By Erica Wiggenhorn, Crosswalk.com
Loneliness is the new pandemic. I can’t remember where I first came across that statement, but it appears to be true. The Harvard School of Education recently conducted a study resulting in startling data regarding loneliness: Our new report suggests that 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children—feel “serious loneliness.” Not surprisingly, loneliness appears to have increased substantially since the outbreak of the global pandemic.
Instinctively my mind would imagine an older widow living alone when thinking about who in my community might be lonely, but this study paints a surprising picture. Those who most often cite a struggle with serious loneliness are the younger generations.
“Screenagers,” as my teens are often called, along with young moms, have always lived in a world dominated by technology. They cannot remember a time when they did not have a cell phone or social media. While they are most digitally connected, they live the most isolated from peer-to-peer human contact. This digital phenomenon results in new perceptions of friendship. And misconceptions of what true philos or friendship looks and feels like.
The definition of loneliness is the sadness one feels from a lack of company. This holds the idea that the physical presence of others cannot be substituted digitally. We need to feel seen and heard and supported through physical human contact. I love the interaction we see in Scripture between Moses, surrounded by two million people who neither heard nor supported him, and his father-in-law Jethro, who did both and arrived at just the right time in Moses’ life.
Five Signs of Healthy Friendship
1. The first sign of healthy friendship is that you can share all the things. Moses greeted his father-in-law with the customary greeting and small talk, but then he went on to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. He shared the hardships that life had brought.
“So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent. Moses told his father-in-law about everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake and about all the hardships they had met along the way and how the Lord had saved them.” Exodus 18:7-8
Social media teaches us to stick to the highlight reels. Nobody wants to hear about our problems. We feel like an imposter because no one sees the real us and we stuff all of our struggles, fearing rejection or judgment. Healthy friendship invites open discussions of hardship. It feels much safer to share a struggle across a table with a cup of coffee rather than making an eternal digital footprint to be stomped upon with judgment out in cyberspace. Oftentimes the most beautiful friendships are born around the messiest tables.
2. Secondly, healthy friendships rejoice in each other’s successes. Moses worked under Jethro for forty years as a shepherd. Now suddenly Moses is performing miracles by God’s power. Jethro could have been jealous or felt slighted that Moses no longer helped him in his work. But instead, Jethro celebrated Moses’ new role given him by God. “Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians,” (Exodus 18:9). In a digital world, we only applaud others’ successes for so long until eventually we get tired of hearing about all of the good things happening in others’ lives. Especially when we have internal struggles that we continue to carry alone. Healthy friendships realize that while today is my friend’s turn to celebrate success, tomorrow may be mine. We serve a God who will never run out of blessings to bestow at His perfect time.
3. The third sign is that you keep your circles open. It can be so tempting to cling to that one best friend and fiercely guard that friendship. Moses certainly could have closed his tent flap and spent time alone with Jethro. After all, Jethro was the one guy he could completely unload on after months of complaining Israelites standing at his door. But Moses kept his tent open and invited all of the elders to spend time in Jethro’s presence. “And Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law before God,” (Exodus 18:12). Healthy friendships always have room for one more in their circle. Especially when they see someone who needs companionship. Possessive people make terrible friends, and their insecurity often leads to instability in the friendship.
Photo Credit: © Sparrowstock
4. The fourth sign is the ability to speak the truth with grace. Disagreement is actually a sign of healthy friendship. And when you see something potentially dangerous or unhealthy in another person’s life, a true friend will tell them the truth. With grace. Instead of barking orders of what they need to do differently, they begin with a question. They invite dialogue before delivering advice. Look at how Jethro handled this situation with Moses: “The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?” (Exodus 18:13-14). Healthy friends speak the truth even when it may cause conflict. Friends who are unwilling to share their true thoughts and feelings are not true friends.
5. The fifth sign is an ability to entrust them to God. Sometimes we tell our friends the truth or offer them the best advice on the planet. And guess what happens? They don’t take it. Or they don’t take it well. Maybe they get angry or respond hurtfully. A healthy friend offers their advice but then releases their expectations of the outcome. They essentially say, “Here is my advice, now you take it before God and decide what to do. I am your friend no matter what.” That is what Jethro did. He gave his advice and then released Moses to do with it what he thought best. “Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you,” (Exodus 18:17-19). Healthy friends realize not everyone sees things the same way. And that’s okay. You can agree to disagree yet still remain friends.
Why We’ve Got to Get This Right
In a Barna study, they found that four out of ten Americans that do not attend a church cite a previous church hurt or bad experience as their reason for not attending. Unhealthy friendship. And the result became isolation. Members left the church because human engagement became hurtful instead of helpful. Once our enemy isolates us, he dramatically increases his ability to influence us. Is it any wonder we see the younger generations abandoning their faith in droves? Church ought to become the one place where a lonely Christian finds companionship. We must learn how to do friendship well.
Right before Jesus went to the cross, He pleaded, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” (John 13:34-35). The church remains the cure for loneliness, and that means Christians must be taught healthy human engagement. These five signs are a great place to start.
This article is adapted from Letting God Be Enough: Why Striving Keeps You Stuck and How Surrender Sets You Free.
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/monkeybusinessimages
Erica Wiggenhorn is a Bible teacher and author of Unexplainable Jesus: Rediscovering the God You Thought You Knew from Moody Publishers. She loves to open the Word and invite God to move. You can connect with her at www.EricaWiggenhorn.com.