Loneliness in God’s Church is understandable. Not only is it a “little flock” (Luke 12:32), members are more scattered than ever before.
But feelings of isolation do not only afflict scattered brethren. Those in large congregations can and often do feel alone as well, for a number of reasons. They may feel left out, frequently excluded from groups. They may feel that they are too different and struggle relating to others. Some are natural introverts. It takes great effort for them to venture outside their comfort zones.
Even social butterflies can struggle with loneliness. While they have no problem striking up conversations with just about anyone, they can have the tendency to spread themselves thin. At the end of the day, they may find they have not fostered close friendships in which they can truly open up.
The point: Everyone, no matter their personality, circumstances or environment, can feel alone from time to time. This is because loneliness is an effect that can be traced to one cause: a lack of friendships.
Yet this should not be! The Bible provides a solution to this malady in Proverbs 18:24. It states: “A man that has friends must show himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.”
A closer look at this seemingly simple instruction reveals it actually describes a path to friendship. The second half of the verse defines the goal, having a friend who “sticks closer than a brother.” But before such a powerful bond can be developed, you must start with the first part of the verse: putting forth the effort to make friends.
The path to a brotherly friendship begins with striking up a conversation. Here are some practical tips adapted from Success magazine to demonstrate your friendliness in initial conversations en route to making friends.
(1) Lead with a compliment: Sadly, we live in an age when it is easier and more convenient to criticize and tear down people than to acknowledge their accomplishments and offer sincere compliments. This should not happen, particularly among those whom God has called out from this world, its traditions, and manner of thinking.
Be genuine and specific with your compliments. This almost always generates further discussion.
(2) Embrace small talk: Simple topics such as the weather or geography (where someone lives, where someone is attending the Feast, etc.) are actually great conversation starters because they are experiences to which we all can relate. Use these as starting points to deeper topics.
(3) Ask lots of questions: Look for opportunities to advance and expand conversations by asking others what they think. It could be about world news and current events, or about more personal topics such as family, career and background.
Avoid or limit questions that can be easily be answered with yes or no. Instead, come up with why and how questions. Ask, “How did God call you into the truth?” or, “Why did you choose your current profession?” Line up potential questions in the back of your mind to keep conversation flowing.
The Power of Listening
Conversations can break down because people focus on what to say instead of listening. You can probably think of times while you were listening to another person talk that you thought, I can’t wait until he stops talking so I can speak. Before long, your mind wanders: What am I going to eat tonight? What was the name of our class pet turtle in second grade? I wonder what they are laughing at in that other conversation over there—I wish I was in that conversation right now.
When it comes time for you to respond, there is awkward silence. You have no choice but to embarrassingly ask the person to recap what he said, or you bring up a different subject to attempt to hide the fact you were not paying attention.
You get the point. These are critical symptoms of not listening.
According to an article about improving conversation skills in Success magazine: “Listening, like speaking and writing, requires genuine interest and attention. If you don’t concentrate on listening, you won’t learn much, and you won’t remember much of what you do learn. Most of us retain only 25 percent of what we hear—so if you can increase your retention and your comprehension, you can increase your effectiveness.
“A sign on the wall of Lyndon Johnson’s Senate office put it in a down-to-earth way: ‘When you’re talking, you ain’t learning.’”
Be sure you are paying attention when someone else is speaking. If you find it difficult to focus, try constructing detailed images in your mind related to what the person is talking about. It may take some mental work, but this is active listening.
But there is more to it. In addition to simply hearing what the other person is saying, show that you are listening. Remember the pivotal point of Proverbs 18:24 is that you must “show” yourself friendly in order to have friends. In the same way, you must show that you are interested in what the other person says for that person to take an interest in what you say.
Active listening in conversation has become absent in today’s “smartphone generation.” A news magazine recently stated that many people now “know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.” It is also common for social media users to say they are feeling a certain emotion, but not actually show that emotion. For example, they may express laughter via text messages (e.g., “LOL,” “haha,” or a laughing emoji) but not physically laugh—sometimes without so much as a smile.
These practices bleed over to face-to-face interactions. Even if a person feels genuinely amused, they often do not show it.
Do not succumb to this tendency! Again, remember Proverbs 18:24—show what you are feeling as you are listening. This will allow you to “give” that person the correct facial expression, whether a smile to show you understood their joke, a nod to affirm you understand their logic, a cock of the head to show surprise, or even a perplexed look to show you really do not follow what they are saying. These are genuine expressions to show the person talking how you feel. They add spice to the conversation.
(Of course, you do not want to show emotions that would be improper in a situation—for example, smiling after someone told you his father died recently.)
In order to become a good listener, you must build the habit!
Sabbath services are weekly opportunities to practice listening for two hours. During messages, you can exercise all of the points listed above (within the boundaries of a service, of course). The benefit: Not only will you be more engaged in the message, the speakers will experience the satisfaction of knowing that you are listening and taking interest! Practicing active listening during Sabbath and Holy Day messages will better equip you to actively listen to others.
In any conversation, do not over worry about what you are going to say. Instead, work on becoming an active listener. Use your eyes, ears and face. This is a way to give and show you truly care.
(4) Be respectful: In this age of Facebook and other social media outlets, people are quick to blurt out comments without thinking. Civility is rapidly becoming extinct.
Success magazine suggested: “Walk into the conversation with a big smile and open body language and keep yourself open, receptive and smiling politely for as much of the conversation as you can.
“Try not to cross your arms, appear distracted or let your eyes wander. Maintain eye contact when you can and go out of your way to show that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say.”
(5) Let the other person talk: While looking for ways to advance his career, a local news reporter reviewed recordings of interviews he had conducted. In doing so, he realized he had spent more time making comments than allowing his interviewees to respond.
Just as this is not good for journalism, it is equally a problem for Christian fellowship. We should be conscious of whether we are dominating conversations. Strive for a balance in speaking and listening.
(6) Keep it light: Make sure the conversation is easy on the other person, especially if it is your first conversation. Success continued: “If you immediately start complaining about your job or talking about what’s wrong with your life, people will want to avoid you. If you tell a joke or an amusing story, they’ll be far more likely to stay.
“People tend to gravitate toward others with a positive attitude, so keep your conversational material positive.”
(7) Do not preach: The truths of God, particularly prophecy, are exciting. While it is natural to want to share what you are learning with anyone willing to listen, be very careful that you do not begin preaching. First, you could be caught up in zeal without knowledge (Rom. 10:2). Also, it can feel to those listening as though you are talking down to them—which is the opposite of showing yourself friendly.
Showing yourself friendly, which includes demonstrating that you are trustworthy, honest, open and willing to help, is a process requiring continual effort.
Make sure to communicate consistently. The apostle Paul was inspired to write, “But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13:16).
Regularly send cards, letters and emails, and make phone calls. Reach out to distant friends frequently, but avoid being overbearing. Over-communicating puts a burden on recipients and could discourage them from reciprocating. For example, if you send an extremely detailed 1,000-word email about how your week went, the other person may feel obligated to send a response just as thorough—and he may put it off until it is forgotten altogether.
Naturally, you will have closer relationships with some more than others. When this occurs, be careful of cliques. Tight-knit groups can form as it is very comfortable to spend all your time with those whom you feel most attached. But work to avoid exclusive groups, as they prevent you from developing and maintaining a wider variety of friendships. If you find yourself gravitating toward the same people, force yourself out of the usual circle from time to time.
Sometimes it may feel as though you are not being invited to many group activities. Be careful in such instances you do not play the victim or blame others. This will only further alienate you. Instead, remember Christ’s solution: “All things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them…” (Matt. 7:12).
In other words, do not base your attitude or actions on how others treat you. Take an active role. Invite others to events and approach people yourself!
As you continue to open yourself up to others, tensions may arise. Unlike in the world, however, where offenses push two people apart, use them as stepping stones to better understanding one another. Difficulties with other brethren are opportunities for you to learn more about other people’s backgrounds and tendencies, and to learn from them—making both the friendships and each individual stronger.
Even when you are getting along well with a friend, encourage him or her to grow and overcome. This is the principle of Proverbs 27:17, which states, “Iron sharpens iron; so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”
Anything of value takes time to develop—the same goes with friendships. Use opportunities such as Sabbath services and socials to hone your conversation skills, meet others, and strengthen bonds. The Feast of Tabernacles is the best opportunity to practice and foster friendships with brethren.
We are all preparing to spend eternity together in the Kingdom of God. Establish connections now by showing yourself friendly, and work to become a friend that sticks closer than a brother.