It’s Okay to be an Introvert

I was always a quiet and unassuming kid.

I kept a small, close circle of friends, and even then, I’d much rather spend time in my own company. I’d while away my childhood days with my head stuck in a novel, or, even better, by fabricating fantastical towns and worlds out of Lego bricks.

For the most part, keeping company with myself suited me just fine.

As I grew up all that began to change. As I entered secondary school and puberty, I was thrust into a world of new social interactions, of canteen politics and classroom cliques. While trying to survive the hormonal minefield of the troublesome teens, I also had to learn an art that didn’t come all too naturally to me: the art of socialising.

The years went by and I was slowly drawn out of my own skin.

While the skill of conversation didn’t come naturally to me, I started to become more at home around other people. My quiet childhood years now blossomed into more amicable teenage years, and I found a new love for being with people.

Now, in the middle of my degree, I love the busy social life that university affords. The friends I’ve made here number among my best and closest friends, and for them I’m grateful beyond measure. In contrast to my insular past, I’ve learnt to open up. I now thrive by being around people, meeting with friends, and attending social gatherings, which is something that would terrify me as a child.

What I’ve realised recently, though, is just how far the pendulum had swung.

In putting away my overly-introverted tendencies, in forcing myself out of my shell and realising I enjoyed being in the air, I left a little bit of myself behind in the process.

Deep down, I’m still an introvert – and, by playing the extrovert, I’d forgotten that.

Before I began to burn out, I didn’t realise just how much I needed quality time to myself. I’d want to spend all my waking hours in a flurry of activity – being around people or working or meeting up with friends. I like the feeling of keeping a full calendar – but, mistakenly, I’d sacrificed carving out vital time to myself.

I’d look up to my friends who seemed to be doing it right – able to balance sixteen coffee dates a week with commitments to their degrees and being on society committees and so forth. “They’ve got it right,” I thought, “I want to do it that way.” I’d mistaken doing more, being more available, with serving my friends better, as the “better way” of doing life.

The problem is, I began to stretch myself thin, I began to grow weary and burnt out.

How could I serve others from the overflow of my heart if my tank was half-empty? I compared myself to others who seemed to cope so well – and grew discouraged that I couldn’t do the same. But, simultaneously, I realised that I wasn’t able to sustain that level of busyness. Something had to change.

This past half-year has been a long process of learning that it’s okay to be myself. In trying to imitate others I’d burnt myself out. In a culture where being an extrovert seems the most desirable personality trait – exuding confidence, constantly energetic, socially adept – I’d mourned that I had neither the energy or the persona to be like that. Jesus, quoting the book of Leviticus, teaches “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

But how can you truly love your neighbour unless you love yourself – the unique personality and quirks that God has individually given to you?

I’d bought into a lie. 

What I’d forgotten is that to each of us, God gives a unique purpose, unique gifts, a unique personality, by his grace, that fits into his plan for the church – his body – as a whole. In a much-quoted passage, Paul writes:

But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts,yet one body…But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

1 Corinthians 12:18-20, 24b, 25

In learning to be myself, I’d gone too far in the other direction, forgetting the unique gift I had been given not in spite of, but because of, my personality. I can’t serve as another member of the body that I’m not. But, in corollary, another member of the body can’t fulfil what I’ve been called to do. Both introvert and extrovert has a unique role to play.

So I celebrate my friends who are extroverts – I love your energy, your charisma, your affection, your drive, your passion. I uphold your ability to lead the church and to inspire others, to lift others up and boldly follow your vision.

But, to my introverted friends, and to myself, I extend this reminder. We each have a unique role to play. A different way of looking at the world. A different way of loving people. A unique stake in the mission that others do not have. Just because the gift may seem, at times, less prominent, less visible, lower-key, doesn’t mean it isn’t as important. We are part of the same body, so don’t mourn not being like others. Embrace your unique gifts.

I’m learning, once again, the art of being an introvert.

Gratitude

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17, ESV

A central component of expressing gratitude is what we do with the gift.

Why do I say this?

Recently I was making the half-hour walk to university, mulling over my various commitments, impending deadlines, upcoming assessments, mounting workload, and the like. I found myself grumbling to God about how pressured I felt right now with all the work I had to do, how burdened and weary and burnt-out I was getting with it all.  This complaint is, perhaps, familiar to you.

As I continued to grumble and moan, I was struck with a conviction that stopped me in my tracks.

In my attitude to my degree,  I’d effectively spat on a gift from God. 

This sounds dramatic and demands some qualifying. You see, what had been absent from my heart was thanksgiving – thanksgiving  for the massive gift of being a student on a degree programme in a top-class university. It’s an opportunity many people in this world would give anything for. In my grumbling, I’d totally trampled on this gift of grace from the Father – the immense privilege of spending three years of my life studying theology under leading scholars in the academy.

I don’t say any of this to brag – what grounds do I have for boasting when I stand here by the Father’s goodness and grace alone? – but to highlight a sobering realisation: the disdainful and careless manner in which I’d received a gift of God.

To reject a gift of God, to trample on a blessing, is like throwing a precious necklace to the bottom of a dusty jewellery cabinet where it’ll never be used, but doing so in the sight of the giver. When we even begin to grapple with just what a cost with which we were bought, how unfathomably, impossibly blessed we are in the Father as he lavishes his abundant grace on us, how can we not turn from selfish complaint into joyful, constant gratitude?

Clearly, I have a lot to learn in the area of thanksgiving. It calls for a total paradigm-shift: seeing through the superficial, surface-level concerns that obscure the reality of our abundant blessed-ness in God. The reality  that every day is a gift, wrapped and prepared by our good, good Father in Heaven. A gift to embrace and worship in gladness knowing that from him we have everything and to him must everything return as we honour and steward the gift with thankful, joyful hearts. It’s for this reason that the Psalmist can say,

This is the day that the Lord has made;

    let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

It means our employment is a gift. Our families. Our friends. Our degrees and our opportunities to learn. Our places of dwelling. This goes beyond mere comparison – because comparison leads us to say either, “What I have is far better than what she has!” on the one hand, and on the other, “Why don’t I have what he does?” Comparison leads us to pride or envy. Thankfulness for gifts leads us to humility, humility as of children who rely on the Father for every good gift from above.

With gratitude comes freedom – because we’re no longer slaves to fear of loss, knowing that every good thing comes from the Father, that we’re children both dependent on him and assured a place at his table where we can be abundantly filled (Psalm 23:5, 6). It means even on the darkest of days, we know ourselves to be children in whom the Father delights, manifest in even the smallest yet most profound gift of breath in our lungs and a beating heart.

By grace alone we stand, apprehending our giving Father as awe-filled children. How can we not but bow with grateful hearts in joy-filled worship to him?

A Great and Terrifying Wilderness

There are seasons where God feels closer than your breath, and seasons where He seems further away than the darkest reaches of the universe, obscured by the night sky as you gaze up, wondering to yourself, “Where are You?”

We’re experience-people. We live on touch, sight, smell, hearing, emotions. We often seek confirmation about the world and the reality we perceive by using one of these senses. “How do you know Everest exists?”, you might say. “Of course it does,” I’d respond. “You can go to Nepal and see it for yourself, climb its ridges, touch it.” You can confirm your suspicion by travelling there, or you can rely on the testimony of others.

A more difficult question might be, “How do you know she loves you?” Now, that’s harder. Yet, in many ways, the question of someone’s love is still confirmed by our experience and feeling of love. The way she treats you, the sacrifices she makes for you, your joint experiences – these would go toward confirming her love for you. Our perception of love is tied up, not exclusively but extensively, in our emotions and feelings.

Our experience of God, however, is often not like this. Sometimes our experience of Him is as tangible as Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai; we hear the sound of His voice, we smell His fire or His fragrance, we perceive, somehow, His glory about us. Yet, more often (for me at least) its more like the believers that Peter’s Epistle is addressed to:

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. 1 Peter 1:8, ESV

“You have not seen Him,” says the writer of that letter. “Yet you love Him, you believe in Him, you rejoice.” How can that be? When our perception of love is so tied in to our nature as physical beings, based on touch and sight and feeling, how can we who do not see Him love Him and rejoice in Him?

It totally reevaluates our perception of faith. So often I have fallen into the trap of thinking of the outcome of faith as a succession of mountain-top experiences, tangible meetings and encounters. If only I pray right, I’ll have these transcendent feelings of awe and devotion. If only I sing this song, or go to that place, then I’ll meet God, I’ll experience His presence. My idea of faith-experienced is tied up with nice feelings and giddy emotions.

Which is why time and time again I’ve been discouraged and hopeless when it isn’t like that. As if there’s something wrong with my process and method. Like a true relationship with God is like a constant “feeling-stream,” where I receive all these spiritually-charged emotions and experiences. And, when I don’t get that, I doubt, I wonder, I lose heart, because my faith is based on a series of transient experiences rather than a constant bedrock of truth, a truth that surpasses my fleeting human perceptions.

In short, we import society’s longing for instant gratification into our spiritual life, that a relationship with God is about constantly “feeling something,” pious emotions and ecstatic thoughts.

Let’s go back to Moses on his mountain. In Deuteronomy, the story of Moses recounting to the Israelites how God led them through the Sinai wilderness, he says of God, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites…the great and terrifying wilderness you saw” (Deuteronomy 1:6,7,19, ESV).

The authentic expression of faith is not just the amazing, extra-ordinary encounter with God on the mountain top. No. Its the lived obedience and trust in God when He doesn’t feel so present, the mornings you get up and are in terror at the “great and terrifying wilderness” you are about to enter. Its about what happens in the periods of boredom and anxiety in the wilderness. In short, faith is more than feelings. 

And there’s something beautiful about that. Because, our God is not transient and fleeting like our human experience. He is trustworthy, He is faithful, He is steadfast in His boundless love to us from age to age, a constant cornerstone and bedrock. He is the God with whom our feet shall not be moved, in whom we shall not be shaken, and whose Kingdom has no end.

And this is truth that doesn’t change based on our experiences. Truth is constant, when our feelings are not. Take heart, friend. He is with you, holding, leading, loving, even when we don’t feel it.