In 2014, at the University of Virginia, a test was conducted to see how people coped with 15 minutes alone in an empty room.
There was only one alternative to boredom: participants had the ability to give themselves a mild but painful electrical shock. This electrical shock was proven to be painful enough that in previous tests people who’d been shocked once had been willing to pay five dollars not to experience it again.
So even if it was a mild shock, it was clearly unpleasant. It would be crazy for anyone at all to voluntarily shock themselves with this electric current without a good reason to do so, right?
Not according to 18 of the 42 people tested—including one man who shocked himself 190 times.
190 times in 15 minutes.
Now, this man was obviously an outlier, and 18 out of 42 people isn’t a majority. But it’s still incredible that anyone would choose physical pain over being left alone with their thoughts.
– THE FEAR –
That made me stop and consider what might be behind that kind of reaction. The test’s main focus seemed to be how people coped with boredom, but the kind of “boredom” that leads you to repeatedly shock yourself with electricity looks to me more like fear than apathy or restlessness.
Then I realized just how much I could identify with that kind of fear. Everyone has been at a place at least once or twice in their lives—if not several times a week—where it isn’t healthy to sit and stew over a problem or worry. Left alone in your own head, one problem has a way of snowballing into an avalanche of nightmare scenarios. Our brains can distort and exaggerate, using creativity we didn’t even know we had to turn small things into big problems. Moreover, it’s all too easy to fall into a little thing called self-scrutiny. If your future is uncertain—and your conscience isn’t clear—then self-scrutiny is more than “boring.” It can be a terrifying thing to be forced to sit and think about yourself.
And sometimes your life really is full of serious problems without solutions, and worrying over these problems is a natural reaction. Worry might not be constructive. Sometimes there’s nothing else you can do.
Any child of God knows that isn’t true. But sometimes we treat prayer as a button behind a case labeled “break glass in case of emergency,” rather than treasuring it as the first resort of a reborn heart. Prayer has real power. Anyone who has felt “the tender whisper of love in the dead of night” knows that they serve a real God who is really listening. We don’t have to wrestle with our consciences when grace and mercy are waiting remind us of the best news a guilty heart could ever hear: you’re forgiven.
– THE TRUTH –
But even for those of us who have put our faith in that forgiveness, old patterns of thinking are easy to fall into.
Even so, 15 minutes alone doesn’t sound like much to me. I’ve always been gold-medal material when it comes to daydreaming. What about for an even longer stretch of time, though? If you were one of the persecuted believers from around the world being locked up in a cell—left in solitary confinement for an undetermined length of time? What if there’s no light at the end of the tunnel?
I don’t know how I’d cope with something like that, and I hope I never have to find out. I can’t imagine what the man who shocked himself 190 times 15 minutes would do with days or weeks of solitude.
“At least I could pray” doesn’t even approach how awed I know I should be at my ability to talk directly to God. But that’s the little thought that I realized kept popping up at the back of my mind. If I were in solitary confinement “at least I could pray.” If I were left stranded somewhere and needed a friend to talk to, “at least I could pray.” If I’m ever bored and in need of a distraction, “at least I could pray.”
That’s when I realized how often I treat God like my own personal “electric shock”—something just to jolt me out of my tangled thoughts. Of course God is there for us in times of desperation. It’s biblical to cast our cares upon Him (1 Peter 5:7, Psalm 55:22). He’s there to comfort us (1 Corinthians 1:3-5), and to be our strength and shield (Psalm 28:7).
But once I’m out of that “empty room” situation, do I set aside prayer and move on with my life? Do I wait to talk to Him again until the next time I’m stuck with nothing better to do than have a distracting “chat” with the almighty Lord of the universe?
– THE GOOD NEWS –
Even worse, sometimes I don’t bother talking to Him at all. Maybe I haven’t been particularly disciplined in my devotions, or maybe I’ve been especially short-tempered that week. Perhaps I just haven’t “felt” God’s nearness.
As a result, I fall into thinking of God like any human acquaintance. I hesitate to approach Him, expecting to find Him fed up with my recent behavior. My pride tells me it would be useless to even try talking to God when I’ve been doing such a lousy job of being a Christian.
Is that you?
Maybe it isn’t. Maybe you’ve never had a relationship with God at all. You’re sitting in an empty room, trying to keep your thoughts from circling around your worries. You don’t have anyone to turn to for help.
In either case, the answer is the same. It will always be the same, no matter who you are or what you have or haven’t done. Jesus did what you could never do. He lived a life where He was challenged by every temptation but never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), and died a horrible death, forsaken by the Father (Mark 15:34). Jesus was left alone in a kind of soul-solitude that none of us can fathom—and He did it willingly for us. He did it so we would have access to a Friend to talk to when we’re in our loneliest places.
But our pride tells us we must earn that kind of love. That’s a lie that you have to reject if you’re going to move forward and accept the incredible gift the Father offers us through His Son. “…If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Accepting that, it should be the best comfort we could ever hear to know that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Be grieved by your sins and confess them. Never stop praying to overcome temptation. But don’t stay there wallowing in your own misery: look to the One who can make you whole again. Call upon Him in your heart right now. He’s listening. He loves you, and He’ll be a friend to sit with you through any solitude. It’s an attitude we have to foster continually. It brings the real peace that doesn’t rely on circumstances or surroundings being what we want them to be.
This is the prayer of my heart, and I hope you’ll pray it, too:
O Lord, sometimes I feel trapped and alone in an empty room, with no one to talk to and nothing to relieve my fears. Forgive me for the times I listen to my pride instead of Your Holy Spirit. Help the first instinct of my heart to be to turn to You in prayer, no matter how wrapped up I am in my problems, or how far I’ve strayed from loving You in the way that I should. Remind me continually of all that Christ suffered in solitude so I would never have to be alone. Give me the peace that only Your presence can provide. In Jesus’ name, I pray, Amen.
Blessed, and seeking to be a blessing,
Freelance Writer & Graphic Designer
I’m so pleased to offer you this article written by my daughter Rebekah. Since I’ve been spending more time alone than usual, I was reminded of this article.
I start radiation therapy for breast cancer on May 18th and will try to do better with updates. I appreciate all your notes and prayers.