Introverts, Unite!

One day a professor, who has since become a dear mentor and friend, shared with our class that he is an introvert. Successful in both the hallowed halls of academia and the sacred space of God's church, most of us assumed that he just had to be a bona fide extrovert. After all, he is a highly sought-after preacher and presenter across the nation, not to mention an accomplished author. Students regularly seek his counsel. His courses are some of, if not the, most well-attended at the seminary.

Yet, here he was sharing about how he thrives in times of reflection and quiet, for this posture is what excites and rejuvenates him. Maybe it was only me, but with this revelation I felt the air leave the room as time stood still, with God reaffirming that there indeed was (and still is) a place for someone like me in ministry. I would later on read something from theologian J.I. Packer that encouraged me even further:

The healthy Christian is not necessarily the extrovert, ebullient Christian, but the Christian who has a sense of God's presence stamped deep on his soul, who trembles at God's word, who lets it dwell in him richly by constant meditation upon it, and who tests and reforms his life daily in response to it.[1]

French mathematician and Catholic philosopher, Blaine Pascal wrote, "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he doesn't know how to sit quietly in his own room."[2] Lorraine Hansberry, the prolific writer who succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 34, put it this way, "Never be afraid to sit a while and think."[3]

I am grateful for an article in the latest issue of Scientific American ("The Power of Introverts: A Manifesto for Quiet Brilliance") wherein Susan Cain explains the concept of her new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. I also, however, enjoyed reading Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture by Adam McHugh this summer, but I anticipate that Cain's contribution will be edgier and more expansive. I sincerely hope that it might serve as a catalyst for much-needed conversation inside and outside of religious life.

For some ungodly reason we, believers, continue affirming (with our biased actions and institutional culture) that extrovert is a must-have characteristic for Christians, and most especially Christian leaders. That is, in order to lead the people of God well one must be extroverted. When did the "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-23) become synonymous with an extroverted disposition, I wonder? So many people erroneously believe that introverts ought to merely pray for deliverance from their more reflective ways, as if God doesn't want or need their unique witness. This rubs me the wrong way because I have been stricken with this particularly peculiar, nonconformist trait.

Hello, my name is James Ellis, and, yes, I am an introvert. I say this with no shame, however. I am proud and fulfilled in my introverted ways, so there will be no "Introverts Anonymous" meetings for me. I just wish that introverts were thought of as more than God's second choice, but rather as equals with our extroverted pals. One doesn't have to be the norm and the other a lonely exception to the rule. Both traits can and should both be valued, so long as they submit to the ways of the Lord. As Cain shared in her interview,

Introverts prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments, while extroverts need high levels of stimulation to feel their best...It's also important to understand that introversion is different from shyness. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, while introversion is simply the preference for less stimulation. Shyness is inherently uncomfortable; introversion is not.[4]

I think that most healthy or balanced introverts could amen the assertion that we are not social recluses, afraid of our own shadow, timid, and perpetually at a loss for words and human interaction. Contrary to the misinformed caricature, we do know how to "have a good time," although our interpretation or preference for such an experience may be different than others. According to the article, perhaps we have a quiet brilliance that isn't readily found elsewhere.

As sociologist Orrin Klapp wrote in Heroes, Villains, and Fools: The Changing American Character, "The celebrity cult celebrates the triumph of ordinariness-charm without character, showmanship without ability, bodies without minds, information without wisdom."[5] This dysfunction is sadly oftentimes promoted in the church. However, it isn't only the fault of loud-mouthed extroverts, but excessively contemplative introverts as well. Godly character needs to be evidenced by both groups.

I have always felt that I had something innate in common with the biblical writer James, who wrote, "My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires."[6] If I may, biased as it is, I think that "quiet brilliance" can be a great conduit for God's work to be done in a world that is obsessed with loud, unintelligent rhetoric that promotes spiritual death.

I don't contend to be brilliant, but quiet I am, to a certain degree, and in certain spaces, so maybe I am halfway there to quiet brilliance. The animated friends from my childhood, G.I. Joe, used to say that knowing is half the battle. I am happy to know that God loves introverts. One love to all of my introverted brothers and sisters!

[1] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 116.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensees (New York: Penguin, 1995).

[3] Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Random House, 1958), 137.

[4] Gareth Cook (interview with Susan Cain), "The Power of Introverts: A Manifesto for Quiet Brilliance," Scientific American, January 24, 2012.

[5] Orrin Edgar Klapp, Heroes, Villains, and Fools: The Changing American Character (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1962), 176.

[6] James 1:19-20.