18a-b Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…”
Last week forty-three of us spent spring break on a mission trip in Chicago. It was an absolutely amazing and powerful week. God moved mightily, the team was unified, and great work was done! It is always interesting to me to observe the community dynamics at play in a trip like this. You take a large group of people, almost all of whom attend the same church, and put them together in close quarters for a week and tell them to figure out how to do life and ministry together. In the case of last week, what happened was truly awesome. One team member commented that she expected to get along with everybody but did not know she would come to love everybody as she did. It was telling to me that one of her takeaways from that amazing week of ministry was the great work that God did in binding us all together. There is something profound about the experience of authentic family and community in the midst of our fractured age.
Our age is indeed fractured. Oddly enough, through the advent of social media, we are more connected than ever before and simultaneously more isolated. We have more contacts but less real relationships. We have more access to others but less deep and healthy friendships. Because of this, the book of Genesis, and, specifically, Genesis 2’s account of the creation of Adam is more timely than ever.
Human beings were made to live in community with others.
Normally when preachers preach this text they move pretty quickly to marriage and family dynamics. But I was struck by Genesis 2:18 last week in Chicago and it seemed to me that we needed to dwell this morning on the broader and wider foundational principle of the social nature of man.
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…”
These words, “It is not good that the man should be alone,” are about the social nature of humanity before they are specifically about the value of marriage. Imagine Adam in the garden. He is experiencing the newness and wonder of life and the beauty and grandeur of God’s glorious creation. He is there and he is blessed, but he is still alone. Then the Lord observes that “it is not good that the man should be alone.”
The conclusion is inescapable: we were made to live in community with others. We were not made to live in isolation.
Perhaps at this point drawing a distinction between solitude and isolation would be helpful. Solitude is healthy and good and life-giving when observed in proper proportion. Jesus Himself withdrew to lonely places to be alone with God (Luke 5:16). It is good to be alone in the sense of temporary solitude for communion with God and rest. But isolation is something else.
Isolation is either the self-imposed or externally-imposed cutting off of a person from the company of others. It is harmful. It leads to a distortion of reality and a distortion of a sense of self. Consider an extreme form of isolation like solitary confinement in prison. Researchers have found that putting prisoners in solitary confinement for a prolonged period of time has devastating results.
Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist and a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, has interviewed hundreds of prisoners in solitary confinement. In one study, he found that roughly a third of solitary inmates were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.” Grassian has since concluded that solitary can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; and difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory. Some inmates lose the ability to maintain a state of alertness, while others develop crippling obsessions.
We have all likely also heard of how devastating an absence of healthy human contact is for newborn babies. All of the evidence is there: we were not created to be isolated, cut off from other human society. What is interesting to note is that Adam was not technically alone. He had, of course, the Lord. But God knew that human beings also need the company of other human beings.
You were made to live in healthy community with others!
Human community is now fractured and distorted by sin.
I believe that most of us intuitively know that we were made to live in community with others even as we recognize the challenges of doing so. We cannot live without each other yet we also struggle to live witheach other. Something, it seems, is off with the social dimension of human beings.
The apostle Paul alluded to this reality in a fascinating passage from Galatians 5.
15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
In this verse, Paul is speaking to the church. He seems to acknowledge an undeniable dynamic about relationships in this fallen world. First, he acknowledges that we must be on guard against “biting” one another. Apparently “biting” is natural for human beings. Then he acknowledges that “biting” leads very quickly to “devouring.” That is, small conflicts can quickly be fanned into full-fledged wars. There is a brief step between biting and seeking to devour one another. Human history is filled with examples of this. Interestingly, we call this kind of dynamic “escalation,” but, seen from the vantage point of Eden and that for which were originally created, it is a regression, a falling back away from God’s original design.
The challenge of human community is now being further exacerbated by social media and all that it brings to the table, for good and for ill. The good of it is that we can now connect and have a convenient way of communicating with lots of people—friends, family, and new acquaintances—all over the world. The bad of it is that social media seems to be more about mediathan social. It tempts us to craft and manipulate our own images which draws us actually further and further into ourselves in the name of sharing the “best” of ourselves with others. Furthermore, social media can actually stunt our ability to communicate on a deep level and to resolve conflict. It is hard to learn conflict resolution skills when with the push of a button you can drop or block somebody who has offended you. And it is hard to have deep communication given the absence of body language, non-verbal communication, and tone that comes with printed communication online.
There is more. Neil Postman once arguedthat media—the various devices we employ in our lives—carry with them certain psychological implications. I would add that they carry spiritual implications as well. For instance, what will be the psychological and spiritual effects of a huge percentage of the population being lost for inordinate stretches of time in their hand-held devices, much of which time is spent in the careful manipulation of their own images for hoped-for consumption by others? We are already seeing that this breeds a kind of isolation, a further fracturing of healthy community dynamics and interactions. When four people can sit at a table at a restaurant and three of them spend 85% of their time looking down at their devices, community is strained and even fractured. When families sit in living rooms or, more likely, separate rooms of the house lost in their own devices and tablets, then community is strained and even fractured.
I do not say there is not a place for iPhones and social media. I simply ask if any of us can legitimately deny that things have gotten out of hand in this area? I yearn for a movement of people—and it will likely have to be young people—who seek to balance out the imbalance that currently plagues us as far as our mobile devices and online presences go. I yearn for a healthy, biblically-informed, and humanity-enriching movement of unplugging so that we can rediscover the joy of community.
We must be aware of the deep dysfunction and fracturing of human community that has resulted from our own sin.
In our disordered world, God offers us now a reorienting family through Jesus.
Even so, merely unplugging will not be enough, for the fault lines in the human community are as deep as the human heart, not as shallow as the off button. No, the first step is not to unplug. The first step is to have our hearts reoriented toward God so that we can enter again into communion first with Him and then, through Him, with one another. Jesus makes this possible.
The first step toward the healing of fractured community is to take one’s place in the family of God. I am deeply struck by the first words of the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples to pray in Matthew 6.
9a-b Pray then like this: “Our Father…”
There is an ocean in those two words, “Our Father,” and we can never reach the bottom of it. First, there is a deep truth about the work of Jesus. Only through Jesus can we dare say or are we enabled or invited to say, “Our Father.” Jesus and His work on the cross, His atoning death in payment for our sins, makes possible a relationship with God. We who were lost can now draw near through the blood and resurrection of Jesus!
The “Our Father” is truly an invitation into the family of God and a recognition that we are not alone. Whether you know your earthly parents or not, whether you have any friends or not, Jesus—Lord, God, and King—invites you into a family! If you trust in the Lord Jesus, repent of your sins, and receive Him into your life, you will be born again and can now say, “Our Father”! What an unbelievable thought!
And the scriptures say, in Romans 8, that Jesus is our brother. This makes sense. If Jesus invites us to stand beside Him and say “Our Father” then that means He, Jesus, is “Our Brother”!
16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
We are fellow-heirs with Jesus! Through Him, we receive the benefits of the Kingdom and the joy of restored fellowship and family! And if that is not enough, the Lord Jesus has made a home for His people here on earth. That home is called the church. We see the church-as-family motif present first in the description of the church as “the household of God” and then in the picture of the church in Acts operating as a family.
In Ephesians 2 Paul beautiful expresses the image of the church as a household:
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
We see both fixity and fluidity in this household. Fixity is found in the certainty and unchanging nature of the person of Jesus, our cornerstone, and the teaching of the apostles and prophets, our foundation. These things do not change. Christ is head of His house! Even what the apostles and prophets said they received from Jesus, the cornerstone. But fluidity is found in the fact that we are growing together as the body of Christ that is “joined together” in Jesus. God is making His household into His dwelling place! But that means that just as the household of God can grow when we are obedient it can shrink when we turn from following King Jesus. So the people of God are a household intended to grow into a temple. And what is a household except a place where a family joins together for the living of life?
The church should be a place of encouragement, healing, and help. Has the church failed before? Yes. Has the church betrayed its own King before? Tragically, yes. Has the church sometimes hurt instead of helped? Yes. But do you want to know how you overcome the failings of the church? You overcome them within the church. You do not overcome the failing of families by writing off families. No, you work to better the family and, if need be, if a branch of the family has become too toxic, you find a healthier branch. But this is not to be a cheap or impulsive move. It should be a rare and heavy-hearted moved. We should strive to be connected to a local expression of the body of Christ and love it and help it, warts and all! The church at its best is a place of joy and love and hope and healing. At its worst it is a place of failure and pain. Most churches rest somewhere in the middle, hopefully much closer to healing than to pain. But it remains God’s great gift to His children. It remains the human manifestation of the household of God. It remains our family, as dysfunctional as that family sometimes is.
Fortunately, we have beautiful glimpses of what the church can be both in history and today. The most striking is the description found in Acts 2:
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Here we see the church operating as a family, as a people bound together in love and moving with and toward Jesus. Here we find a home for the homeless. Here we find a reorienting community in which we can learn again what it is to live with one another in the redeemed community of God.
“It is not good for the man to be alone”…even if man desires to be alone. No, we were made for God and we were made for one another. Through the person and work of Jesus, the path to both has been opened. We can now know and love God and, through His transforming power and Holy Spirit, we can know and love our neighbors as well.
Do not be isolated. You have a family. Jesus has opened the door for you to come home.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005.