Loneliness, Part of Life Not Just Leadership
Perhaps you have heard the popular phrase, “It’s lonely at the top.” One of my favorites is, “It is lonely at the top, but you eat better.” I believe that leadership can be lonely at times. However, it is not leadership that places someone in lonely places at times. It is conviction. If you believe in something strongly enough, you might find yourself alone in your conviction. As I apply this to the disciple of Christ, I would have to conclude that whatever role you may find yourself in life, however you might be wired or gifted, if you follow Christ, you will find yourself in situations where you will be called to stand alone. I could write some trite romantic comment like, “Just remember that Jesus is with you always and you will never feel alone.” I don’t care how gifted you are in faith, there are dark nights of the soul and situations in life where all people can feel the despair of loneliness and in those situations even the God of the entire universe can feel like He is a million miles away.
The point is, being lonely at times is part of life not leadership. I would add that if you find yourself entrusted with a leadership role and you find yourself believing that it is lonely at the top, you are in a very dangerous place. I would give you the same advice that I would give someone who is physically on fire. “Immediate action is required, stop, drop and role.” If you don’t act immediately, you will eventually find yourself burned up. It is also extremely dangerous and very selfish for someone entrusted with a leadership role to believe that their sense of conviction and “lone” faithfulness is somehow more significant than anyone else’s convictions entrusted to their care.
A Biblical Example
Perhaps the life of Elijah as recorded in 1Kings 17-19 offers us some insight into this type of loneliness. Here we have a genuine spiritual hero. God used this guy to raise people from the dead, stand for truth, stand against an entire corrupt religion, stand against an entire twisted government administration and ultimately represent the words and will of God on Earth. You would have thought that a guy like this would be unstoppable. However, this extremely faithful prophet of God found himself in a very lonely place eventually telling God,
“I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” – 1 Kings 19:10
Since we know the whole story, it is easy for us to see that, of course, Elijah was not the “only one left” who followed God. God patiently confirms this later by assuring Elijah,
18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” – 1 Kings 19:18.
Reading an example like the story of Elijah leaves me with some questions. I believe that exploring answers to these questions offers us some helpful insights toward dispelling this myth.
How effective was Elijah in fulfilling his purpose for God when he allowed himself to believe that he was the “only one left?
I know…This question is almost a full frontal assault on the intelligence of all humankind. From our perspective, we would say, “of course he was not very effective in fulfilling his purpose for God when he believed he was the only one left. Yet, if this is so obvious, why do so many of us allow our effectiveness to be impacted so often?
How did Elijah get to this place of loneliness?
One thing that can be observed in the example of Elijah and can be applied to situations in our own lives where we find ourselves standing alone for our convictions is the “loneliness” that Elijah felt was not the primary driver of his despair. I believe that the primary source of Elijah’s “only one left” mentality is fear. In his case he was afraid of being killed. As I process this myth of loneliness in leadership I wonder if it is actually fear that drives leaders to a place of loneliness. It may not be fear of being murdered that drives us to isolation. However, perhaps we are afraid of failure. Or perhaps we are afraid of people seeing our flaws or our weaknesses. Whatever the case may be perhaps the first question we need to ask ourselves when we find ourselves in a lonely place is, “What am I afraid of right now?”
Could Elijah have done anything to avoid this situation?
As I look at the amazing faithfulness of Elijah’s life and compare it to the amazingly forgetful example of my life, I have to come to the conclusion that if a guy like Elijah could be blind sided by fear and loneliness then so can I. Even with textbook plans to balance my life and even if I spend every minute with God and follow his ways. It is precisely that obedience to God that will lead me to lonely places at times. With that in mind, I believe that the challenge here is not how to avoid situations of loneliness, but how to be faithful in situations of loneliness.
How did Elijah remain faithful and eventually get out of this pit?
Again, in this situation we can look to the life Elijah for an example of what to do. Actually, while Elijah physically fled from his perceived danger, he did nothing to initiate his escape from his pit of dispair, (See 1Kings 1:19). It was God who reached out to Elijah. However, I observed five key behaviors that Elijah lived out as God reached out to him. I believe that these traits could help us remain faithful when we are faced with this kind of loneliness. To help me remember these traits I have organized them into five words that start with the letter R.
1. Relationship – The first key trait that I observed in the life of Elijah as it relates to his wilderness experience was his relationship with God. Elijah walked with God trusted God and loved God. His relationship with God did not shelter him from fear, loneliness and despair, however, it is the key to the next four traits I observed.
2 Remember – Throughout his entire ordeal, Elijah may have lost faith in himself, lost site of his purpose, lost perspective of God and even cried out to God to take his life, but he never lost site of the Holiness of God. God remained Lord and King of Elijah’s life.
3. Retreat – While I can’t say that I can ever support running away in fear to wallow in lonely places when time get tough as we stand up for our convictions, I can see a positive side to Elijah’s situation of isolation. As a leader, if and when you find yourself in a position of loneliness and you ask yourself the question, “What am I afraid of that is driving me to this lonely place?” then perhaps you would do well to lean into that situation and spend some time alone with God. A retreat to spend time alone with God doesn’t have to be a reaction to fear. It can be a proactive response to discovering something in your own character that might keep you from intimacy with God and from his purpose for your life.
4. Remain – Even at the height of his despair, Elijah never cut himself off from God. He may have felt alone, afraid and even distant from God but he remained connected. In 1Kings 19:8 it reads that Elijah eventually traveled to Horeb, the mountain of God. Symbolically, this could be translated as he retreated to God in his fear. Conversely, he did not run to Baal or look to any other remedy to solve his death threat problem.
5. Respond – When God finally did reach out to Elijah throughout his dispair, he responded. He might have been overwhelmed with fear and loneliness. However, when God told him to get up and eat, he responded faithfully, when God told him to stand in His presence, he responded faithfully, and when God revealed himself in the gentle whisper, he responded faithfully.
In conclusion, I would say that while Leaders, or anyone who lives with strong convictions will have times of loneliness. However, loneliness in leadership as a way of life or as a general rule is a choice. The best leaders in history surrounded themselves with inner circles of dear friends and lifelong teammates. If you are looking for an example of this in the Bible, you needn’t look any further than the life of Jesus.
I also want to give credit to Bill Hybels for inspiring me to write this post in a tweet he posted several months ago that challenged me to dig into this topic during a particularly lonely time of leadership.