On Introversion

I am a decided introvert. It is one of the most defining categories of my life.

A few clarifying statements about this should be made (and already have been, since I stole this directly from my About page:

Christy McDougall in a Japanese garden

   

This doesn’t mean:
I don’t like people.
I’m shy.
I’m antisocial.
I can’t minister to people.
I can’t speak in public.

This does mean:
A lot of social interaction exhausts me, but having quiet time alone re-energizes me.
I like to think very deeply about everything.
I think before I speak, and sometimes I think instead of speaking.
Writing is easier than talking.
When I say something, it is nearly always well considered.
I love to get to know people very deeply on a one-on-one basis.
Once I do, I love having long and involved discussions on topics of mutual interest.

There has been a lot of talk about introversion and extraversion in the last couple of years, for which I am greatly thankful, because it has taught me quite a lot about the way I interact with the world. It has enriched my ideas for what I want to do as a missionary professor.

Scientific study has determined that there are actual differences between the brains of introverts and extraverts. If you’d like to read a bit more on that (it’s very fascinating), this blog post gives an excellent overview, and one of the books referenced, The Introvert Advantage, by Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, is one of the best I have read on the subject. And this blog post has a deliciously explanatory scientific cartoon about it.

This means that these categories are not merely social constructs but are actual physical, neurological differences between people and perfectly normal differences at that.

Unfortunately for American introverts, our social constructs have declared introversion to be an abnormality from the extraverted norm, and churches follow suit, desiring only outgoing, charismatic pastors and seeing something intrinsically wrong with quiet people. But nowhere in Scripture is normal introvert behavior condemned. Stillness, quietness, contemplation are all as highly valued in the Bible as togetherness and community are. It’s where introversion goes to the extreme, as in fear of people or complete isolation from community, that it becomes unhealthy and unbiblical. The same is true of extraversion. It becomes unhealthy and unbiblical when there is fear of being alone with oneself and God and when worth is entirely derived from being surrounded by people. Both kinds of people bring both weaknesses and strengths to the Body, and a healthy church will allow both to have their place to shine.

As I tell almost any time I speak somewhere, I struggled for a long time with the bias toward extraversion in American life and still do, to an extent. No none ever came out and said, “Extraverted people are better than introverted people!” But there has always been this implicit attitude pushed on people like me:

It is selfish to do things by yourself.
A truly godly person would love meeting new people.
If you were a real servant, you would want to do all these activities.
If you really loved people, you would want to do this and this.
If you really loved God, you would be jumping up and down in the worship service.
If you just sit there thinking, you’re not engaging.
If you want to be the kind of minister God desires, you’ll be bright and outgoing and charismatic.
Being by yourself is selfish and lazy.

I even had a seminary professor, an intelligent, extraverted man whom I respected, say in class, “Privacy is all about sin.” When all I craved was privacy, space, boundaries.

If you’re a good Christian, you’ll want to be with people 24-7! Tell that to Jesus Christ and His withdrawn tendencies. He only had thirty-three years on earth, so how wasteful and selfish of Him to always be trying to run away from the crowds of people who needed Him so badly! Right? Not right. Jesus knew that some things cannot be accomplished except by solitude, that solitude is of great value in ministry.

And yet I still struggle with feeling selfish when I do what I do best, what I know I was created to do.

Alone in a Japanese garden

This is me, being perfectly happy.

Before I’m a professor, before I am a missionary doing my part to build up the Body for the work of ministry, I am a person who thrives spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, in solitude. The majority of what I have to offer in ministry is a direct result of my hours spent thinking, studying, writing, passing everything that happens through the filter of my analytical, contemplating prayer, just an endless ruminating on life and theology between me and God.

I still feel guilty for doing this more than all the things my church culture has drilled into my brain as most holy and worthwhile. And yet this very tendency toward solitary thought is a large part of why I may be an effective teacher.

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