“It is not good that the man should be alone.”1 These are among the first words in the entire Bible; it is on this basis that God created Eve – so that man would not live alone, but that he might be fruitful and multiply, creating society. But the past year has seen an immense increase in loneliness. The rise of COVID-19 and the lockdowns and mask mandates implemented by governments as a result of it have led to an intense period of social malaise. “It is not good for man to be alone;” but man has been alone. At one point in 2020, according to the Washington Post, as many as 1 in 4 American teenagers had considered suicide in the prior month.2 In times of such isolation, it is the job of the Christian church to minister to those around it, spreading the joy and fellowship with God and man which she holds most dear.
The good news of Christ presents us with the reality of the Holy Spirit who has come to dwell in us that we might not be alone. In John 14:16, Christ calls Him the “Paraclete,” or as some English translations put it, “the Comforter” or the “Helper.”3 And so, with the Holy Spirit within us, we stand in faith, even when we are otherwise alone. This idea that we have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us and helping us is no dull exercise in empty philosophy either. Rather, it is the truth of Christ, and so it can richly encourage and inspire us.
The Bible explains that the Holy Spirit lives in the hearts of Christians and unites the church with an inseparable bond that transcends space and time. The book of Hebrews mentions the “great cloud of witnesses,” Christians carried on by faith in God in times of sorrow and struggle; this exercise is done under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit himself with the purpose of comforting Christ’s people.4 In order to encourage Christians, the author of Hebrews reminds them of each witness’s reliance upon God for salvation and strength. In times like these, then, we are encouraged to turn to the rich legacy of church history for hope and exhortation.
The Lonely Frenchmen
There are few men of the church both so strongly reviled and adored in Christian circles as the second generation reformer John Calvin. Known for his keen intellect, crisp Latin, and harsh, Picardian wit, the man’s impact on the church is undisputed.5 He was a giant of his era, a genius. Still, his devotion to the idea that the Christian life is a pilgrimage is rarely recounted, even among his admirers.6 This focus, of great import in both Scripture and in his beloved St. Augustine, arose from his own circumstances: John Calvin was a stranger in a strange land for most of his life.
Calvin’s story, like everyone’s, begins in his youth. His father served as a financial administrator at a Catholic church in Noyon during the boy’s childhood and sent young John to school to learn Latin for a career in the priesthood. As Calvin grew, his father’s relationship with the church quickly faltered. Soon, Calvin was sent to be an attorney.7 At this time, a movement known as humanism that stressed authorial intent and original languages had overtaken much of intellectual life.8 As a diligent university student, Calvin grew to accept this philosophy, mastering Latin and Greek; his study of Hebrew also may have begun at this time.9
In this intellectual environment, many were calling for religious reforms; some of the attempts to bring these about were ill conceived at best. While he was staying in Paris in 1533, Calvin’s friend, Nicholas Cop, delivered a speech which endorsed Protestantism. The newly minted attorney was forced to flee to the North.10 Later, certain Protestants posted placards containing refutations of Catholic dogma around the city, including on the king’s door. Calvin fled to Switzerland to avoid the death penalty and find a leisurely, scholarly life.11 As is so often the case, this was not to be.
Calvin’s scholastic peace was interrupted upon his first sojourn in Geneva, Switzerland. His writings, at this point consisting of a book against the idea of “soul sleep” and the earliest edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, had already established his intellect, and so the Reformed pastor of the town, Guillame Farel, forced Calvin to stay and help him.12 The two fiery Frenchmen were unpopular, and were soon expelled by the city government. Calvin, with little supporting him beyond a few friends and the Scriptures, had to repent and flee to the German speaking city of Strasbourg, where the Reformation was legal and his life safe.13
Here, the young reformer was happy. Though he was in a town of mostly Germans, he was able to peacefully minister to a small French congregation, and was himself ministered to by the gentle Reformer, Martin Bucer. Something still remained unsettled; he was not at home. For Calvin, France was home even though he would be burned at the stake should he enter. He knew no German, and even upon his return to French-speaking Geneva, where his isolation from others would be less intense, he never truly felt comfortable. It took over thirty years to even gain citizenship there.14
What was his reaction to being forced to flee his homeland, to isolation from his people, including his friends and family? It was simple: he buried himself in God’s word, the Bible. For all of his unpleasantness, much of which was expected of men from Picardy, he was known as much for his writing as his pastoral abilities; he preached extemporaneously numerous times a week, and lectured even more. More than that, he helped the pastors of his homeland in every way he could, writing and translating into French as many works as he could produce, from sample Confessions of faith, to Catechisms, to his own seminal work, the Institutes. Each of these tasks required ample study and memorization of the Bible. While his life was one of flight and fear, it was defined in large part by a single minded obsession over the Scriptures, where He learned from God, the God who loved the sojourner and made His people to be “strangers in a strange land.”
The Exiled Alexandrian
Our last subject was one reviled by many and recognized by all as a genius; our current one is more widely beloved, but, at least in the West, likely less well-known. St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria from 328-373, lived nothing short of a remarkable life. Brilliant, stubborn minded, and as astute politically as he was theologically, his appointment came at one of the most pivotal times in all of church history: three years after the Council of Nicea, which had defined the doctrine of the Trinity.15 In spite of its official status, the council was not quite popular; numerous churches and church officials objected to the Creed, which states that God the Father and Christ the Son are of the ‘same substance’ or homoousios. Not only, though, was Athanasius impacted by the creedal schism; in Alexandria, itself highly unstable, a rival bishop to the main see had arisen in 306, after growing frustrated with Peter of Alexandria.16 Thus, Alexandria was a city on edge; luckily, Athanasius was a man with an edge.
The Arians, who denied the Nicene Creed’s homoousios clause, and thus Christ’s eternal nature, had originated in the Egyptian city, and they maintained a high degree of power within it at the time of Athanasius’s election in 328. Though he had served and studied under the prior bishop, Alexander, Athanasius was allegedly younger than the typical requirement of 30 at this point. Seizing upon the already unclear legitimacy of his bishopric, eastern bishops from Syria supported the the defiant faction, who went so far as to allege sacrilegee and murder on the new bishop’s part.17 The record is unclear about the nature of the violence surrounding the bishop’s election in 328. Rioting was unfortunately common in Alexandria by all religious groups, but the murder charges fell through when the alleged decedant was found alive and well after Athanasius’s first banishment at the Council of Tyre in 335. Athanasius was so despised by the eastern church that Constantine himself signed his order of banishment to Gaul.18
Athanasius’s times in exile are defined by a few characteristics: a propensity to asceticism, diligence in writing, and intense meditation, particularly upon the nature of God. Most specifically, the bishop spent his time dwelling upon the Incarnation of Christ, famously saying “God became man that man might become God.”19 To the ears of modern evangelicals, this sounds heretical; in reality, that statement was made in the context of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the second reference to “God” is a figurative way of stating that man will be made immortal and righteous.20 This idea propelled him onward, proving a wellspring of life to the bishop on the run.21 Each time he was exiled, his enemies were ultimately defeated, and he was vindicated. One such enemy, Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor, hated Athanasius so much that he had the bishop exiled, even though his policy was one of religious tolerance. Upon hearing of this, Athanasius is said to have responded that Julian would soon pass “as a little cloud.” The emperor died shortly afterwards, in battle, and the bishop was restored, again.22
Athanasius’s life was largely spent wandering from his legitimate see, ministering to his parishioners from afar, whether by letter writing, treatise writing, or prayer. He died an old man, wizened by meditation on Scripture and personal experience. Though we are not exiles like him, the example of Athanasius is directly applicable to our lives. Just as Calvin obsessed over the Word of God in the Bible, Athanasius obsessed over Christ the Word of God, as revealed in the Bible. This is the source of all Christian joy and strength.
The Humble Deity
We could recount stories of faithful men and women ad nauseum, but still, none would ever loom so infinitely large as Christ. After all, it is his Word over which Calvin obsessed in France, Strasbourg, and Geneva, and it was meditation upon his incarnation which strengthened Athanasius through five separate exiles. Then, let us turn our attention to his word, the ultimate source of knowledge about him and his incarnation. When Christ condescended to human form, then, did he ever deal with isolation? If so, how so? What can we learn from these periods?
The simple answer to the first question is “yes.” Christ literally took upon human form; he gained a human nature, in addition to his divine one. Because he took up this frail form, he experienced the needs and temptations associated with humanity; he had hunger and thirst, and was even tempted to sin.23 In the temptation of Christ, we see him alone for forty days, mirroring Israel’s forty year period of wandering in the desert.24 Israel is often called “the son of God;” thus, the clear imagery of Scriptures show Christ to be the true Son of God, for while Israel wandered and complained, succumbing to every temptation along the way, Christ resisted by remembering the words of God his Father.25
Christ’s isolation was not limited to his temptation. Throughout his public ministry, he would recede from the company of his followers and even that of his disciples in order to pray and speak to his Father.26 Perhaps no scene is more poignant than that from Gethsemane, where Christ prayed shortly before his betrayal and, ultimately, his death. He knew what was about to happen and yet, he was in anguish. He, the perfect Son of God, the Holy Man, was to take upon himself the wrath of the Father for sin. With this in mind, he took three of his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, asking them to pray. He walked off, alone, to pray to the Father, asking him if the cup of wrath could be passed. He did so, only to return to see his students asleep, on three separate occasions. Here God was, so nervous that he was sweating blood, while his friends slept.
As Christ faced the cross later that evening, he also faced the deepest isolation any being could feel; crucifixion was among the most humiliating forms of punishment known in the ancient world, and the Jews even saw one crucified as cursed, just as one who had been hanged.27 The God Man, hanged on a cross with a tortuous crown and a mocking placard, all while guards gambled over his robes and his friends abandoned him for fear of their lives. Only a few women, including his mother, Mary, and one disciple, John, witnessed this wretched moment. Worse, still, was the divine dynamic – Christ, the Son of God, was bearing his Father’s wrath for sins which he had not committed. It was on the cross that Christ yelled the words of the twenty second Psalm “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”28 All told, even in this moment of existential agony, Christ was recognizing with the Psalmist that “kingship belongs to the Lord, and He rules over the nations.”29
Christ did not take upon himself human flesh merely to do good works, or to teach; He came to be a mediator between God and Man; to be a High Priest whom we could trust and who was holy enough for the task. He “emptied Himself;” He bears our weaknesses, according to Hebrews.30 He did all of this so that the Father might give him the “name that is above all names:” Lord.31 He was Lord before, but now his Lordship over all creation, even death itself, could never be more clear. Our solitude on earth will never be as horrific as his, and never have the salvific benefits which his possessed. We are mortals; he is God. But we can learn from his time on the earth, and more importantly, we can praise him because he is a great High Priest, who can sympathize with our weaknesses.
My prayer, upon writing all of this, is that of the author of Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.32
The first two men I mentioned were far from perfect. Calvin was prone to bombast, and the only reformer more known for stubbornness was Luther himself. Athanasius was himself a product of his time; harsh, unrelenting, and yet still a stolid prosecutor of the truth. I point to these men, in order to point to Christ, even as Hebrews does. We look to the lives of our brothers and sisters, recognizing that we are to follow them as they followed Him. Calvin responded to isolation by obsessing over the Scriptures, Athanasius by meditation over the Trinity. These are commendable responses. Christ’s response was to focus on the “joy set before him” at the “right hand of the throne of God.”
Based upon these examples, then, men and women throughout the church and beyond can be encouraged to meditate upon the Scriptures and find wisdom in the truths of God, all while looking to Christ as the founder of our faith. When we are forced to be alone, whether for virological reasons or otherwise, we can draw near to him. When we are ministering to those who have been in solitude, we can do the same. If we did so, we would see a renewal of strength, “for the joy of the Lord is our strength.”33 More than that, we could point those around us to this joy.
- Gen 2:18 (English Standard Version)
- Wan, “For Months, He Helped His Son Keep Suicidal Thoughts at Bay. Then Came the Pandemic.”
- Compare the KJV reading, “Comforter,” with the ESV’s “Helper.” Another, slightly less common translations include “Advocate” and “Counselor.” All are proper descriptions of the Spirit’s actions in the Christian’s life, and all are salient to the present discussion.
- Heb. 12:1
- Ganoczy, “Calvin’s Life.” pg. 3
- Gordon, Calvin. pg. 44
- Mullett, Calvin. pg. 12; Ganoczy also refers specifically to Gerard Calvin’s falling out with the cathedral chapter of Noyon, “Calvin’s Life.” pg. 6
- Mullett. pg. 7-10
- Gordon Calvin. pg. 32
- Ibid. pg. 37-38
- Mullett, Calvin. pg. 16
- Ganoczy, “Calvin’s Life” pg. 6-7; 9
- Ibid. pg. 10; for a more detailed account, see Gordon, Calvin. pg. 85-88
- Mullett, Calvin. pg. 50
- Gwynn, “Athanasius.” pg. 1036
- Ibid. pg. 1038-1039; for a more detailed account, see Letham, Systematic Theology. 3, 4
- Ibid. pg. 1039-1040
- Tyson, The Great Athanasius. pg. 64-71
- Athanasius, On the Incarnation. pg. 93
- Letham, Systematic Theology. 26.2; Mosser, “Deification.”
- Gwynn, “Athanasius.” pg. 1046
- Ibid. pg. 1041
- Heb. 4:15; Luke 4:1-13; Matt. 4:1-11
- Compare Luke 4:1-13 and Matt. 4:1-11 with Num. 14:34 and the stories throughout the rest of Numbers and Deuteronomy.
- Hos. 11:1-7 is the most famous such passage, and is applied in this same comparison by Matthew himself in Matt. 2:15
- Matt. 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46, John 18:1-11
- Deut. 21:22-23; Gal. 3:13
- Matt. 27:32-44, Mark 15:21-41, Luke 23:26-42, John 19:16-37
- Ps. 22
- Heb. 4:14-16
- Phil. 2:5-11
- Heb. 12:1-2
- Neh. 8:10