How Do Introverts Guard Against Selfishness?
(an interview with John Piper)
Introverts and extroverts — it seems like a useful designation for personality types. Even if they’re not biblical categories, they lead to an interesting conversation for Christians, and to this question today from a middle-aged man. “Pastor John, how can I tell if I am being introverted in social settings or simply being selfish? Is this something you have ever struggled with? Are there strategies for an introvert to grow in social selflessness, kindness, and love, without feeling a false guilt for not being an extrovert?”
My experience is that categorizing ourselves and others as introvert or extrovert has not borne very good fruit. In general, it seems to frame our way of thinking about ourselves and our behaviors in a way that is more naturalistic, fatalistic, and limiting than perhaps is healthy for a Christian.
“My experience is that categorizing ourselves and others as introvert or extrovert has not borne very good fruit.”
I think it tends to have the effect of minimizing our sense of what is good and bad, helpful and harmful, loving and unkind, edifying and destructive. It replaces those more biblical categories with a kind of fatalistic personality typing that very easily says, “Well, that’s just the way I am.” It says, “That is the way I act, and you do not like me because of it. Well just get used to it — deal with it because that’s who I am.” You may say that to a wife or a husband or a friend.
I think our friend who wrote this (he didn’t give his name, so we’ll call him our friend) realizes this. That’s why he’s asking the very question he’s asking. How do you keep from using a category of introversion (or whichever category) as a justification, say, of being withdrawn or selfish or unkind?
Let me suggest that we come at the issue about our personalities from another angle — namely, from the angle of spiritual gifts.
The suggestion I’m going to make is that we think of introvert and extrovert not as limiting personality types, but as strategic spiritual giftings. This really will provide some practical guidance for our friend’s question in just a moment.
First, let me set up the biblical foundation for this suggestion. Consider, for example, Romans 12:6: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Now listen to three gifts out of the list that follows in Romans 12:7–8: “if service, in our serving; . . . the one who contributes, in generosity; . . . the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
I mentioned only three in that longer list because serving and contributing and mercy sound so natural. Anybody can do that, right? They don’t look supernatural; they look ordinary. Yet Paul puts them in the category of “gifts that differ according the grace given to us,” so they are supernatural.
I take this to mean that what looks like a natural bent toward serving, a natural bent toward contributing with generosity, or a natural bent toward being merciful — those personality types, you might say — become spiritual gifts when they are suffused with grace and made edifying to others to point people to the glory of Christ.
“Think of introversion and extroversion not as limiting personality types but as strategic spiritual giftings.”
I think this is the way Peter talks about spiritual gifts in 1 Peter 4:10–11 as well, just to underline this. He says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”
I think it would be fair to say that in Peter’s mind, a spiritual gift is any bent or ability that you turn into a stewardship of God’s varied grace so that God is glorified and people are built up. A spiritual gift in Peter’s mind is any trait of your personality which, in the power that God supplies, becomes graciously helpful to others and draws attention to the glory of Christ.
Leveraging the Comfort Zone
Here’s the implication for thinking about introversion and extroversion. Shift your thinking away from naturalistic, fatalistic, limiting categories, and direct your thinking into categories of introversion and extroversion as this kind of spiritual gift.
This means that our entire focus will be on how I make my peculiar personality serve, by God’s power, the extension of grace into other people’s lives for the glory of Christ. I think this will have two really good effects if we do that kind of thinking shifting.
First, when I’m in a situation outside my comfort zone, I will not surrender to the selfish, fatalistic thinking of “Well, I just am the way I am.” Instead, I will seek God’s power to make my peculiar bent and gifting a means of grace to others. That’s the first implication it will have.
Second, when I remain in my comfort zone, I do not simply slip into a kind of fatalistic self-centeredness. I don’t take on the attitude, “Well, this is just the way I am. I’m not going to go to that party. I’m not going to go to that reception. I’m not going to stand over there and talk to anybody. I’m going to sit over here in a chair. I’m just going to chill.”
A lot of people feel justified because they’re one way or the other: “I’m just going to do it because I feel like it.” Instead, I should focus all my thinking toward this: How can my peculiar bent and gifting in this comfort zone that I’m staying in become an instrument of grace for others and for the glory of Christ?
Now let me just give a couple of examples, because people may not be following with me and understanding what I mean there.
“Shift your categories of thinking from naturalistic, fatalistic, limiting personality types to the category of spiritual gifts.”
I’m saying you can walk out of your comfort zone and deal with this as a spiritual gift, and you can stay in your comfort zone and turn that into a miracle of grace. Here’s the illustration.
Suppose a person (I have real people in mind here when I say this, but I won’t name anybody) is so introverted that he decides he could never function as an upfront minister or manage a lot of social gatherings the way a pastor might. So, he’s never ever going to do that.
What does he do? He asks, Okay, if I’m not going to do that, if I’m going to remain in my limitations and my comfort zone, how can I maximize my gift of introversion — my spiritual gift of introversion — for the glory of Christ in my comfort zone?
What does he do? I know him, I know his name: he became a Bible translator in a remote tribe for thirty years. I’ve watched this happen. In other words, in choosing to remain in his comfort zone, he denied himself, as Jesus said, and he made sacrifices in that kind of comfort zone, leaving another kind of comfort zone. He risks his life for the glory of Christ in the translation of the Bible. That’s the kind of thing I mean.
Here’s one more example involving John Piper. I would probably put myself in the category of an introvert. I really love to be alone. I love to read. It’s a chore for me to hobnob in gatherings and just go down and make small talk.
If I choose not to move toward a more sociable lifestyle, what do I do? I feel a tremendous impulse inside of me to make my solitude as productive as I possibly can in writing for the good of others and for the glory of Christ.
So here’s the bottom line: Shift your categories of thinking from naturalistic, fatalistic, limiting personality typing to the category of spiritual gifts. This means that your introversion and extroversion are given to you not to justify selfishness or hobnobbing or whatever, but to shape the stewarding of grace for the good of others and for the glory of Christ.