This would work a whole lot better if you were sitting in my living room. As I pester you with tea choices (black, green, or herbal?), heat the teakettle, and pour you a fragrant cupful in a brightly flowered Polish mug, I’d be bubbly and a little too talkative, with lots of hand motions and tales of travel and teaching and friends on three continents.
If we were face to face, it would be obvious what a miracle our whole conversation is, when I mention that I used to be cripplingly shy.
So shy that I dreaded going through the checkout line at a store, lest I have to talk to the cashier. Shy, and trying futilely to shape my image into something kind, godly, and polished by mentally editing every sentence before it left my mouth. Isolatingly shy, up there on my lonely little pedestal. Hopelessly shy, because who can stop thinking about herself by repeating, “I won’t think about myself! I won’t think about myself?”
Oh, I was stuck.
Picture me twenty-five years old, and three weeks into my first (and oh-so-longed-for) trip to Israel. Surrounded by frank and exuberant younger friends who were examples of healthy unconcern about their image, as they shared their adventures and misadventures most every night.
Into that context came the unmistakable conviction of the Holy Spirit – for me.
Have you ever had a stubborn physical ailment that could have any number of causes? One that you can’t address because you don’t know exactly what it is?
I have. In fact, it’s happening to me right now: a minor but distressing ailment. I’m game to invest time and money and effort in my health – but I don’t know the diagnosis, so I don’t know where to invest. What a relief it would be to find a doctor who’s gifted in this aspect of the human body, someone who could say, “This is your diagnosis. And this is your treatment. You’re going to get well!”
Well, there in Israel, I had an encounter with Dr. Jesus, who is gifted in matters of the human heart, and to my infinite relief, He gave me a diagnosis at last: My shyness (my shyness, at least), was due to self-focus. Selfishness. Worrying about how I looked.
But with that diagnosis came an invitation: “Would you like to climb up on my operating table and let me deal with it?”
Oh yes! I did! What a relief it was to place myself in His expert care. With a simple prayer, I did just that. (And all around me, my friends prayed, too.)
Over the next few weeks, I had just one prescription from Dr. Jesus: When my thoughts turned to self-editing, I was to stop.
And you know? What had been impossible (“I won’t think about myself!”) became a matter of simple self-discipline.
Here’s why: Jesus reminded me that my words come from the contents of my heart. The problem couldn’t be fixed by controlling my mouth. In fact, like cancer, my heart-problems needed to be exposed and dealt with. And what better context for this ongoing life-saving process than the company of friends who loved me (and who were dealing with their own messy heart-issues too)?
In those first few weeks, as I learned not to self-protectively edit my speech, I felt so vulnerable that I dreamed that I was walking around without any clothes!
But something beautiful happened too: I changed. My mother saw it. My close friend asked, “What happened to you?” I saw it too.
I was free.
I don’t mean that I suddenly cast caution to the wind, blurting out every thought, no matter how cruel, crass, or inane: no, I still wanted and needed to watch my words, but now I was able to acknowledge to myself – and to others – that I was a fellow human, messy and weak.
I accepted the fact that was obvious to everyone: I desperately needed to rely on God.
Over time, I’ve learned that there’s no need to announce my newfound “unshyness,” or to veer into overconfidence or oversharing. People are much more perceptive than I imagined. When they sensed dissonance between my cautious words and my untamed heart, it created an invisible barrier between me and them. I sensed that barrier too, and it made me so very lonely. But as I began functioning out of God’s gracious gift of humility and restfulness, that was evident too, and it drew people in!
Over time, I’ve learned that I become approachable when I’m able to laugh at myself, and (as I mentioned before) gently allow my human-ness to show without panicking. In Brother Lawrence’s matter-of-fact book, The Practice of the Presence of God, I learned that there’s no use being shocked when I discover (again!) that “in my flesh dwells no good thing.” I’m not talking about being casual about sin; I’m saying that it’s easy to become caught up in hurt pride because I didn’t live up to my own image of myself. The shortest (and only) route to the peace and humility I’m seeking is simply agreeing with God that fallen human nature acts like…fallen human nature! And once again, pinning all my hope of becoming Christ-like on Jesus alone.
As I accepted God’s gift of humility and it became more evident that humanly I had nothing to offer, it also became easier to accept that God had gifted me (yes, even me) with talents and skills. One of the most freeing things I’ve heard from a wise older woman is this: As part of the body of Christ, I do have gifts given to me by God. And in fact, those gifts are actually given for the body of Christ: they’re not mine to hide away. I had very little self-confidence, but somehow this reached my heart, right past the shyness, and hit the part of me that was wired to help others, emboldening me to think “I have something to offer” and “I can offer it.”
In the years since, God’s work in my heart has blossomed more. I’m grateful to realize, as I’m helping others, that I don’t have to worry about being proud, or even worry about myself at all. This is something Jesus is doing; I’m just the little person who is lucky enough to cooperate with Him. This thought also frees me from undue feelings of responsibility for others. I’m just part of the body of Christ; I’m just part of the toolbox Jesus has at his disposal as He’s working on His people.
Sometimes I remain on the shelf while He’s using others. Sometimes His hand reaches towards the shelf…and He picks me to use that day.
I’ve got to be clear: When God rescued me from my own selfish pride, He didn’t recreate me as an extrovert. I still prefer small groups. I still struggle with initiating, with making small talk, with drawing others into the conversation. But as an introvert who loves people, I have learned that the vast majority of people really just need (and in fact may be desperately longing for) a listening ear. To listen is to give an enormous gift. For that, all I really need is an approachable and unhurried manner and an attentive face and eyes (and probably a few listening noises).
But I’ve also noticed that if I want to connect with people, it really pays to ask good questions. Not the kind that make people feel interrogated, but the kind that show interest in them. I am so jealous of those who are good at this, and would love to learn the art myself. I suspect it begins with God’s gift of even less self-focus, more loving curiosity – and the realization that everyone, whether younger, older, wiser or foolisher than me, has something to offer that could help me continue growing into an even happier, more consciously loved-by-God, and more effective woman than I already am today.
Photography: JenniMarie Photography