If 2020 were a normal year, we’d be fresh off the summer Olympics, seeing new faces on Wheaties boxes, celebrating victories and replaying agonizing defeats. Medal counts instead of positive case counts would lead the headlines. We’d be talking world records, new household names and hashtags born of The Games. Ah, the Olympics; yet one more thing I didn’t realize I was taking for granted.
My favorite part of the Olympics are the behind-the-scenes stories of the athletes. I’ve noticed these stories follow a formula — early on, the athlete is identified as exceptional and he or she is set apart for training. Once the athlete has been marked as special, they spend their time differently than other kids their age. Training takes precedence over everything. The athlete misses out on prom, traditional school, slumber parties, and most every other party to pursue their sport. They give up every other endeavor and many relationships to hone their craft. In a word, from the outside looking in, their lives look… lonely.
Regardless of the athlete’s specific story, the viewer understands that making it to the Olympics comes at a great price. But there is another truth that emerges from these films: What is done in the quiet, lonely places produces the endurance to run the race – Olympic or otherwise (Hebrews 12:1).
Typically, we think loneliness is something we need to cure, but loneliness can also be a curing process. Sometimes God removes distractions or relationships and demands uninterrupted focus because His plans require more attention than we would otherwise give Him.
Noah saved the only remnant of humankind by building an ark (Genesis 6-9). Even though his story is known through the generations (people who don’t know the Bible know Noah), his was a lonely endeavor. He stood alone, righteous, in a godless culture. When the world is wicked, goodness is odd and unwelcome. Because of his righteousness, God set Noah apart and gave him work that didn’t look like anybody else’s work. Board by board, he built to God’s specific measurements, constructing a boat for a flood. Keep in mind, it had never rained before, so if Noah’s righteousness wasn’t off-putting enough, his contemporaries would have also questioned his mental state. Even so, he built a humankind-saving vessel that is extraordinary by the standards of any generation. Being isolated with only his family must have taken a toll on Noah. However, his unwavering faith meant the waves never overtook the entire human race.
David, when he was still very young, was anointed by God (1 Samuel 16-17). Instead of crashing onto the world’s stage after his anointing, David returned to tend sheep in his father’s pasture. He wasn’t in the public eye and probably had very little human interaction for days on end. However, while he was tending sheep, he encountered lions, bears and other monstrous threats to his father’s flock – and he killed them. When David went to check on his brothers who were in battle against the Philistines, he heard the challenge from the Philistine giant, Goliath – all nine feet nine inches of him. Goliath asked Israel’s warriors to send over a man to fight him. When no one would go, David accepted the challenge. David was told he couldn’t go fight Goliath because he was too young, but David replied to the king, “Your servant has been tending his father’s sheep…. Your servant has killed lions and bears; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” In other words, David was essentially saying, “What I’ve been doing alone has prepared me for this battle.” David’s training in the lonely places made him a hero on the battlefield.
Jesus also knew about living a lonely life. He often had crowds following Him and He traveled with His disciples, but He sought solitude to pray and hear from our Father. Luke 5:16 says, “Jesus withdrew into lonely places and prayed.” For Jesus, loneliness wasn’t something to avoid, but to prioritize. Jesus’ only concern was to do the will of His Father (John 6:38). His time alone with His Father prepared Him for betrayal by a disciple, being disowned by Peter (who said he would never leave Him) and the desertion of His followers at the cross. In pure Jesus fashion, as He was at His loneliest on the cross, He destroyed our loneliness by giving us eternal life with Him.
Part of the Christian life is going to look “lonely” to the watching world. Time in prayer, reading God’s Word and other spiritual disciplines may not make for a riveting behind-the-scenes reel, but ours is a beautiful story. While fellowship and community are critical in the Christian journey, at some point, every Christian is going for a walk with God that is only for them.
I want to leave you with a question: What would your behind-the-scenes film look like? Would we see moments alone with Our Father in prayer? Would the silence of your morning be broken every few minutes by the crackling of turning onion-skin pages? Would we see a clear priority to do what Our Father set you apart to do? Or would we see endless scrolling and mindless distraction? Would we see a pre-occupation with lesser endeavors?
My fellow Christian, our behind-the-scenes footage matters. After all, we are not merely carrying the Olympic torch, but the Light of the World.
Dear Lord, this is a lonely time for so many people. Please redeem this time for our good and Your glory. Do not let bitterness or lies take root during this time. Instead, let us fall deeper in love with You. Lord, let us use this time to build for Your Kingdom. Please sharpen us for battles that we don’t even know are coming. Where there is loneliness, come in and be exactly Who You Are. Lord, may we train heartily to run our races and receive our prizes. We love You. Amen.