In September of 2017, Harvard Business Review published an article titled, “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic.” The focus of this article is to address the overwhelming affects loneliness is having on Americans today, specifically considering the workplace and the friendships we experience at our jobs. Written from the perspective of Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States from 2014-2017, he speaks as a doctor who has faced public health issues such as the Ebola outbreak and the Zika virus. Yet in light of his many years of helping patients and even serving as our Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy states that the most common and most impactful ailment he has encountered is loneliness.
In our world today, “over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.” Sadly, this statistic has doubled since its last record in 1980. Murthy states that people experiencing loneliness are also experiencing a wide variety of serious physical implications due to their emotional distress. These physical affects are equivalent to “smoking 15 cigarettes a day”; and the "long term stress” of loneliness can eventually lead to an increased risk of “heart disease, diabetes, joint disease, depression, obesity, and premature death.” Chronic loneliness will eventually even impair our abilities to make decisions and plans, control our emotions, and think abstractly.
Clearly, we need relationships for more than just entertainment. If you’re like me, you read these statistics and must ask: what kind of relationships were we made for? As we consider the large amount of lonely people in America today and its grave implications on their lives, our minimal interactions with others must not be enough.
As we consider Scripture, we see a narrative that revolves around relationships. Originating from creation, humans are designed to have relationships with God and with one another. But specifically, the creation narrative shows us that humanity was made for friendships with God and with each other; and in many ways, this directly addresses the epidemic of loneliness affecting so many of us today. In essence, it goes against our very DNA.
To get a full picture, we must look to our origins and consider our Creator to help us determine the purpose and value of friendships in our lives.
Friendships in Creation
From the beginning of time, God demonstrates that life is relational. In the opening sentences of Genesis, we are introduced to a God who is not alone; his Spirit is “hovering over the face of the waters,” existing alongside him. And later, when God makes man, he says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” This statement is not showing that God prefers to talk to himself in third person; instead, he is revealing to us his multi-relational nature. This is complex, but nonetheless significant. Our all-powerful, gracious, loving, and perfect God exists in relationship with himself. Even God is never alone.
God continues to demonstrate the relational nature of life when he makes the first man, Adam. After creating Adam, God says, "it is not good that the man should be alone.” Of course, Adam wasn't completely alone, because he was with God and the rest of God’s creation. Yet relationally, Adam did not have someone like him on earth; there was no one “fit for him” to know and be known by. After this proclamation, God takes a rib from Adam and fashions from it woman, Eve. At this point, there is something much more significant to be understood than simply God creating humanity's first marriage (although that is very special). Instead, in this moment, God is creating the origin of all human relationships.
In Genesis 1:27, we can observe the account and even purpose of humanity’s creation:
“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them."
In John Mark Comer’s book, Garden City, he breaks down the meaning of the word image. In Hebrew, the word image is salem, translated as “idol” or “statue.” This means that as God’s statues, we are made to reveal what God is like to the rest of the world. Both male and female were created in God’s image, designed to make “visible the invisible God.” This has huge impacts for humanity living in relationship.
Just one verse later, in Genesis 1:28, God provides his overall vision for humanity:
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it,
and have dominion… over every living thing that moves on earth.”
In this command, God gives his salem authority and dominion. He gives humanity the right to rule and invites them to co-create with him. Yet alongside this, God desires that while humans reign as his salem, they should create communities of people. Many scholars believe these two verses provide a very specific meaning for humanity. Since both “male and female” reflect the image of God, and he created the first man and woman to live in relationship with each other, God is blessing man and woman to fill the earth and create communities of people living in relationship with each other. While inviting humanity to co-create with him, God also invites humanity to create communities that serve to reflect the image of God.
Humanity, then, does not merely reflect God’s nature within our marriages; instead, humanity truly reflects God’s nature as we thrive in flourishing communities of people. Living in relationship with God and with others is evident from not only our creation but also by our God-given purpose and blessing. In short, the ultimate act of living as God’s salem is to create and live in community with one another.
God as Our Friend
Originating from a creation story that hinges on the necessity of relationship, the current devastation of loneliness is put into perspective. In no way were humans made for isolation and autonomy. On the contrary, our very Creator lives relationally and imparted his relational nature onto us, his salem.
Not only does God initiate relationships, but God also demonstrates the origin of friendship through his relationship with us. As we consider our creation, we cannot ignore God’s desire to be our friend. We were made to partner with God in our purpose and mutual desire to work and create shalom on earth. This shared aim and purpose is best defined as a friendship; we have an ultimate end that causes us to stand side-by-side, working together.
In the same way that God initiated a friendship with us, so should we initiate friendships with others. We reflect God’s image when we create healthy friendships with one another. We understand this through Genesis 1:28. God blesses humanity and invites us to co-create alongside him; and truly, friendships are things that must be created. They require work and effort, yet they are part of our very nature. This is more than just saying hi to someone on Sunday or sending someone a birthday text; this is living with one another in such a way that we model the deep care and love that God demonstrated to humanity upon creation.
For us now, let us live in such a way that we work to create these types of friendships. Invite someone over to your house for lunch or coffee and have conversation with each other. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Seek reconciliation with an old friend. Let us consider God’s purpose for humanity to create beauty and peace, to create shalom, with one another.
No doubt, the loneliness epidemic is devastating, not only because of the physical implications and literal limitation on our life spans, but because it goes against our very natures. Reflecting on the story of creation puts into perspective the incompleteness of our current relationships, but it also gives us hope. As God blessed humanity to create communities and live in relationships, so are we blessed and made to live with one another. Although we can mourn our loneliness, we can celebrate that it only reveals we were made for something better.