was on the way to the cross, He wept for Jerusalem, but He did not weep for Himself. He took care of the mothers of Jerusalem and He took care of His own mother, but He did nothing to take care of Himself. In the last hours of His life, He warned Pilate and He cared for John and He gave grace to a thief and He prayed for His murderers and He looked to His Heavenly Father and He bore a whole world’s sin upon His shoulders. But He never did anything for Himself. He was, you see, totally involved in His concern for others.
One of the great saints of the modem era, I think, was a man named Henri Nouwen. He died just recently, but among the marvelous writings he left behind is a book called, The Wounded Healer. In that book he tells about a man who was looking for the Messiah. The man was told that the Messiah could be found at the gates of the city, sitting among the wounded. He then asked how he would be able to tell the Messiah from the other wounded. He was told: “This is how you will know the Messiah. The wounded sit there and unbind all of their wounds. And then when they have unbound them all, they slowly begin to re-wrap their wounds. But the Messiah is different. He unbinds only one wound at a time. Then He re-wraps that one wound before He unbinds the next. He unbinds only one wound at a time so that He will not be delayed even for a moment if someone should call to Him and need help.”
Jesus is the wounded healer—He is the one who never becomes so concerned with His own wounds that He is delayed in reaching out to someone else. It’s interesting to note that in this passage the Bible says that Jesus went up to the feast in Jerusalem alone. The disciples, apparently, did not go with Him. He was there by Himself. And in the midst of His own loneliness, He reached out to a man who had been alone and lonely for thirty eight years.
But Jesus also did a second thing. He not only reached out to the man, He also asked the man a question.
Jesus said: “Do you want to be healed?” Now if you stop to think about it, that’s an astonishing question. It says in Scripture that Jesus knew that this man had been sick and alone for thirty-eight years, and yet still Jesus asked: “Do you want to be healed?” You might be tempted to think that surely Jesus was joking, but this was no joke. Jesus was simply asking this man if he recognized that the first step in gaining something is to genuinely desire it.
I know a lot of people who want situations in their lives to be changed, but they don’t want them to be changed enough to do anything about them. I’ve talked to widows who’ve complained about the loneliness which is theirs, but when I tell them of volunteer opportunities in which they can become involved and tangle their heartstrings with other people, they do not want out of their loneliness to try it. I’ve talked to young men who are lonely and long to have a date, but they don’t want out of loneliness badly enough to call a girl and ask for a date. I’ve had teachers tell me how they yearn to have a closer relationship with their students but they don’t yearn for it enough to invite those students into their homes. The point Jesus was making here is that He can only help those who are willing to try to help themselves.
Now, God knows that I don’t want to be flippant about this. I don’t want to be casual or corny because I know how lonely some of you are. Some of you have cried about it in my presence. I know how some of you are longing for companionship. How some of you go to the mailbox and find it empty again and again. How some of you want calls from home that don’t come. How some of you long to hear from your children and don’t. How some of you go home and listen for the sounds of footsteps that once were there but are there no longer because the one you love has crossed into eternity. How some of you will hear these words on beds of pain, isolated from the world about you. Yes, I know. I am speaking to you out of more than three decades as a minister of the Church of Jesus Christ, and what I am trying to say to you is this; Jesus Christ can deal with the loneliness in your life, but you’ve got to want Him to do it.
Jesus knew about loneliness. He didn’t have close relationships with His family once His ministry began. He had no wife, no children. He wasn’t a member of any group or club or organization. He was always on the move, and while He was frequently surrounded by crowds, He was lonely even in the midst of them. You know how it is when you climb a mountain? The closer you get to the top, the quieter, the more separated you become. That’s the way it was with Jesus. He stood at the top of the human experience and that’s why His soul was in solitude. There was an elevation to His character which separated Him from everything below. There was an altitude to His attitude which isolated Him from others. He had the disciples around Him, but that was always an unequal relationship. He was the teacher and they were the taught. And besides, when He needed them the most, they either fell asleep or left Him to the mercy—or the mercilessness—of His captors. He was lonely when He stood on trial for His life, and no one spoke in His defense. He was lonely when the soldiers beat Him and ridiculed Him and played games with Him. He was lonely when He carried His cross through the streets and the crowds jeered at Him and spat upon Him in hatred. He was lonely when they nailed Him up to die. Oh, yes, Jesus knows about loneliness, and that’s why Jesus can help us to conquer the loneliness in our own lives.
But we’ve got to want Him to do it! It takes commitment. It takes saying: “Jesus, there’s not much of me, but all there is of me I give to you.” That’s the kind of commitment it takes. And you can make that commitment now. It will involve a whole lifetime of service. It will involve giving yourself to Him and to others every day again and anew. But if you’re willing to make that kind of commitment, then I promise you that the loneliness which lingers in your life will linger there no more. No more…