Salvation at the Margins: Affection for the Lonely

Do you know what it is like to be lonely? Not just alone, but lonely. Many of us enjoy some moments of solitude, a respite from the busyness of life and the clamor of demands. But to be lonely is entirely different, and prolonged loneliness can destroy the soul. God can intervene at the edges of seclusion, however, to provide that touch of affectionate care most needed.

Long-term loneliness has a serious impact on our well-being. It impacts our sense of self, our sense of the world, and our overall mental health. When the only person you talk to all day is yourself, you begin to believe every lie you tell yourself. You can begin to view the world through your own skewed lens. You can begin to lose basic social function, unable to pick up on common social cues because of a lack of practice. You become more prone to frustration with others, because after all you interact with them so minimally. You become more closed in on yourself and may begin to have actual conversations with yourself. One of the worst burdens for the homeless is their lack of social engagement, which can compound the other real complications of their life. Loneliness is debilitating.

I think of “Bill,” who suffers from schizophrenia. He’s on medication now, but for many years he wasn’t and as a result many friend and family washed their hands of him. They couldn’t help him and they were fearful of him. Now, he eats nearly every meal, every week, by himself. That kind of isolation has created great challenges in his life. I know other friends who have had similar stories, some struggle with depression and some with same-sex attraction. Their struggles have made them feel segregated from the rest of their church body. Loneliness is like an added weight to those who are also experiencing serious challenges. But long after the phone calls have stopped, the visits have gotten shorter, and the thinking-of-you cards have ceased, God offers continual love. God goes to the margins to meet the lonely.

The most compelling depiction of this truth is found in Luke 5. The story depicts a man with leprosy finding healing and compassion in Christ. Leprosy was a serious illness in the Biblical world, and it had as much to do with the disease as it did with theology. Technically speaking this was probably not leprosy as we know it today. The description of symptoms listed in the Scriptures do not match what we know of the disease (see Browne, Leprosy in the Bible). Whatever the disease, was, however it was disfiguring and it was associated in Leviticus 13 with moral uncleanness. Someone with the disease was forbidden to remain within the boundaries of the community. They were forced outside the community to live in isolation, and to announce their uncleanness to anyone who came close. For, this sort of moral contamination was contagious. If you touched an unclean person you too would become unclean.

In Luke 5:12-13 we read the account and note particularly the nature of Jesus’ healing.

12 While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 13 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him.

The manner in which Jesus heals is significant. Skin diseases have been healed before this moment. In 2 Kings 5:1-14 we read of Naaman being healed of his own leprosy by Elisha. In that account, however, healing comes by washing in the Jordan. Jesus is doing something markedly different here when he “stretched out his hand and touched him.” Perhaps it was the first touch the man had experienced in years. Imagine being so isolated and so alone that no one had intentionally touched your body in years.

It’s a remarkable act of compassion. Jesus could have healed in any way he chose. He could have spit on the ground and made mud and had the man rub it on his body. He could have simply spoken a word and brought healing. He did both those things with other people. But with the leper he makes an intentional decision to provide healing through physical affection. He touched him. Tim Chester speaks of the astounding nature when he writes:

In Luke 5:12-15 Jesus touches a leper. Now if you did that you became unclean. But when Jesus touches the leper Jesus doesn’t become unclean, the leper becomes clean! The untouchable is touched. The outcast is welcomed. This is God’s grace in action. God’s grace has come and it brings transformation. Suddenly it is not uncleanness that is contagious – that is how it was in the old Levitical system. If you touched anything unclean, you became unclean. But with Jesus it is his holiness that is contagious! When Jesus touches you, you become clean. (A Meal with Jesus, 25)

Grace is contagious in the touch of Jesus.

This is the character of God. He reaches out to those who are destitute, alone, and lonely. He comes to them. Rosaria Butterfield writes:

Jesus did the craziest thing anyone had ever seen. He touched this man – the man who had not been touched since the plague had ravaged his body, the man whose fate was sealed from the moment the first white sore appeared. This very same man was touched by the Son of God…That touch changed the man. But the touch did more than that. That touch changed the world…When Jesus walked the earth, he wasn’t afraid to touch hurting people. He drew people in close. He met them empty and left them full. Jesus turned everything upside down. (The Gospel Comes with a House Key, 28-29)

God provides more than healing, more than just betterment. He provides affectionate care. There’s more to Jesus’ healing of the leper than just healing, more than even a demonstration of his miraculous powers or His divinity. There is here a demonstration of His love. The lonely find affection in the touch of Christ.

There are many problems that may drive us from the social center of our communities. It may be emotional disorders, mental illness, physical handicaps, or illnesses. It may be prolonged grief, trauma, or life circumstance. It may be single-parenthood, prodigal children, controlling spouses, or criminal record. Yet wherever we find ourselves, with all the many other things we might do, we can look first to this wonderful news: Christ touches the lonely. God has compassion for us in our loneliness and invites us to feel His affectionate care. The church, has the opportunity to be the “hands and feet” of Jesus in providing that affectionate care. But even where the church has failed you, friend, look again to the affectionate touch of Christ.

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