Saturday, January 17, 2009

Invalidation ... and loneliness

My free-believing sister Dena sent this link discussing a serious wound that we as human beings inflict on each other - invalidation. I agree that it is one of the most damaging things we can do to one another. Browsing this link, I am reminded how sad it is when people are ready to kick others when they’re down and shoot them once they’re wounded.

There are of course many ways of invalidating a hurting person, but today I want to talk about invalidation of loneliness. We’ve all heard ideas such as this from the church:

"If you’re feeling lonely, it’s your fault. You’re too self-focused. You need to get out there and find someone to serve, someone to love. That will take the focus off you." Or to a person who is struggling with no one reaching out to them, "You don’t come to church to get your needs met. You are here to serve."

While there is sometimes truth to both statements, I’ve never understood how telling these things to a lonely person is supposed to help them. Like Job’s friends during his suffering, people tend to spout off all the religious truth they know, without really understanding (or bothering to find out) what is really going on with the lonely person in front of them.

Loneliness is not best dealt with by telling the person to pull themselves up by their boot straps and get over it. I think the common American IC view on loneliness is rooted in the famous myth, "The Lord (only) helps those who help themselves." The truth is, severe loneliness can be like trying to help yourself out of quicksand. Does the church mean to say that these people are out of luck until and unless they can do this?

Jesus knew he was dealing with some very lonely people indeed. After all, he talked to tax collectors and prostitutes all the time. But as I recall he prioritized making them feel loved, rather than making sure they knew their loneliness was "their fault." He validated them as human beings, he took the time to see their hurts. As Darin well stated in his Religion of Correction blog , correcting someone works much better after they have been made to feel safe and loved.

It’s true that we all share responsibility for the state of loneliness in today’s church culture. But, there is an important distinction between urging people to share the responsibility for loving one another (thus erasing loneliness) and blaming people for their own loneliness. Blame brings condemnation, but loving people and helping them see a better way brings conviction.

Jesus left the 99 sheep who were in the fold to go out and find the one that was lost. Now, this could be taken as a simple illustration of salvation, but I see meaning in this parable for believers. I’ve seen many IC situations where the 99 in the fold (the inner circle) having too much fun with their friends to notice the one standing shyly off to the side. I’ve cringed when I’ve heard pastors imply that the one who isn’t included is to blame for not trying hard enough to reach out.

It is always more convenient to blame the weak and hurting, than to take a look at the responsibility that the stronger person or group may hold in a situation. But as Wayne Jacobsen well put it in Naked Church, Jesus tended to measure the success of any ministry by how many of the weak were helped, not by how many of the strong muddied the pond.

My opinion is that the church would do better to spend more time bringing the problem of loneliness to the attention of happy, comfortable people who have lots of fellowship. Lonely people already feel like there's something wrong with them, why rub salt into their wounds? Jesus took on the role of a humble servant so the weak could draw near to him. Can we do the same for one another?