Eric Liddel, the Olympic gold medallist and runner whose story was told in the movie, Chariots of Fire, once made this comment: “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” That’s good theology. We feel God’s pleasure in us whenever we do something well.
If that’s true, and it is, then we know something is good for us if God takes pleasure in us doing it. But how do we discern that?
Donald Cozzens, in a recent book, relates this to the question of loneliness and asks: Does God take pleasure in our loneliness just because loneliness invariably deepens us? What kinds of loneliness are good for the heart and what kinds aren’t? He cautions that we must discern this carefully. Not every kind of loneliness deepens us in the right way.
He’s right. There are kinds of loneliness that beset us that are neither good for us nor pleasing to God. Sometimes the restlessness and emptiness we feel are there because we are doing something wrong or because something is wrong in us. Selfishness, self-indulgence, infidelity, betrayal, sin, or sickness all can trigger a fierce loneliness, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we will benefit from the pain. Sometimes too loneliness and restlessness are caused by something we are not doing, like entering enough into solitude and into our own silence.
In these cases, while the loneliness might still teach us something, God takes no pleasure in it. Rather the loneliness indicates that something is wrong.
However there are kinds of loneliness, whose sting is just as painful, that are signs of health, signs that we are doing something right, signs that we are where we should be. When we suffer these types of loneliness, we feel God’s pleasure in us, not because we are suffering but because we are doing something right.
In what kinds of loneliness do we feel God’s pleasure?
The loneliness of Gethsemane, of having to sweat blood in order to be faithful, of self-sacrifice, lets us feel God’s pleasure, as too does the loneliness that comes from entering healthily into our own solitude and silence. These kinds of loneliness beset us not because we are doing something wrong or because there is something wrong in us. Rather, in these instances, we are lonely because we are doing something right and are being healthily sensitive and faithful.
Loneliness of this kind stretches the heart, makes us more empathic, shows us where the threads of compassion lie, and makes us deeper as persons by putting us in touch with the immensity of God, of others, of the world, and of our own souls. In this kind of loneliness we intuit the deeper meaning of things.
Indeed nothing is more beneficial to us in terms of coming to depth and maturity as is the right kind of loneliness. Our successes may bring pleasure and glory into our lives, but they rarely bring depth. Loneliness is what makes us deep. But it can make us deep too in the wrong way. This is the algebra: Loneliness will make us deep, but it can make us deep too in anger and bitterness just as easily as in gratitude and compassion.
And God does not take pleasure in this. God takes pleasure only when our loneliness deepens us in the right way. And loneliness can deepen us in that way:
“Every tear brings the Messiah closer.” “It is with much groaning of the flesh that the life of spirit is brought forth.” “The person who loses his or her life will find it.” “Unless a grain of wheat falls in the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth new life.”
Each of these axioms teaches us that there is certain kind of loneliness that is not only beneficial to us but is in fact the only route to depth, empathy, and selflessness. But, as we shall see, that depends upon how we undergo that pain.
In the Gospels, we see an incident where two disciples, James and John, come to Jesus and ask him if they might have the seats of glory at his right hand and at his left hand.
Jesus asks them in return: “Can you drink of the cup (of suffering)?” They answer, “Yes, we can.” Jesus then tells them something to this effect: “Indeed, you will drink the cup of suffering – everyone will! But you might not get the glory! Suffering will make you deep, but it can just as easily make you deep in bitterness. You will only get the glory if you undergo your suffering in the right way!”
God takes pleasure in us when we do things right, when we exercise the talents He gave us and find satisfaction and fulfilment in that. When we do well what God meant for us to do, we feel God’s pleasure.
But God, like a good parent watching a child mature, also takes pleasure in us when loneliness and suffering open and stretch our hearts in ways that make us deeper, more compassionate, and less selfish.