The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

It’s Wednesday, March 3rd, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What has Caused this Epidemic of Loneliness?: U.S. Surgeon General Declares Nationwide Emergency

America’s experiencing what the Surgeon General calls an epidemic of loneliness. And the nation’s top public health officer went on to say that, “This epidemic has been heightened certainly by the experience of COVID-19, but it’s actually a longer range problem that is bringing devastating health consequences.” The Surgeon General tried to point to this epidemic, describing it in terms as akin to other public health threats. And Surgeon General Vivek Murthy went on to release a massive report documenting just how increasingly lonely Americans are.

Now, as you look at this report, you understand this is a big problem. And you look at this and recognize that what is attempted here is a quantification of something we all basically know, we sense is happening. But now you’ve got all kinds of documentation with federal health authorities reporting all kinds of statistics about how much less time Americans are spending with friends, how much less time American family members are spending with family, how much less time Americans are spending going to church, working in the neighborhood.

And here’s where Christians need to understand, all of this is incredibly predictable. As a matter of fact, what we’re looking at here is something that a secular state, in this case, a secular government simply can’t confront on honest terms, because what we are seeing here is what is inevitable once some massive processes of reshaping the culture are set loose. And we as Christians should be, first of all, heartbroken about this. This tells us about the human cost of disconnectedness from other human beings.

It turns out that God made us in his image and he made us for his glory, and being made in his image means that we have the capacity to know him. But God also made us inherently capable of and needful of relationships with one another. Now, here’s where we need to note something very, very carefully. Community in this sense and relationships in a larger sense are not distinctive to human beings alone. We talk about communities of elephants. We talk about different kinds of groupings of animals. You have animals, and YouTube is filled with this, you have animal parents who show delight in playing with their children, right down to the most vicious of predators. There are few things on planet earth more cute than watching adult lions playing with their cubs.

In the animal kingdom, it is simply true that community applies even to assemblages of insects like ants who have to have a system of organization and even a differentiation of work and a commitment to the larger group of ants, whatever they consider themselves to be, in order for the ants to survive. You look at a beehive, you look at a grouping of animals, you look at a herd, and you come to understand that community is something that expands beyond the human community. Being made in God’s image means that human beings alone have the capacity to know the creator.

But when it comes to knowing fellow creatures, there are numerous animals at different levels of sophistication, differentiation, different categories of species that actually show some kind of communal organization. And you cannot imagine those animals, those species existing without that communal organization. You take the bee out of the hive, that bee is not going to survive for long. Why would we think that all of a sudden human beings are the exception to that rule?

But it’s also important for Christians to understand that being made in God’s image gives us a relational capacity that does mean the human relationships with one another are on a different plane, even, than the relationships you see among animals. And even as the animal kingdom presents all kinds of pictures of community or species cooperation, the reality is that it is human beings, who made in God’s image, actually perfect this at a level that other species can’t imagine.

We name each other. We look at civilization expanding into not only the necessities of life in food and in shelter, but also in arts and in culture. Human beings are capable of socially experiencing what no other species, what no other being, what no other creature can actually experience. But it also turns out that human beings deprived of all of that have health consequences that should also be predictable.

Now, in the report that was released by the Surgeon General, it’s entitled, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” the Surgeon General of the United States, who is after all not only a federal official but also an official of the Biden administration, he goes on to tell us that, “This is a widespread social problem that should have our national attention.”

Now just remember the screaming headlines at us over the course of the last several weeks and months, we are told that there is an epidemic of mental stress among teenagers, and specifically among girls, and then specifically among boys. And now you’re looking at a widespread indictment of the entire culture that is now reflecting an epidemic of loneliness and isolation.

So let’s ask ourselves the question, what does it mean for a government to say here is a huge problem, for the Surgeon General to say, “This is a public health crisis,” when at the same time you have government largely on the side of tearing things apart rather than putting things together. The 81-page report released by the Surgeon General includes his words. He said, “We know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing. Millions of people in America,” said the Surgeon General, “are struggling in the shadows and that’s not right. That’s why I issued this advisory,” he said, “to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing.”

So just some basics of the Christian worldview. Number one, as Christians, we are committed to seek the welfare of other human beings made in God’s image. We care about people. This is not just a report that should have the attention of the media and the nation to say, “Oh, that’s not a good thing, that there’s so much loneliness.” Christians look at this and recognize this is a matter of very legitimate concern, because we would understand that as God made his relational creatures, we cannot be healthy without some level of sustainable relationships.

It’s interesting to see that Amanda Seitz, reporting for the Associated Press, gets right to this, “Research shows that Americans, who have become less engaged with worship houses, community organizations and even their own family members of recent decades, have steadily reported an increase in feelings of loneliness. The number of single households has also doubled over the last 60 years.” The crisis has “deeply worsened when COVID-19 spread, prompting schools and workplaces to shut their doors, sending millions of Americans to isolated home away from relatives or friends.”

We then have the documentation that friends are actually spending about 20 minutes a day less relating to friends than just back in the year 2020. Now how exactly that’s measured, I don’t know, but I think most of us intuitively say, “There’s probably something to that, and this epidemic of loneliness is certainly real.”

But I mentioned all of that and the national conversation, the national emergency that is basically declared by the Surgeon General of the United States, in order to look at this problem and as Christians think deeply for a moment about how Christians would have to look at this a bit differently than perhaps everyone else. Number one, this is where Christians understand that not only has God made us as relational creatures, that means we have relational capacity. It also means we have relational needs. We have relational strengths, but we also have relational vulnerabilities. It is also true that God has given us in society, he’s given us in the structures of creation, those things that would make for health and would make for stability and would make for wholeness.

And I want us to think about that for just a moment, because we need to understand that here you have the federal government of the United States of America pointing to something we know is real, pointing to a human crisis we know is real. And yet as you look at this, the question would have to be not only what caused this? But what could be the answer to this? What could be the remedy to this?

Now, I mentioned the structures of creation because the structures of creation include not only the fact that God made human beings in his image as male and female, but he did make us for community. When he told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, that came with a mandate to create what we would know as culture. And that culture is demonstrated in what we might even call eventually civilization.

It means that you have webs of relationships and you have people working together. You can accomplish more. In an agricultural society, you can feed more people if you work together at the effort. And furthermore, you have a differentiation of labor. Eventually, you have some people who are good at this, some people who are good at that. And as you look at this, you recognize that where you find that kind of human community working, you find not only the community working, you find the people within it healthier.

Now in this principle that is embedded in the orders of creation, you also have what in the Christian worldview is the principle of subsidiarity. Sometimes I think we might run the risk of that being rather abstract, and yet as a principle it is extremely concrete. So let’s talk about it for a moment.

When you look at this epidemic of loneliness in the United States, you ask the question, what’s changed? Well, let’s think about some of the things that have changed. It’s reflected in even the section from the Associated Press report that I read. Number one, we have dismantled the family. It’s not just divorce, it is not just the mobility of so many in society. You have the record here that an increasing number of Americans actually live in single person households. We’re told that that percentage has doubled over the course of the last 60 years.

Now remember that the scripture tells us something about that, including the fact that man was not meant to live alone. And just in a general context of human relationships, and of course that’s a picture, first of all, of marriage, but beyond even that, it’s a testimony to family. It’s a testimony to the fact that we desperately need to belong to someone. We desperately need to be related to someone. We need someone who cares about us. Frankly, we need someone who’s watching us, observing us. We need to be related to someone.

Now we’re not in a position to say everyone who’s living alone is simply chosen to live that way. The point is we’ve got to speak honestly about vast changes in the society that have made it more likely that people will be lonely and less likely that they will not be. And so we’d have to look at this and say, “You can’t talk about this honestly as a national epidemic without recognizing that loneliness starts out by definition as a personal problem.”

And this is where the Christian understanding of the world with the notion of creation order and subsidiary just tells us that all these pathologies, but in particular loneliness, which points to a lack of relationships, that really points us back to the fact that the most basic of all relationships is that between members of a family. And that starts out with marriage, the union of a man and a woman, and then the children that are added to that union, and then extended family and what sociologists call kinship structures.

That’s where we have relationships that at least in terms of children coming in, every generation they don’t even have to decide about. They are simply born to families. And a part of that is being a gift to that family and to be gifted with that family. And the principle of subsidiarity joined with the Christian biblical understanding of creation order means that if you disrupt marriage, you disrupt family, you disrupt extended family, you’re going to weaken the things that make human beings stronger. You’re going to make loneliness more likely, not less likely.

There are several other things that are reflected even in this report. One thing is mobility. So long as people basically lived pretty close to where they were born and they died pretty much near to where they were born, you had a greater opportunity for sustained relationships in a community, in a neighborhood, in a city, a town. You start to add the mobility that is now so much a fact of a modern hyper industrialized consumer culture, and then you understand we’re basically baking into the cake a good deal of potential for loneliness.

You have kids that sometimes have to move from one city to another, and even as the family moves from one city to another, they have to start all over again building friends. They have to get to know a new school. Now, this is not to say that those children are doomed to loneliness. It is to say they are certainly starting out with a deficit. And then you add to that the context of the pandemic, of COVID-19, when you didn’t even have the children together in normal settings, and you talk about social distancing and all the rest, well, we can understand that we’re looking at a problem that actually has a predictable timeline.

Just in terms of the last couple of years, that timeline would involve COVID, but expanding it over, say, the last 20 or 30 years, that timeline also includes digital technology and social media. Who would’ve thought that social media would turn out to be one of the most anti-social developments in all of human history? It’s one of the most oddly and wrongly named technologies ever to appear. What you have in social media has not increased social health, it has increased social unhealth.

And so you’re looking at this, you recognize that when you have all these people who are looking at their own screens in their own hands, sometimes in their own rooms, we are looking at a pathology that is going to produce lonely people. Because as much as you can receive data by digital transmission, and as much as you get interesting information, as much as you can actually have communication, you do not have the depth of relationship.

Interesting, by the way, one of the things that is most missing from social media is nuance and facial expressions. That is to say that if you have, say, a hard conversation, if a parent has to have a hard conversation with a child, a brother has to have a hard conversation with a sister, the ability to do so face-to-face with facial expressions and body language and all the rest is categorically different than if you just send someone a text. Now, if you need to communicate something urgently right now, then send the text. But if it’s really important, don’t let that text be all that you send.

We are human creatures. We are made in God’s image. We are relational by God’s design. And we also have all kinds of different senses, and we need to deploy those in the task of communicating and socializing with one another. It makes a whole lot of difference if someone is actually seen to be offering a faint smile while saying something that might be a bit hard. That’s a very different context. The use of all of this technology, and that could include everything that becomes an obsession and drives into inwardness, and that can be computer games for one person, it can be watching the stock market for another person.

The bottom line is we have to invest in socialization, because as human beings, we’ve got to invest in those relationships. But those relationships do require investment and they also require accountability. And the organic relationships of creation order are the ones in which that accountability is most well established and leads to the maximum flourishing. There’s a reason why the family is uniquely powerful in socialization, and in welcoming children into the world, and in creating an environment for all the persons in the family to be healthy.

There’s a reason why the absence of the family and the breakdown of marriage and the easiness of getting divorced and the ease with which people can now abandon their families, this is not a good thing and predictably it’s going to have a devastating result and impact on human health.

Part II

A Moral Breakdown Caused This: Many Factors Have Led to Our Crisis of Loneliness. History Shows the Solution Will Not Come from More Isolation

There are two other issues I need to mention. One of them is the segmentation of the population into different interest groups, into different, say, likes and dislikes, political polarization that’s inevitable in a polarized era, but it also comes with relational consequences.

And we also need to recognize that one of the most damaging issues of segmentation and separation has been that between generations. In the past, most human beings have had daily contact with people of multiple generations. The very old and the very young have often been in the very same house. And in between people who are neither very old nor very young, but instrumental in taking care of both the very young and the very old. And joy is found in the very old and the very young and all in between, sharing in one social context. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t differences between the old and the young. It doesn’t mean that there are differences between children and adults. It does mean that we do very much need each other.

Throughout human history, a couple of patterns have been particularly important for us to recognize. Number one, both the very old and the very young are very vulnerable. And the only way that the very old and the very young are really cared for is if the very in the middle care for both. And that requires some relationship. It requires some social obligation. It requires, in most cases, some basis for the relationship. And in most cases, that’s been an organic, even biological and extended family set of relationships. But of course, we’re also looking at the fact that not everyone has that particular family structure. So what would come next?

Well, what would come next in some ways would be the neighborhood. And it used to be that neighbors living in proximity to one another felt a responsibility to look out for one another. And in a functioning neighborhood, we can at least be thankful some of that continues to go on. But it’s also certainly true that increasing numbers of people increasingly live in communities that are not marked by that kind of healthy neighborhood at all. Once again, that principle of subsidiarity says that the further you abstract from the most basic relationships, the less efficient those relationships are, and we can certainly see how that works.

I want to mention one final thing as we understand why human beings have become so disconnected and lonely. And here’s where Christians understand that. From the very beginning of Christianity, from the very beginning of the experience of Christians, Christianity has been a communal, relational experience.

Much of the New Testament is devoted to life in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, in gathered, visible communities of Christians who are in a new covenant relationship to Christ and are in covenant with one another. And this means mutual obligation. It means mutual support. It means mutually experiencing the means of grace, which includes the preaching of the word of God and participation in worship. It means taking care of one another.

To be a part of a functioning gospel church is not only to be confronted, first of all, with the faithful preaching of the word of God, it is to know that this church customarily feeds one another, takes care of one another, has a meal list for those who have experienced some kind of hospitalization or illness, is taking care of one another, older couples, helping younger couples, families helping other families.

You look at this and you come to understand when you have a society that is tearing the family apart, that is eroding neighborhoods and is secularizing, what would you expect but an epidemic of loneliness? I’ve given this so much time today because I think it’s very, very important to recognize that the Surgeon General of the United States, the chief public health officer of the United States of America points to a new public health problem, an epidemic, and identifies it as loneliness. And this is for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, just a reminder of creation order, of subsidiary, and it’s also a reminder to us that God’s way reflects not only his glory but our good.

And insofar as it is possible, it is the Christian responsibility to rebuild in the ruins what society and sin have torn apart. This means that this should renew our commitment to marriage as the union of a man and a woman before God. It means that for Christians, this should increase our commitment to the family, to rejoicing when couples have children and those children become not only a part of the family but a part of the community.

And we should rejoice when families help other families and when families help those outside of families. And that points to the family of faith, which is the gathered congregation, the community, where one of the most important glories of the church is that there is no one in the church who’s without a family. There is no one in the church who is without brothers and sisters. There is no one in the church, in one sense, who is without father and mother and son and daughter simply by the majestic providence of God in the demonstration of a biblically ordered church.

And when we look at these pathologies, it is not the responsibility of Christians cynically to look at the world and say, “I told you so.” Although there’s a sense in which we understand this is exactly what is inevitable when God’s plan is subverted.

It also gives us an opportunity to show in our marriages, in our families, in our churches, even in our neighborhoods, in our engagement with the larger culture, what it means not to be committed, to being merely isolated selves accidentally in one place or proximity, but actually a part of a community building community.

Part III

A People for God’s Glory and Human Flourishing: The Christian Responsibility to Rebuild from the Ruins What Society Has Demolished

Before I had any idea that the Surgeon General of the United States was going to release this report yesterday, I wanted to mention an article that appeared over the weekend of the Wall Street Journal by scientist Susan Pinker, in the Mind and Matter column of the Wall Street Journal. Here’s the headline, “The Power of a Good Neighborhood.”

And in this case, Susan Pinker is pointing to sociological data indicating that children who come from disadvantaged homes actually gain socially and emotionally by living in a good neighborhood where there is strength in the neighborhood that somehow is even statistically translated into strength into the lives of children and young people.

Put bluntly, children from disadvantaged backgrounds who move to a good neighborhood actually have better outcomes than children who grow up in other neighborhoods. That’s just a reminder of the fact that neighborhood does matter. Isn’t that an interesting fact to have affirmed in so many different ways in just a matter of days? We live in a society that says the individual is all that really matters, individual autonomy, individual freedom, individual happiness. But it turns out there is virtually no enduring health, merely defining ourselves as individuals.

And here you have a secular sociologist writing and a secular newspaper saying, “Here is some interesting sociological data. It turns out that a good neighborhood has good results and good impact on the people who live in it.” Who would’ve thought? By the way, Susan Pinker cites Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, who “has shown that the zip code a person grows up in helps to predict the likelihood that they will drop out of high school, get pregnant as a teenager, or be incarcerated.”

And then Susan Pinker goes on to point to data from the Netherlands, also, finding out, “A key factor in a child’s ultimate level of education, even more important than their own family’s economic situation is whether they grow up with affluent neighbors nearby.” Now affluent in this case means having economic stability. But as you look at this, you recognize that social and relational stability are, if anything, equally, if not, far more important than matters economic.

Part IV

Dennis the Menace, a Metaphor: What the Relationship of Dennis and Mr. Wilson Teaches Us About Flourishing Neighborhoods

And so I’m going to end today in an odd place by making reference to a comic strip in the newspaper turned in the 1950s into a black and white television program. You may remember the comic strip as Dennis the Menace. Now it was based upon something that most Americans could immediately identify with, and that is an older man, Mr. Wilson, who has next door, a rambunctious child, Dennis the Menace. Dennis is quite rambunctious, and Dennis is a menace to Mr. Wilson. Dennis is sometimes a perplexity to his own mild-mannered parents.

But it’s the relationship between Dennis the Menace and the next door neighbor, the aging Mr. Wilson, that is the main dynamic of the comic strip. Here’s the point, Dennis the Menace actually needs Mr. Wilson. And one of the oddest ironies, and one of the clearest points of the comic strip is that Mr. Wilson actually needed Dennis the Menace.

Both in the incredibly long-lived comic strip and in the sitcom, the big story wasn’t so much what was articulated as what was shown here. You have an aging man who is turning a bit hard. He’s often irritated by this rambunctious youngster next door, Dennis. But somehow they’re also drawn to one another and they bring out the best in one another.

Mr. Wilson would be even harder without Dennis, and Dennis would be even more of a menace without Mr. Wilson. Sadly, from a biblical and just even from a sociological perspective, we are a weaker and lonelier society because there are fewer Mr. Wilson’s with fewer Dennis the Menaces living next door.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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