In the middle of March, 2020, California ordered its residents to stay at home and isolate to avoid the rapid spreading of Covid-19. Soon, other states joined the self-enforced quarantine movement. Within a matter of weeks, most of America’s residents had been told by their state government to stay at home and avoid close contact with people as much as possible. Many Americans suddenly found themselves isolated, with no soon-end in sight.
Quarantines and isolation are, of course, not new things, with the history of medical isolations stretching back at least as far as the Mosaic Law, if not further. And while most Americans have never before been told to stay home en masse, self-induced isolation also is not a new thing.
We all know, or include ourselves in the rolls, of people who prefer to be alone. Loners, introverts, shy: we have various names for those who for one reason or another prefer solitude over society, quarantine over company.
We all know the benefits of company and likely can cite numerous biblical passages about the importance of meeting together and sharpening iron. No biblically faithful pastor would ever counsel people to live in isolation under normal circumstances, and even the world has figured out that isolation is painful and not how we are designed to live. When prisons want to punish an inmate for misbehavior, what do they do? They isolate them.
But there is another type of isolation which is harder to detect and possibly just as insidious in nature: functional isolation. I’m not sure there’s a real name for the phenomenon I’m talking about, but I’m guessing we all can identify people who are isolated in this way. Maybe it even describes you.
What I refer to as functional isolation is the isolation that comes over time, unintentionally. You never set out to be by yourself, and you don’t even necessarily want to be isolated, and maybe you don’t even realize you are isolated, but when you sit down to examine your life, your heart, and your innermost thoughts you discover that whoops!, you don’t have anyone to share with at the heart level.
Not having anyone to unburden with has its consequences, and they aren’t pretty. Without having your thinking challenged, you get set in your ways and think that how you do things or think about things or interpret Scripture is not only the best way but the only right way. Without having someone to unburden your heart to, sins, especially those deep down secret sins, have a tendency to take hold and bear poisonous fruit. Without the fresh water flowing in from an outside source, our pool becomes stagnant and the algae of discontent, ignorance, and unusefulness bloom and choke out God’s good gifts in our lives.
The strange thing about functional isolation is that we can be isolated even while being around people all the time. We can live with people, work with people, counsel and advise people, all the while being trapped inside an isolation which causes stagnation, selfishness, or indifference.
To illustrate one danger of functional isolation, I’ll share a story of a pastor I once knew. When I first attended the church, the sermons were alive and fresh and resonated with the congregation. But the pastor, as far as I could tell, wasn’t meeting with other pastors, and while he met with people routinely, wasn’t getting his iron sharpened.
Over time, his sermons became dry and lifeless and the more sincere Christians in the church started leaving. Even after being confronted by the departing sincere Christians, the pastor didn’t change his ways and slipped further into his functional isolation. You can imagine the spiritual consequences on not only the pastor but the entire congregation under his care.
How can we guard against functional isolation? Here a few ideas:
The government-encouraged isolation will eventually go away, but as the tide of quarantine goes out, functional isolation will remain. Let us all practice the humility required to be transparent to others. Let us not be with people yet be far from them. Let us sharpen others’ iron as they sharpen ours, and let God’s grace fill us as we listen and are listened to in the community God has placed us, according to His sovereignty. Open yourself to God and to others to avoid the trap of functional isolation.
Barry hails from the Pacific Northwest but now lives in Korea along with his family and teaches the Bible to high schoolers.
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