Some children invent imaginary friends to play with and help them with comfort in stress, companionship when lonely, someone to boss when feeling powerless or to blame for the missing cookies from the cookie jar. Psychologists say this is one way a child tries to make sense of their world. A quick search told me that this can carry into adulthood, but is not a sign of mental illness. In fact, those who use their imagination in this way are often more intelligent and emotionally stable than those who do not.
This made me wonder how the Apostle Paul coped while he was in prison in Rome for several years. What does a person do all day with few people to talk to and little or no interaction with friends?
Apparently, Paul shared the Gospel with the prison guards. He also wrote letters, two to Timothy, the young pastor he had mentored. The last few lines of his second letter tell of his aloneness and his needs.
Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:9–18)
I read this and felt both sad and happy, first for myself for I have known the pain of being deserted, but also for the grace of God who stood by Paul as his friend and comforter. This God is my God too, but He is no imaginary friend (as skeptics might suggest). He promised that He would be with us always. We know His presence with us, different from the presence of anything imagined. As Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me…” (John 10:27).
Jesus makes Himself real to those who believe in Him. In fact, this is the reason for salvation. God created people for intimacy with Himself. Because of sin, we lost that, so He sent Jesus to die for sin. Because of Jesus, that deep intimacy with God can be restored. This relationship is closer than any friendship, real or imaginary because God reserves that closest place in our hearts for Himself. Besides, He will never leave us or forsake us.
Intimacy with God does not exclude people. For Paul, nearly everyone had left, but Luke stayed. Timothy also was available and planning to be there. Paul could ask this coworker to help him, bring his cloak, his books and most of all, the scriptures. Yet there were days when all were gone. Paul was physically alone, and perhaps feeling emotionally abandoned, which is a greater loneliness.
Jesus experienced both. His disciples fled when He was arrested. They often did not understand Him or were busy arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom, completely missing the point of why they were following Him in the first place. He also cried out at the very end that His Father had abandoned Him. We cannot imagine His great grief.
Today’s devotional reading reminds me of these who suffered desertion. David was betrayed by Ahithophel and driven into the wilderness by Saul. Christ was betrayed by Judas and abandoned by the other disciples. Demas and others deserted Paul, perhaps because He was in prison and they thought he was no longer useful to them or to God?
At times, every Christian feels useless in the kingdom. Right now, I’m involved in study (to finish a degree) and cannot participate in many ordinary affairs of life, sometimes even forgetting other people. I should not be surprised if others forget about me amid my books. Besides, if Jesus and the great saints of God were left alone, should I expect never to experience the same thing?
Yet I am never alone. Jesus is here. He is real, not an imaginary friend that I control, or who has no power or words unless I put them in His mouth. He is a living Savior who stands by me and strengthens me, giving me all that I need to do all that He wants me to do. I recognize His voice (He sometimes says things I don’t want to hear.) He rescues me from evil. He will bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom. However, after greeting Him there, I’m planning to look around for David and Paul to give them a hug and tell them how much their sufferings encouraged me to a deeper intimacy with God!