You Are Never Alone: Trust in the Miracle of God’s Presence and Power
by Max Lucado (HarperCollins)
It’s hardly a surprise to read that a Loneliness and the Workplace report, published in the US in January, found that more than three in five working adults in America reported feeling lonely – and yes, this was prior to the pandemic.
I would imagine the figures would be similar in Australia. Certainly, the number of people feeling lonely far exceeds the number of COVID-19 infections. So, what do we do about loneliness?
One popular Australian mental health website offers five suggestions:
1) talk to people about how you feel;
2) think about your interests;
3) get a pet;
4) get online;
5) join a club.
This advice might be helpful if
1) you enjoy talking through a rectangle;
2) your interests don’t involve going outside;
3) your landlord/family lets you;
4) the internet isn’t the source of your loneliness (the same website lists technology as a cause of loneliness);
5) the club you want to join hasn’t closed down. But, alas, the global pandemic.
Max Lucado’s latest book You Are Never Alone was in the works long before COVID-19. It was in final edits when millions of people had to hunker down, uncertain of the future. It is written for anyone “acquainted with the downward spiral” who is “convinced that no one cares, that no one can help you, hear you, or heed your call”. I suspect that the pandemic has widened the potential intended audience.
To his credit, Lucado’s book offers much greater hope to the lonely than the aforementioned website:
When life feels depleted, does God care? If I'm facing an onslaught of challenges, will he help? When life grows dark and stormy, does he notice? If I'm facing the fear of death, will he help me? The answer in the life-giving miracles in the gospel of John is a resounding yes.
[Jesus] wants you to know that you are never alone.
While anyone feeling lonely needs to hear that in Christ they are not alone, I’m not convinced this book makes the point as clearly as it could. I really appreciated many of the points the author shared. I like the way the chapters follow the narrative of John’s Gospel. I found many of the illustrations captivating. The author really understands loneliness (the story in the introduction to Chapter 4 is simply heartbreaking).
However, I was concerned with Lucado’s surface-level, magpie-swooping approach to the Bible. He comes to each Bible passage with a preconceived idea of what he thinks it says, using it as a launching pad to say what he already wanted to say. The risk in this approach is that he undercuts what he’s trying to say.
The message of the book amounts to something like, “You’re not alone because God is with you, Jesus died for your sins, you get to go to heaven, God performs miracles, and who knows… he might physically heal you, too”. While this is all true, John’s Gospel has so much more to say to the lonely.
To the person stuck at home on doctor’s orders, there is more to hope for than a vaccination (or physical healing) now and heaven to come. Eternal life is now. “This is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The best part of the Christian hope is realised now: we know God and share in the life of the Father and the Son as enabled by the Spirit in the present (John 17:21, 23; John 3).
To the person struggling with assurance, there is more to John 10 than Jesus offering to guide and find them (p75). When Jesus says in verse 28, “no one will snatch them out of my hand,” he’s telling us that we can be confident of our salvation because he has made it secure.
To the person who feels worthless due to their guilt and shame, there is more hope than the expiation model of the cross in Chapter 9. In other words, Jesus doesn’t just wipe away our guilt and shame and leave us to start again. On the cross Jesus takes upon himself the penalty that we deserve for our rebellion, God’s sentence of condemnation upon sinful humanity (John 5:24; 8:21, 24), delivers us from it (John 6:50-58, 8:51) and then transforms us by giving us a new heart (John 3).
The concern I have with this book is a similar concern that I have with a lot of contemporary preaching advice. Preachers in our neck of the woods are often told to spend less time in the Bible and more time thinking about illustrations and applications.
We can definitely do better with illustrations and applications (I’m pointing the finger at myself here!), but the best, deepest, richest illustrations and applications will always come from digging deeper into God’s word, not from surface-level magpie swooping. Failure to do so can undersell the very message we’re trying to preach. I think that this is where this book falls short.
Martin E. Robinson is a PhD research student at Moore College.