“I am really sorry for such a long time in silence. Since July I had to face many challenges in my work and family. In times like that I stay in silence. But now I’m back … until the next cave time.”
The above note arrived yesterday in an email from a pastor and friend in Brazil. It made me smile because it’s so typical of our tendency to withdraw when times are tough. It made me smile because it wasn’t so long ago that I was having my own “cave time.”
Pastors are surrounded with people. We confer with them in meetings, conflict with them in ministry, visit them in hospitals, counsel them in crises and train them in seminars. We pour our lives into them. But who pours their lives into us?
H.B. London, head of pastoral ministries for Focus on the Family has written that, “at least 70 percent of pastors in the United States claim they have no friends.”
The irony is that we’re surrounded by people but often are alone in the crowd. Marooned among the masses. People, people everywhere but not a soul in sync.
The Alone Ranger
The Lone Ranger was a hero – he swooped in at the moment of need and saved the day. But the “Alone Ranger” is in jeopardy.
This is no trifling issue. Loneliness and isolation not only make it more difficult for ministry leaders to handle the demands of ministry, they also make it more difficult to resist the temptations that come with those demands. Of those who left the ministry due to sexual misconduct, 75 percent indicated that they were lonely and isolated.
As German anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, “Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation.” (From Life Together)
Is it a coincidence that Satan waited until Jesus was alone in the wilderness to tempt Him? Jesus was just beginning His ministry. And though Satan was not successful, it is clear that he was not going to quit. The encounter ends ominously with the note: “When Satan finished all this tempting, he left Him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13)
There could not have been a more opportune time to tempt Jesus than at the end of His ministry – on the eve of His greatest sacrifice. So as He goes to Gethsemane with His disciples Jesus invites three of them to stay with Him (Matthew 26:37-38). Failure at this stage can’t be risked so Jesus doesn’t dare be alone.
Jesus doesn’t have the same level of intimacy in every relationship. There are the 120, the 70, the 12, the 3 and the one beloved disciple, John, to whom He entrusts his mother. Opening our heart to others doesn’t mean we will open our heart to everyone in the same way. There may be only one beloved – one person we can trust with what is precious to us. But that is the beginning of authentic community.
And the best place to begin the development of authentic community is right at home. In an especially busy period of ministry, my wife said to me, “I’m tired of getting leftovers. You give your best to everyone else but have nothing left for me.” My wife rarely complains. When she does, she has reason to. I was neglecting her and she wasn’t the only one who suffered because of it. I did too. We schedule time with others; why not do the same with our spouse and children?
Being intentional about building a healthy relationship with our spouse is just the beginning. We also benefit from developing a healthy network with a variety of others. We may not be blessed to have all of these types of relationships, but any of the following are a huge improvement over going it alone. They are an asset for anyone who has spent too much time in a cave.
- A Rib – Adam needed a helper. We all do. That person may be a spouse or a teammate, or it may be another person who doesn’t just stand by your side but pitches in. Who is the person you can always call on?
- A Mirror – King David was deep in denial about his outrageous behavior. So God sent Nathan so David could see himself as he really was. We all need a truth-teller who will help us see things we don’t want to look at but desperately need to see. Coy was my mirror. He helped me see things I needed to see – both good and bad – that I was missing. Who helps you to see your blind spots?
- A Voice – When Saul was first converted, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem didn’t believe he was really a disciple. Barnabas was his advocate. He told the apostles how Saul had met the Lord and was now preaching the gospel he once tried to destroy. What a blessing to have an advocate. Yet even more important than an advocate on earth, we need a voice in Heaven. We need someone to advocate for us through prayer. Who is interceding for you?
- An Ear – David found a friend in a most unlikely person – Jonathan, the son of David’s enemy, Saul. We all need someone who will listen to our heart and fight for our heart. We need someone that we can share our secrets with. Friends may indeed betray us but the cost of protecting yourself from betrayal may be the loss of your marriage or your ministry. Friends aren’t like mushrooms – they don’t grow overnight. But they are worth cultivating even if it takes time. And if friends are in short supply and you need someone to listen, a professional counselor or coach can be a welcome substitute for a friend. Who listens to you?
You may never have all of these relationships going at one time. I never had a relationship with a mentor – a model for ministry – though I prayed for one for years. But I found that as I pursued the development of a supporting cast, God provided people in these other roles who helped me be whole and effective.
Out of the Cave
You can languish alone or you can take steps to build your relational web. If you choose to establish authentic relationships, the hardest part may be coming out of the cave. Sure, it’s risky to open your heart. But it’s more risky to keep it closed. You could lose your marriage, your ministry, your life.
Stanford University Professor, Philip Zimbardo, a respected authority on psychology wrote,
“I know of no more potent killer than isolation. There is no more destructive influence on physical and mental health than the isolation of you from me and us from them. It has been shown to be a central agent in the etiology of depression, paranoia, schizophrenia, rape, suicide, mass murder and a wide variety of disease states.” (Quoted in Strengthening Your Grip by Charles Swindoll)
Do yourself a favor; come out of the cave.
For those whose retirement is a fading memory, aloneness proves less a personal choice than a social fact. Despite a lifetime of learning, wisdom and experience with God, our manners prove out-of-date, our speech archaic, our theology historical, our physical appearance, well, repulsive. Thus, there is something to be said for a cultivating a lonely, intimate walk with God, waiting for our final venture to start. Personally, I could not bear a coach ride to view autumn leaves, or playing table games in someone’s recreation hall. So I study Hebrew, keep chickens, and comment on social media, take coffee with a few cronies…