Pastor, people have left you. You have given money, prayers, tears, heart, family time, energy, and home, and in the end they walked away. You have had people praise your ministry and church and then leave saying you were never for them. You try not to take it personally. You try to shrug it off. But every time it happens you feel the rip, the trust reset, the loss, the questions. And though it’s hard to say these words out loud (go ahead try it) your body, mind, and spirit are saying, “I am lonely”.
In 2 Timothy, Pauls’ final letter, we see Paul at the end of his ministry. Imagine that day for you. What will it be like when your ministry is winding down? We would hope that at the end there is more fruit, more friends, more people who are with us and for us after faithfully investing in them for many years. But, at Paul’s end, in a cold cell, facing imminent death, after years of faithfulness with and for others. He is alone.
Today, you might be alone but you are not the only one. Let him guide us through this.
What kinds of loneliness do we experience?
Part of the difficulty of loneliness in ministry is that it doesn’t all come in the same way or from the same people. He identifies several different kinds that you may feel as well.
1. Longing. He says of Timothy that he longs to see him that he may be filled with joy (1:1). He practically begs him three times to come visit him. You may have friends, family, and partners you love who fill your life with joy but you are not near them. You love the times laughing, sitting by the fire, reliving fun memories, and encouraging one another but God’s call has put you in different places. The joy of closeness makes the pain of separation harder. You are alone.
2. Desertion. You opened your heart and life to trust. They did too. Unity. And then they walked away. Paul says all in Asia have deserted him (1.15). Wow. ALL in Asia? We have all had people leave us but Paul says, “yeah, I had a whole continent leave me”. Maybe like Paul you’ve had people that once lived and loved the faith but now deconstruct (2:17). Or those who once labored with you (4:10) but found wealth, acceptance, freedom, or other loves of the world more enticing. Maybe like Paul you can say, “at my first defense no one stood by me, but everyone deserted me” (4:16). In your greatest time of need all of a sudden everyone you thought was with you disappears. You wonder what you did wrong. You are alone.
3. Opposition. There are people who want to harm you (4:14). You may not even be sure why. There are people you love who need truth but they oppose you. Their ears are drawn to things more attractive. You wonder why those that offer fear, manipulation, or prosperity gather a crowd while people turn away from truth (4:1-4). You are alone.
4. Trials. Paul mentions a sick companion who had to leave (4:20). You have felt this too. Sometimes it is the trials in people’s lives that have taken them from us. Some suffer from new stress or pain in their life making them unavailable. Some have lost jobs. A loved one passes. They weren’t trying to leave you, but still you are alone.
5. New callings. Sometimes we are left alone not because of the bad but the beautiful. Churches planted, new ministries started, God calling people to what he has next for them. Paul mentions three people (4:10-12) like this. We may even have been the ones to raise them up and send them. We are joyful, grateful, excited. And yet still, you are alone.
How do we make it through?
It is easy to remember and rehearse all the pain. Yet in the middle of what is perhaps the loneliest book of the Bible it is filled with God’s presence. Every chapter is filled with reminders that God sees, knows, and is present.
He knows you wonder if there’s been a mistake, if you got here by accident, if you are a fraud. But you are here by God’s will (1:1). He wants you here. He put you here. And even if others want someone different, or you think someone else would be better, he has approved of you (2:15-16). You are not alone.
He knows you are in over your head. You need energy you don’t have, wisdom you don’t have, love you don’t have. He has gifted you for this. He has given you his Spirit to be with you (1:6-7). He will give you power. He will give you understanding (2:7). In whatever season you are carrying out your call before God (4:1). You are not alone.
He knows at times you are tempted to cower in fear of all that is asked of you. It’s hard to stand against the pressures and changes. And he reminds you: I saved you, I called you, I have a purpose for you, I have grace for you (1:9). It is the one who abolished death and brought life that appointed you (1:11-12). You have a mission. Don’t be ashamed. Don’t forget. Don’t look at your abilities. He is able to guard what he has entrusted you. You are not alone
He knows at times you think of quitting. He knows it’s war. He knows it hard work. And he knows the temptations that come with that. At times it feels like it’s all for nothing. You wonder if there’s something better. Why keep going? He says this is so much bigger than you. The word of God cannot be bound. This is for the elect. This is for salvation. The same salvation that you have. Remember your salvation. You are united to him. You died with him, live with him, and will reign with him. You are his. (2:8-13). You are not alone.
He knows you have been hurt. He knows every email, text, and meeting. He knows every surprise and every conversation replayed. He knows the pain in the gut, the brain fog at your desk, and the restless sleep at night. He knows the tears shed, the fists pounded, and the escape sought. But this is not the end. He has and he will rescue you (3:10-13). This is just now. A day is coming when the Righteous Judge will right every wrong, speak truth to every lie, and reward every unseen act of faithfulness. He sees all you are and all you have done and there is a crown of righteousness waiting to be given to you (4:6-8). You are not alone.
And he sees you standing there every single time someone left. Your heart is transparent to him. He sees the longing, betrayal, confusion, and pain. He sees the thoughts you think, the words you can’t say, and the hurt you deny. But even if the last person leaves his feet are planted. His faithfulness unchanged. His love un-swayed. His word unbroken. He is standing by you. With you. For you. Strengthening you. (4:16-18). He will stand with you now and till the very end – bringing you safely into his Kingdom. You are not alone.