Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
1 Peter 5:6-7
I have never been quick to find friends.
A shocking revelation from an introvert who finds it easier to express herself in writing, after having ample time to think…alone.
I changed schools a number of times as a child, and each time I entered a new classroom for the first time I felt on the edge of panic. If it were socially acceptable to run screaming from the room I would doubtless have followed my internal inclination to be anywhere else. Unfortunately, I was always keenly aware of these constraints, of what it took to fit in and how much I fell outside of these invisible boundaries. So I did my best to try not to be noticed. Of course when you’re actively trying not to be noticed, it’s very hard to be known.
It wasn’t until high school at the end of my freshman year that I found a group, my group. There were six of us. We were different and the same in many ways. And it was with them that I first felt the freedom to let my weird out in (almost) full force to people other than my family, who after all, are to blame for a lot of my intrinsic oddities. We had fun.
I was far from confident in myself though, and as a young Christian, keenly aware of society’s ideals and how I didn’t fit them, I was constantly afraid of being found out. That sounds terrible, as though I thought there were some danger. But really it was just that people’s opinions mattered so much to me. My friends’, of course, but also those of the stranger at the bus stop, my US History teacher, that guy on the football team I never talked to, and really any random person I came into contact with. I knew it wasn’t cool to follow Jesus, and with so much against me already, it felt like too much to let that be widely known.
Of course I was far from free of my self-conscious concern for the opinions of others at my church. There I had to face the guilt that I wasn’t Christian enough. I hadn’t saved a single soul, hadn’t even tried. And as we all know, the number of people you lead through the pearly gates has great import. Sure I might somehow make it to heaven, but no one would be handing me any achievement badges. So church was not a hopeful and welcoming place to me. Not because of the other church members, but because of what I believed about them, and about myself.
I would occasionally guilt myself into some public expression of faith, like once a year when they did “See You At The Pole” and all Christians attending school were to show up just before class at the flag pole and pray. I shamed myself into going a few times, and stood there out of a sense of duty, afraid of all the people watching, longing for it to be over, and hoping no one noticed me. So, not a lot of actual praying.
I was growing up, and I wasn’t sure of myself.
There’s hardly a more universal statement. We nearly all experience this, and yet when we’re in it, we feel so alone. I have a memory of a moment with one of my high school friends that illustrates this inner angst for me. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. (Meaning I don’t want anyone to find out and get mad at me. Okay, so I still struggle.)
It was a summer afternoon, and Jane and I were bouncing a basketball in my driveway and occasionally hurling it in the direction of the hoop above the carport. You might think I should say we were playing basketball, but that would not be an apt description of this activity, considering my basketball-handling skills, or lack thereof. We were talking about nothing of consequence, just two teenagers hanging out. Jane paused pre ball-hurl and said to me, “Michelle, I know you’re a Christian, but I really appreciate that you don’t try to make me one, the way Sally and Patty do. They’re always asking me to go to church with them, and with you I just know you won’t try to convert me.”
Oh the feelings. My response? I don’t remember, except that it was little more than a “Thank you.” But my internal response was first a sense of pride at being Jane’s favorite. In our group of six, four of us were weekly church-going Christians, and Sally and Patty were currently the most “on-fire.” I really liked Jane, and I loved that she liked me. Now I knew I was doing something right. But wait! She just thanked me for not sharing Jesus with her. She thanked me for keeping our conversations to the mundane and avoiding topics that might challenge us both. Now comes the guilt. And more guilt because my first feeling should have been guilt, not pride. I had failed my friend, and she would never become a Christian because of me.
I have to say, I don’t miss the roller-coaster emotions of my youth.
You might think I’m now going to share that perfect experience where I made all the right choices and guided some lost soul to salvation, as proof of how God changes us. Well God does change us, but I have no such story. Instead I have lots of stories more similar to the one above, and many years’ worth of corrosive guilt over my inability to confidently say as Paul did, “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” (Romans 1:16) I have hidden over and over. And I have trembled in fear many times as I attempted to share my faith openly. And I have never sat in a room with someone and prayed along as they said a prayer to invite Jesus into their heart. But I have learned an important truth:
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9
He knows us better than we know ourselves. He sees our internal conflict. And he will transform us in his time, as he promised. We can be “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6) We are human, so we are flawed. God knows this and is willing to work with us. For those of us who have spent much time afraid of engaging other humans, we can take comfort that He is not surprised by us, and He does not expect us to go it alone. I have found the more I directly speak my fears and failings, the more I humble myself, the more I’m aware of His strength leading me forward. God can handle anything we have to say and everything we’re scared to say.
I never did have any deeper conversations with Jane. And I have spent many years continuing to be terrified of engaging non-Christians in conversations about Jesus. In recent years, my fears have mellowed and my confidence has increased. With it my paralyzing concern for people’s opinions has decreased significantly. I submit these blog posts, knowing they’ll be accessible to all, and that my name is attached to them so I won’t be able to deny them. I won’t say I’m totally fine with that. In fact, I still have some fear about who will read them and what they’ll think of me because of it. And often as soon as I send it off to be posted, I have an immediate sense of regret. Sometimes I still wish I were trying hard not to be noticed. But oddly enough, my friends still love me. And the more I lean on Him, the more God lifts me up.