Me, Myself, and Lies

The Spiritual Dangers of Isolation

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)

In March of 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made the first-ever phone call, which, in time, came to dramatically transform how we relate to one another. On the surface, the communication revolution has seemed to render isolation something of an endangered species — we’re more connected than ever, right? And yet one wonders if isolation eventually mutated into something more subtle and yet equally dangerous (perhaps even more dangerous for being subtle). At least one prominent sociologist fears that’s the case:

We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk. (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, 1)

Or, as the subtitle of her book says, “We expect more from technology and less from each other.” And whenever we expect less of each other, we inevitably drift further and further from each other, leaving us as isolated (or more) as the lonely man before the advent of the telephone.

What Kind of Isolation?

Some may read the last few paragraphs and quietly envy a time when no one called, emailed, texted, or (worst of all?) left a voicemail. A life with less people actually might sound kind of appealing. You may struggle to relate to the possible dangers of isolation. Wisdom, however, knows the hazards hiding in the shadows of our seclusion: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Proverbs 18:1).

What kind of isolation did the wise man have in mind? The next verse gives us a clearer picture:

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
     but only in expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18:2)

He doesn’t want to hear what others think; he only wants someone to hear what he thinks. This strikes a major nerve in the book of Proverbs. As this wise father prepares his son for the realities of life in this wild and menacing world, he wants him to see that some of the greatest threats are stowaways, striking from within. He warns him, in particular, about the ruinous power of unchecked pride.

Be not wise in your own eyes;
     fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. (Proverbs 3:7)

Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
     There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Proverbs 26:12)

There is a way that seems right to a man,
     but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

The proud man, we learn, breaks out against all judgment because he invites destruction on himself. Arrogance makes his isolation dangerous: I don’t spend more time with other people because I don’t need other people — because I know better than other people. This pride distinguishes isolation from the virtues of solitude, which God encourages again and again (Psalm 46:10; Matthew 6:6; Mark 1:35).

The ways that lead to death are the ways we choose for ourselves while refusing meaningful community — relationships marked by consistent honesty, counsel, correction, and encouragement.

Alone with Our Desires

What draws us into the spiritual shadows of isolation? Our own selfish desires. “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire.” Whenever someone leaves or avoids the community he needs, he has been lured away by sinful desires — desires for privacy or autonomy, for comfort or ease, for money or sex, even for vindication or vengeance. At root, it’s our desires that divide and isolate us:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:1–2)

“Whenever someone leaves or avoids the community he needs, he has been lured away by sinful desires.”

The desires that keep us from one another are varied, but they’re all rooted in selfish discontentment: We want and do not have, so we excuse ourselves from love — either by attacking one another or by abandoning one another. Our desires, Scripture says, are what isolate and undo us (Jude 1:18–19). Consider, for instance, the lazy man:

The desire of the sluggard kills him,
     for his hands refuse to labor.
All day long he craves and craves,
     but the righteous gives and does not hold back. (Proverbs 21:25–26)

The sluggard dies in sin because he’s been hardened by its deceitfulness: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12–13). Whenever we isolate ourselves from the perspective, encouragement, and exhortations of others, we open ourselves wide to the deceitfulness of sin. And why is the deceitfulness of sin so compelling? Because Satan studies and preys on our desires. He’s a master gardener, carefully seeding selfishness, discontentment, and bitterness in just the right places.

Consistent, meaningful community, however, exposes and thwarts him. It reveals just how thin and shallow his lies are, and just how far our desires can sometimes wander.

Sweetness of a Friend

The opposite of soul-wrecking isolation, though, is a life deeply rooted in the hearts and counsel of good friends. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls,” Proverbs 11:14 warns, “but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” As is so often the case, wisdom, fruitfulness, and safety grow out of humility — out of a willingness to submit our thoughts and plans, dreams and desires, sins and weaknesses to someone else.

“The most effective and fruitful people are those who distrust themselves enough to diligently seek out guidance.”

The most effective and fruitful people are those who distrust themselves enough to diligently seek out guidance — not three or four times over a lifetime, but several times each month, maybe even each week. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22; see also 20:18) — notice, not just advisers, but many advisers. And not just many advisers, but the right advisers: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Online articles, sermons, and podcasts can be a great gift, but we all need flesh-and-blood, life-on-life perspective for our particular personalities, struggles, and circumstances. We need friends who can look us in the eye and see what no one online can.

So who are your advisors? Who knows you well enough to challenge your plans and decisions? When’s the last time someone pushed back on something in your life? If you can’t remember, you may be more isolated than you think, at least in the ways that really matter.

Wounds of Togetherness

One way Satan isolates us is by convincing us that the counsel and correction we need is burdensome, not life-giving. Both Scripture and experience, however, testify against him:

Better is open rebuke
     than hidden love.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
     profuse are the kisses of an enemy. . . .

Oil and perfume make the heart glad,
     and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel. (Proverbs 27:5–9)

Life in rigorous community is not a stifled life, but an enhanced one. Faithful counsel may wound us in the moment, but only so that it might heal and preserve us. As Ray Ortlund says,

When iron sharpens iron, it creates friction. When a friend wounds you, it hurts. So, do you see? There’s a difference between hurting someone and harming someone. There is a difference between someone being loved and someone feeling loved. Jesus loved everyone well, and some people felt hurt. So they crucified him. If we don’t understand this, then every time we feel hurt we will look for someone to blame and punish. We will make our emotional state someone else’s fault. (Proverbs, 168)

Don’t judge your church or small group or friendship by how much it hurts when hard words come. Ask what those hard words are producing in you over time. Is the friction you feel slowly drawing you closer to Christ and making you more like him? Has the pain you’ve felt in certain conversations led you deeper into repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10)? If so, then your wounds may be healing wounds from faithful friends — rare friends who are worth keeping at whatever cost.

Antidote for Isolation

What practical advice would I give to someone who realizes he is more isolated than he thought? My first piece of advice would be to find, join, and serve a local church.

Friendship is a great weapon against spiritual isolation, but one meaningful covenant with a church family is worth an army of friendships. When our desires begin to harden us to God, his word, and his will, friends may stay and fight with us, but our church has vowed to stay and fight — until death ushers us together, sinless, into the presence of Jesus.

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25)

Isolation dies in church families that know they need, and want, to gather. For them, Sunday mornings aren’t a sweet addition to a full and happy life; they are the foundation of a full and happy life. God means for us to know him, serve him, enjoy him, and become like him as a part of Christ’s body. The more isolated we become, the more we cut ourselves off from the fountains of his grace, mercy, and guidance.