The following is the first in a three-part series, all excerpted from Eric Geiger's recent book How to Ruin Your Life. Following a season of grief, when Eric's team watched several people close to them implode, Eric, a senior vice president at Lifeway Christian Resources, challenged his team to learn from King David's fall and humbly rely on God's grace to keep them from falling. The challenge and resulting conversations turned into a book, in which Geiger offers thoughtful, biblical advice on what a ruined life looks like, and how we can seek mercy in the midst of the mess. Here, he discusses the temptation of isolation.
Isolation is often very attractive, and it is on the rise with no signs of slowing down. Nearly twenty years ago Robert Putnam wrote a landmark book called Bowling Alone because his research revealed that bowling leagues, among other opportunities for connection and relationships, were declining. Yet bowling was not declining. In fact, the number of bowlers over a twenty-year period of time increased while the number of people in bowling leagues greatly decreased. Instead of bowling in community, people were bowling alone. Putnam warned that the move toward isolation would ultimately hurt people and communities.
Putnam issued his warning about isolation before restaurant booths would be filled with people staring at their iPhones instead of connecting with each other, before binge-watching Netflix would become common in our culture, and before social media was invented, much less classified as an addiction. The move to isolation only gets easier, and thus more common. Our drive for individualism and our longing to escape make isolating ourselves very tempting.
David, in his mind, had many reasons to rely on his strength as a great leader and man, to insist that he could stand on his own. His approval ratings among the people were strong and his resume was impressive. People regularly affirmed him and former enemies bowed before him. He likely thought, "Do I really need anyone around me? Do I really need any help?"
We live in an individualistic society where the strong prove they are strong by standing alone, by not needing anyone else, and by achieving their independent status with their genius or grit. As an example, Jesse Ventura, former Navy Seal, professional wrestler, and governor of Minnesota, ridiculed the desire for Christian community when he declared, "Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people's business."
The values of this world encourage us to be strong, to not require help from anyone, and to achieve and accomplish. The Christian faith is very different, diametrically opposed to the thinking of this world.
Jesse Ventura is right: we are weak.
Even Navy seals, professional wrestlers, and governors. As Christians, we have embraced our weakness and joyfully quit our futile attempts to achieve forgiveness so we may gratefully receive God's grace and forgiveness.
Our faith is a receiving faith, not an achieving faith. Our faith is also, because we rejoice in our weakness, not an individualistic faith. We need each other. The Christian faith is not an independent faith but an interdependent one, a faith that relies on other believers for encouragement, care, prayer, forgiveness, and support. Yet because we are affirmed for our ability to stand alone and encouraged, "you be you," there is a constant pull away from community and toward independence.
We must recognize that we are often encouraged to live in a way that can destroy us. Typically encouragements to engage in anything that could possibly harm you must be accompanied by full-disclosure statements about the potential side effects. You have heard the happy voice on commercials saying things like, "Consult your doctor before taking because side effects can be constant nausea, random rashes over your whole body, and perpetual irritability." Sign me up! But because independence is so baked into our cultural values, few voices express caution over isolation. Few voices sound the alarm to the pitfalls of not being surrounded by people who will hold us accountable.
A voice that challenged me in this area came from a friend, Steve Graves. Steve is an executive coach, author, and consultant who provides counsel from a Christ-honoring perspective. In his spare time, Steve leads a Bible study for a group of highly successful people who have imploded, a group of "used- to-bes" who are starting over and finding encouragement and grace from one another. What is a "used-to-be"? One guy "used to be" the CEO of a company until his addiction became public, another "used to be" a successful entrepreneur until he lost trust from colleagues and clients because of his lifestyle, and the list goes on and on.
Steve shared with me common themes he has seen in those who have fallen. One of most dominant themes is independence, the belief that others are unnecessary. As these successful people rose higher in their careers, they translated commonly-heralded messages about "it being lonely at the top" to mean, "no one understands me or gets me." As they grew more independent, they simultaneously grew more susceptible to ruin. Because the "used-to-bes" have learned the result of being isolated, they now wisely gather in community.
The desire to numb our pain can also pull us to isolation. Because the world is filled with such strife and struggles, there is a constant temptation to run away from it all. We can easily reason that being alone will help us avoid pain and pressure and the people that cause both. When betrayed and hurting, being vulnerable in community feels dangerous and being alone feels safe. When overwhelmed with the burdens of today, avoiding people gives the perception that no more burdens will be added.
Isolation may seem like a great solution to combat the pain and betrayal of this world, but it creates more struggles as it hardens our hearts. Isolation is more risky than the struggles of living in community. Yes, there are risks to being in relationships with others. Because all people are messy and imperfect, relationships will inevitably mean betrayal, being taken advantage of, being letdown, or being misquoted and misunderstood. But the risk of being in isolation is much greater.