Imagine two situations with me. First, you’re in a conversation with someone important to you. You’re listening attentively and asking follow-up questions. To an onlooker, the conversation might seem to be going well. But you sense the conversation only continues because you keep it going. If you were to stop contributing, it would falter and sputter to a close. You step away and a few moments later, you see this person talking with someone else. Their conversation has an energy and ease yours lacked. They seem like they could talk for hours.
Second situation: you’re in a circle of friends. There’s laughter all around. You’re part of the group, but at the same time, you feel like an outsider. You feel you have little to contribute, and it wouldn’t make a difference if you were to leave. Your friends would still have a great time. In fact, it might be easier for them to not have to worry about including you.
Now, what if these two situations weren’t once in a while occurrences but seemed to characterize all of your interactions and relationships with others?
For some of us who are more soft-spoken and introverted, we don’t have to imagine because that’s how we often feel—like we must keep “talking”, literally and figuratively. We must fill conversation to stave off the dreaded silence, which somehow always feels like our fault. We must initiate and maintain friendships to keep them from fading away. Still, despite our best efforts, we feel burdensome and expendable, stuck on the outside looking in.
Then, there’s the added dimension of church ministry. Ministry is difficult enough by itself, but it’s even harder when serving feels like a replay of the situations described above. We watch others establish deep connections with seeming ease while we feel useless. We labor to bring others into a community we’re sometimes not even sure we’re a part of.
Are we really as alone and useless as we feel? And if not, why does it feel like we are—in a visceral way that’s difficult to shake, even when people try to convince us otherwise? More importantly, how can we find the strength to stay in community when all we want is to withdraw?
Grace when Loneliness is Real
I think there is truth to what we feel. Our churches are spiritual communities, but they are also social groups. And with any social group, there are people who fit in better than others. Practically speaking, church life can be boiled down to a series of social interactions—after-church fellowship, shared meals, etc. In general, these interactions tend to favor more extroverted personality types, especially in college and young adult settings.
This isn’t out of ill intent; most church events just happen to take place in large group settings, where more outgoing people thrive. If you enjoy witty banter and spontaneous hangouts, chances are you’ll have an easier time integrating into church life. If you feel uncomfortable in those kinds of settings, at times you’ll feel out of place.
Those with quieter personalities can also struggle to find more meaningful connection. In my experience, being fun in an extroverted sense is often a necessary precursor for depth. The laughter and hanging out help transition relationships from stilted small talk to free-flowing friendship. Without those missing ingredients, conversations often stall out and feel forced, no matter how intentional they might be.
For many introverts, then, loneliness is an inevitable part of participating in church life. Unfortunately, that loneliness will all too often feel like an indictment of our personalities—we’re outsiders because we’re too boring, awkward, or reserved. This will hurt and we’ll wonder if community is more trouble than it’s worth.
We need to be patient with these struggles. While much of our loneliness stems from sin (more on this later), I’ve come to believe much of our loneliness arises from weakness. It results from being introverted people trying to navigate extroverted environments but feeling inadequate. We should do our best to discern and repent of our sin, but we should not beat ourselves up for weakness. Doing so adds an unnecessary burden to an already difficult situation, which only makes us want to withdraw even more.
Instead, our recurring weakness should point us back to the Savior’s grace. Jesus tells us that while people may fail us, he is the most important Person, and he loves us and will never let us go. He reminds us we are created in his image and our personalities are fearfully and wonderfully made. He encourages us that the thorn of unrelenting loneliness can teach us about the power of his grace as we depend upon him.
Perspective when Loneliness is Wrong
While there is some truth to what we feel, we often have a distorted perception of our loneliness. To illustrate this, I’ve created two diagrams. The first captures how loneliness feels. The second depicts what I believe to be a more accurate picture of reality.
Diagram 1: How Loneliness Feels
Diagram 2: A More Realistic Picture
In both diagrams, the green circle represents relationships and ministry effectiveness we want but do not have. For instance, we may want to thrive in group settings or be that sought-after leader who everyone flocks to for advice, but we may not be able to because of our God-given limitations. When we feel overwhelmed by loneliness, all we can see is our exclusion from the green “inner” circle. We feel completely isolated and useless. In the second diagram, the green circle is still there (i.e. what we talked about in the previous section), but it is significantly smaller.
The dark blue circle in Diagram 2 represents the friendships we do have and the ministry contexts in which God has gifted us. The dark blue circle might be smaller than we would like, but it’s real. There are people who know and love us and people who are blessed by us.
Finally, the grey circle represents people we don’t know very well and who, to be honest, we don’t think about very often. They may not care much for us, but we probably don’t care much about them either. If we got to know them, perhaps they would fall in the green circle, or perhaps they would be a part of our blue circle. Until we get to know them, it’s impossible to know.
In my experience, I’ve found that one practical step in combating loneliness is regaining perspective that Diagram 2 is true, not Diagram 1. Diagram 1 is completely deflating. It’s almost impossible to muster the strength to stay when you feel isolated from everyone. While there are still difficulties in Diagram 2, it’s more manageable. We can persevere with God’s help.
So why does Diagram 1 so often feel true? And how can we regain proper perspective? Below, I outline a three-step progression which leads to a distorted view of loneliness.
- I idolize certain “extroverted” relationships and types of ministry usefulness
If I’m being objective, most of my loneliness comes from feeling inadequate in a small number of relationship and ministry settings. There’s a certain person I want to think well of me or a certain group that I want to feel included in. And because I fall short in those specific relationships, I extrapolate that sense of failure to every relationship.
Likewise, certain ministry settings bring out my insecurities more than others. For example, I’m particularly self-conscious about my reserved personality whenever I’m a camp counselor, since the camp setting is such an extroverted environment. Because I feel limited in specific ministry situations, I conclude I must be useless in every situation.
But the truth is most of the time I’m comfortable not fitting into extroverted settings and would even prefer not to. The inner turbulence I feel is not due to an all-encompassing failure to belong, but because I’ve become overly preoccupied with certain relationships or a certain vision of ministry effectiveness.
To express it in our diagram, the smaller dark green circle represents the actual number of relationships and ministry settings which bother me. The larger light green circle represents the amount of loneliness I feel because I’ve idolized those relationships and ministry settings.
2. I overlook the people who care about me and the ways God has gifted me
Next, I ignore the people who care for me (i.e. I delete the dark blue circle). I take friends for granted because I already know they’ll be there for me. Instead of being grateful, I compare myself against them and become jealous of their successes (i.e. I add them to the green circle).
Similarly, I often take the talents God has given me for granted. I disparage their usefulness and say they don’t matter if I don’t possess the relational gifting I want so badly.
3. I mistake my own indifference towards others as them rejecting me.
Finally, I take the grey circle of people I’m not particularly close to and lump them into the green circle, making the green circle seem enormous. Suddenly, it feels like I don’t belong anywhere. No one cares about me. But that’s not true. I can’t know how people in the grey circle will respond to me, because I haven’t put in any work to get to know them. Our lack of closeness is due in large part to my lack of care and lazy indifference. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I should challenge myself to better love people outside of my comfort zone.
And there it is: how Diagram 2 becomes Diagram 1 in three steps. We must battle for perspective at each step of this progression instead of giving in to cynicism and self-pity. We must resolve to believe God’s promises, give thanks for his provision, and grow in costly love for others. We must obey God and trust he’ll take care of us for whatever loneliness remains.
Loneliness can be crushing. It’s so tempting to want to give up when every interaction feels like a stinging reminder of how we don’t quite belong. It is difficult to remain hopeful when we’ve battled loneliness our whole lives, only to watch it return over and over again. Sometime grace is realizing we’re wrong. We’re not as alone as we feel. Rather, idolatry, jealousy, and our own indifference have clouded our sight of God’s goodness in our lives. We may not have everything we want, but God has given us exactly what we need, and he is at work shaping our relationships and ministries.
Loneliness is a complex, tangled mess of weakness and sin, but God gives us strength to stay through all our messiness. I pray you’ve found some practical help in this article, whether you’re a reserved person battling loneliness, or someone learning to better love your introverted brothers and sisters in Christ.