It often surprises people to learn that my mother lived a lonely life. Oh, she had people around her, but she never felt she could confide in anyone. Her life was lived under a microscope. After all, she was married to one of the world’s most famous men. How does one live in his shadow without feeling left out? You can only sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” so many times! But Mother would say that it really didn’t take anything special—that it all boiled down to choices.
Life is made up of choices. Good ones. Bad ones. Ones we wish we could get a “do-over” for and make again. Choices we’d like to forget. Choices we can relish. And she made a lifetime of wise choices.
My mother was born in China during the time of warlords and bandits. She grew up hearing gunfire in the distance at night and seeing the bombs in their racks as Japanese war planes swooped low over their compound. But she didn’t remember fear being part of her childhood. She lived the statement, “Fear not tomorrow, God is already there.”
My mother’s father, Nelson Bell, was a busy missionary surgeon who became chief of staff of one of the world’s largest Presbyterian hospitals at the time in Tsing Kiang Pu, China, now named Huai’an. Still, he created a secure, loving home filled with music, quality family experiences and lots of humor. He adored his wife, Virginia Bell, who had been his childhood sweetheart. She was very talented and creative in her homemaking skills and was a single-mindedly supportive wife.
Because Mother grew up in China, she was sent away to boarding school when she reached age 13. This was quite typical of missionaries’ children in that time. The night before she left, she prayed that God would let her die before morning! But the next morning, off she went, torn from her secure and happy home. What she had witnessed in her family home, she now had to practice for herself: dependence on God in every circumstance, love for His Word, concern for others above self, and an indomitable spirit displayed with a smile. How did she do it? What was Mother’s choice? Early in her life she chose Christ as her home.
When I was a child, life was not easy for Mother with five children to raise, a home to run, a husband rarely home and usually far away, and the world watching for any flaws and expecting her to be perfect. She experienced her share of sorrows, burdens, injustice, confusion, pressure and hurt. However, I would not say that I ever saw Mother display anger or doubt.
With the heavy responsibility of family, bills to pay and not enough money to meet the demands, being expected to act and dress appropriately for a position she was never trained for, and a husband who was married to his ministry and often preoccupied, how did she maintain her perspective? What was Mother’s choice? Early on she chose Christ as her partner.
Yes, she was lonely without Daddy around, but she didn’t let it cripple her. She used those times to reach out to others, either through my father and his ministry or through her own ministry to us children, her neighbors and anyone who came across her path who needed her. Even now, I meet people from all over the country who were in her Sunday school class back in the ’70s. They tell me how real she was, how down to earth, how practical in her faith, showing her love and concern for them as people. What was Mother’s choice? Early in life, she chose the Gospel as her purpose.
Mother chose joy. Joy wasn’t automatic or a given. It was a choice. So, her one overarching trait was joy. Her joy was all the more notable because her life was not easy. I now understand that such joy did not stem from perfect or ideal circumstances but from a deep, abiding love affair with the Lord Jesus. For early on, she chose Christ as her center.
Mother chose to see blessing and joy in everything. Even in her elder years, struck with debilitating arthritis and severe macular degeneration, in that new kind of loneliness and pain she was a light for her family. What was Mother’s choice? She chose Christ as her example and so reflected His light throughout her life.
The simple truth is that Mother glorified God by inviting Him, through her choices, to transform her loneliness into purpose. She didn’t fight against it, but instead offered it to God. She accepted it and saw it as part of God’s plan in her life. She accepted that she would be alone rearing five kids. (Of course, with five kids you’re not alone very often, but you can be lonely!) Her life, faith, poetry, joy and choices inspire me to turn eagerly to God to transform my own loneliness from a sad, unfulfilled longing into a “pathway” to God’s purposes for me.
In the face of her trials and loneliness, Mother chose Christ as her home, her partner, her center, and her example—and she chose the Gospel as her purpose. How grateful I am that I had godly parents who modeled for me what it was to turn toward God in tough times rather than away from Him.
Now, consider this simple tool of my own that helps me remember five steps I can take when I’m confronted by feelings of loneliness. These steps—these choices—remind me how I can work with God in transforming my loneliness into what I really long for: a deeper connection with God and to others. It is a simple acronym that spells REACH, and it reminds me of practical choices I can make to reach up to God and reach out to others when I feel lonely.
R: Recognize the source, symptoms and risks of your loneliness.
E: Express your loneliness to God and another person.
A: Anticipate that God will transform your loneliness into something positive and useful for His purposes.
C: Connect with God (reach up) and others (reach out).
H: Honor God in your loneliness by making your loneliness sacred—make it holy by dedicating it to God. ©2021 Ruth Graham
Adapted by permission from “Transforming Loneliness—Deepening Our Relationships With God and Others When We Feel Alone” by Ruth Graham. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2021.
Above: Ruth Graham, during a book signing at the Billy Graham Library in 2020.
Photo: Thomas J. Petrino/©2020 BGEA