As a pastor’s wife, I like having a collection of books to give to people who reveal a struggle in a conversation after church, are seeking to grow and are keen to read. I look for books that are readable by a range of people, compelling and relevant. When I saw that there was a book about loneliness new to Crossway, I was keen to see if it was appropriate for my congregation. I know a lot of lonely people, and loneliness takes many forms, either through facing singleness for life, being widowed or divorced, losing trusted friends and family through difficult events, or experiencing chronic health problems that isolate them.
I received the book in the mail and was attracted to its design, reminiscent of Timothy Keller’s books, and the tactile, soft cover and manageable length. It seemed readable and good to hold in bed or on the couch (these things are important to those weary and in pain). I had never heard of Lydia Brownback, but she came with an impressive endorsement from one of my favourite Christian authors, Joni Eareckson Tada.
So, I was a little unprepared for the book not being what I expected it to be, and a little disappointed, to be honest. Brownback starts well with an introduction reminding us that in this world of Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and assumptions of everyone else playing ‘happy families’ without you, the solution to loneliness is not marriage or immediate family, but community based on the foundation of a relationship with Jesus. Those picture-perfect Christmas shots hide the fights and tears over the pressure of having difficult family members, the crush of expectations for making the holiday special and may not fully reflect the reality of the day for many. I liked this emphasis on revealing that the grass on the other side of the fence may be brown and not worthy of the envy it inspires.
The audience of Brownback’s book is unclear, her previous books are concerned with living a contented Christian life as a single woman, as a single woman herself. She has also written books on Christian character for a typically female audience. The covers are more pink and feminine, so I assumed the cover of the book marketed it to a broader audience. However, she used the term ‘women’ a lot when directing an exegesis or point and uses a female example or singleness related example in every chapter.
My main criticism comes from her case study ‘Lanie’ in chapter 1. Brownback introduces us to a woman who says ‘I can’t seem to make my life work.’ She then proceeds to critique Lanie’s complaint, her focus is not on God and if we experience ongoing restlessness and loneliness, we are “more like Lanie” than we thought. We have, apparently, made our goal self-fulfillment. Her final claim feels a little strong and unbiblical to me:
A great deal of loneliness comes from either a reluctance or an outright unwillingness to follow Jesus if doing so means letting go of the way we want our life to work. (Brownback, p. 24)
Now, I wholeheartedly agree that as Christians we lay everything before Christ. Our work, our family, our health, talents and life circumstances. I heartily agree that Christ needs to be our treasure, as He is greater than all human relationships and all human satisfaction we can possibly imagine on earth. However, to address this kind of emotional distress so authoritatively seemed inappropriate to me. People with great love and trust in Jesus experience the loneliness and terror of what will happen to them or their families. I have met them and seen their health issues, their family circumstances, their complex needs. These circumstances make even their deep trust and acceptance of God’s ordinance in their life extremely difficult to bear even as they submit themselves to Him. Examples of this might be the loss of supportive Christian friends in the mission field, family tension leading to break-ups, or even cycles of abuse.
In practical terms, these people may need a social worker, a counsellor and a GP to refer them to assisted living options or disability support. They may need trauma counselling or a shoulder to cry on as they cope with disappointing families, complicated mission and ministry work or toxic workplaces. I am concerned that this book makes no effort towards addressing the physical aspects of the lonely readers, before assuming their difficulties are caused by a lack of faith or lack of focus on the Lord Jesus.
Going back to my original reason for reading the book, would I happily give this to the lady I knew who had lost her husband, mother and hopes for the future in a short year? She was demonstrating evidence of loneliness and craved community, throwing herself into every Christian gathering she could find. Her loneliness may be a symptom of her need to make Christ her treasure, but was this the right language to communicate it?
I thought about a friend who had experienced terrible mistreatment and disappointment with ministry, her pain was so great she still struggled to attend church. Is her loneliness based on her own lack of trust in Jesus? Potentially, however, it can also be based on a lack of appropriate resolution of her unfair dismissal and a book like this was unlikely to achieve this practical end.
On a more positive note, the book is fairly broad, which means that it doesn’t deal with singleness, chronic pain or health, difficult marriages and other family and friendships in any depth, but attempts to appeal to a number of different problems. The chapters are worked around some specific social aspects of loneliness, such as medical issues, in which Brownback uses the story of the woman who was bleeding and touched Jesus from Mark 5. This passage is an extremely powerful example of God restoring a woman to health and community. Brownback appropriately uses the power of the story to remind those marginalized by their health that although they may not experience healing and restoration in the way the woman does, they can be in relationship with the person who heals them spiritually.
In conclusion, after addressing my critique of the tone and theology of book, I would like to go on to cautiously recommend it to those whom have addressed or worked to resolve the physical circumstances of their distress and loneliness. I think this book is a thorough examination of the theological, emotional and social aspects of loneliness and in some instances quite practical, but I would be concerned for more vulnerable and less discerning Christians who may not be ready for its message. It would be useful for a pastor to read to think through what impact loneliness may have on someone they are pastoring and to assist them in coping with the long nights alone and perhaps the difficulty of accepting God’s will in their circumstances. For weaker, more vulnerable Christians or those with difficulty critically examining which parts of the book are helpful, the book is too general and hard hitting to give to those in need of Christian counsel on managing their difficult lives.
Finding God in My Loneliness
Find it at The Wandering Bookseller