Isolation

Some of the most profound lessons in life can only be discovered face down in a proverbial ditch.  And that’s where I found myself about 25 years ago.  My career was crumbling. My family life was devastated. Whatever influence I had was waning quickly.  My dreams were being shattered.  I was a complete failure privately, and was about to be exposed as one publicly.  And for the moment, it was right where God wanted me to be.

There as life was crashing in all around me, I asked the Lord one of the most life-changing questions I could have asked, and He was gracious enough to give me an answer.

How did I wind up here?

The Lord showed me three things – three huge, blinding, colossal choices or habits that set me up for a trip to the ditch.  The first I’ve already covered here – I allowed myself to get discouraged in one area of my life, and soon discouragement spread like spiritual cancer.

Here is the second.  I read it on the 18th of the month – I know this because it was in Proverbs 18. But reading it was like reading a lab report on the condition of my heart.

A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire;
He rages against all wise judgment (Proverbs 18:1, NKJ)

At first blush it was obvious what that meant.  I was a pastor.  I was a public figure who made my living with words and relationships and eternal truths.  I was “on” 24/7, or so I thought.  So I gave every effort to play the part.  I smiled pastor smiles. I prayed pastor prayers.  I said pastor things.  And when people asked me how I was doing, I gave pastor replies.  “Good!” I would say, smiling.

I never told anybody otherwise.

I never shared what my biggest, most challenging obstacles were.  I never shared the depths of what my dreams were, either for myself or for the church.  I never told anybody I had gotten discouraged. I never asked for wisdom or help. I was a professional problem solver. I was supposed to be the solution to other people’s problems and the complete solution to my own… all the while presenting a front and leaving an impression that all was well.

The only way to pull all this off was to isolate myself.  I even had a name for it – I called it “transparency to a point.”  I would let people see and hear enough to believe I was being open and honest, but wouldn’t tell them too much.

Why?  Pride, for sure, but that’s the third answer to the question… more on that later.  Why isolate, then?  Because I didn’t want people advising me to do what I didn’t want to do.  I didn’t want to ask for anybody else’s help to succeed.  And I didn’t want to expose my life and work to somebody else’s opinion, wisdom, or direction.

In short, I isolated myself, and I was an idiot to do so.  I would caution you against the same mistake.

What Isolation ISN’T

I’ve had 25 years to unpack what it means, and doesn’t mean, to isolate.  And that’s important, because sometimes to this day I come across to others as isolating when in fact I’m not.  So let me hasten to tell you first what isolation doesn’t mean.

First of all, isolation isn’t the same thing as being an introvert.  Introverts need time alone to recharge their emotional batteries, and they tend to listen first and speak later. To an introvert words are like gold, and they manage them carefully.  But that doesn’t mean they’re isolating. Nor does it mean that extroverts are immune from the fool’s pathway.  Isolation has to do with how you manage your relationships, not how many relationships you have or how often you connect with them.

Second, isolation doesn’t mean solitude.  There are critical times that require all of us to spend time alone with God, or in thought or silence.  There are some answers in life that can only come from there.  Some jobs, including the ways I earn a living now, require an enormous amount of alone time. That’s not the same thing as isolating. In fact, you can be surrounded by people and still isolate.

Third, isolation doesn’t mean determination. Just because you don’t take the advice of people you trust doesn’t necessarily mean you are isolating.  If Jesus had listened to advice, He would have avoided the cross. Noah would never have built an ark.  Moses, the fugitive, would have stayed in Midian.  Paul would have never made it to Rome. Isolation is more about how you posture your relationships than in how you process them.

How to Recognize Isolation

Isolation involves resistance to the need that every human has for community, intimacy, encouragement, and wisdom outside ourselves.  When our “self-will runs riot” or we’re too proud to ask for help, when we’re afraid of letting others hear our thoughts because we’re afraid of losing control of our lives or we’re so shame-based we just know that our transparency will lead to rejection – those are harbingers of a problem.  Get ready… you may be nominated as Grand Marshal of the Idiot Parade.

  1. The selfishness of your desires.

People isolate to protect their selfish desires.  Whether it’s lust, materialism, or ambition, healthy relationships with caring people act as a deterrent to you becoming your own worst enemy.  So why avoid that?  Because you don’t want to be challenged about something you already know is wrong.  So if you find yourself avoiding people who ask the tough questions or whose lives often leave you feeling convicted, you may well be in isolation mode.

  1. The secrets of your heart.

On old saying from Recovery is that “you’re as sick as your secrets.”  Whether it’s the extra bottle of gin you keep hidden in the guest bedroom or the communication you have with someone that you hide from those closest to you, if you find yourself hiding an area of your life from accountability you are by default isolating.  This doesn’t refer to confidential conversations of a ministry or professional nature.  I’m talking about your own matters of the heart or behavior that you refuse to hold up in the light of day.

  1. The independence of your expectations.

This one nails me the most.  I HATE asking for help.  In the natural I LOATHE admitting that I can’t do something by myself.  I can give the excuse all day that “I work best alone,” because sometimes that’s actually true.  But sooner or later we will face the challenge that we can’t resolve by ourselves.  Now, if your expectation stubbornly insists that all your problems are yours alone to solve, and that you don’t need accountability, encouragement, outside wisdom or out-and-out help, go ahead and punch your ticket to Dufus Land.  Otherwise, swallow your stupid pride and get the support you need.  A universe of resources is knocking at your door, special delivery from God.

  1. The shame driving your beliefs.

Isolation is often a strategy of shame.  The thinking goes something like this:  “If you saw me the way I see myself, you would think of me what I think of me. And that’s too painful to think about. So I will hide my true self from you because I’m afraid you will reject me.”

Just one problem with that.  The reasoning of shame is built on a lie – the lie that you are unlovable. One of the most destructive thinking patterns I ever sunk into was the belief that the people in my life who loved me just didn’t know enough about me to be disgusted… and if they knew “the truth” about me, they would reject me.  That simply isn’t true, and I wasted an enormous amount of time and energy learning that.

 

When God created you, he wired some things into your DNA that you need to survive and thrive.  One of those is the need for connection and community. Certainly that connection starts with God, but we also need the collective wisdom, encouragement, and protection of others who have our best interests at heart.

Remember this:  No spiritual battle was ever won alone.  Even Jesus marshaled the resources of scripture to engage the enemy.  He relied on a power outside Himself, as well as the indwelling Holy Spirit.  Moreover, no life well lived was lived in isolation.  Again, even Jesus surrounded himself with people with whom He was connected and who formed a community around Him.

You think you can do better than that by yourself? Think again, my friend, and take it from somebody who knows… Isolation is for idiots.

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