I’m an only child. I grew up with lots of personal space and didn’t ever have to share anything. I had my own bedroom, my own bathroom, and could watch what I wanted on TV. I’ve always been content spending time with myself. Reading a good book or taking a long walk alone invigorates me. Needless to say, I fall strongly into the introvert camp.
Other than three years spent living in a sorority house (and even then I eventually got a room of my own), I’d never shared space with anyone other than my family. Church women’s retreats where I was expected to share a hotel room or even a bed with other women used to induce panic attacks. Yes, I’m sure you can picture the “she’s an only child” eye roll I’ve often encountered in demanding my own space.
Early in 2017, my husband and I started feeling called to attend a three-month FatherHeart school on a remote island off the coast of New Zealand. I’d always wanted to go to New Zealand (especially after seeing all of the Lord of the Rings movies), and I was excited by the possibility. Also, we’d loved attending much shorter FatherHeart schools in the US, so going deeper while having a three-month sabbatical seemed especially appealing. Everywhere we turned, God seemed to be confirming that New Zealand was the place for us. So we submitted our application and waited with anticipation.
Eventually, we put down a hefty deposit and started to plan for our journey. Many of the school’s participants share rooms, some with a single roommate, others with several people. As a married couple, we knew we would get our own room; but as our departure drew closer, I started to experience some anxiety. Private room or not, we would be living in close quarters with sixty people from all over the world whom I’d never met. We would be eating all of our meals with them and (Yikes!) sharing a bathroom with them. If you grew up in a big family, you’re probably now rolling your eyes at me as well. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that this arrangement was well outside my comfort zone.
I honestly wanted to get to know the people at our school. It was just the 24/7 doing life together thing that was a little panic-inducing. But I knew God had us in New Zealand for a reason, so I gave it my best shot. I scrubbed greasy casserole pans in cold water with fellow participants from Switzerland, Finland, and San Francisco. I sometimes hiked 45 minutes with classmates from Canada, Norway, or Cambodia because we really needed coffee. I played badminton with a young man from France and a young woman from Thailand. I watched stunning sunsets night after night with a host of God’s children from all across the globe. Gradually, our walls began to come down and what emerged was vulnerability and trust. Sure, it took time and real commitment on my part, but it was absolutely worth it.
The wonderful leaders at the school imparted much to me, but I’m convinced that sharing community with others opened my heart to receive all that God had for me during that season. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and authentic, our hearts begin to soften. God’s love becomes more tangible when we see it flowing in others and experience it pouring from our own imperfect hearts. And this simply doesn’t happen when we won’t confront the walls we’ve built.
For the past year, my husband and I have coached a team of eighteen young missionaries who traversed the globe from Cambodia to Colombia, stopping in more than 15 countries along the way. We have prayed for them both in person and from afar and have tried our best to help them take each step with love. But one thing that really stands out to me about this journey is the way that our squad grew through the stresses and strains that come from living in community and sharing both joys and sorrows with the people God had placed around them.
As their coaches, we also experienced our share of ups and downs along the way. Heavily invested in their individual growth, we wanted so much to see each of them step into greater freedom. Last week, we had our final meetings with them in Cartagena before they boarded their flight back to the US. It was a beautiful time of celebration. As we met with each of them, we heard story after story of encountering more of God’s love. It looked different for each one, but we were brought to tears as we realized that each of these young people truly knew that they were loved and capable of loving. This is no small thing. It is the Gospel. It is our very purpose as children of God. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19). This is transformational truth.
As an introvert, I’ve often wished that this sort of transformation could be achieved alone — just me, my coffee, and some books. But I’ve come to the realization that the work God has done in my heart during the last several years happened mostly with community as the catalyst. Throughout that period, I’ve also experienced beautiful times of stillness alone with God; but I had to step outside my comfort zone, and my isolation, to discover what God wanted to deal with in my heart. When we aren’t challenged, it is easy to keep our wounds to ourselves, to pretend they don’t exist.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
There is a reason why the Bible emphasizes community. We were meant to grow in love. Not only does the tension of living with others force us to confront areas of doubt and struggle in our lives, but it also provides a place for us to find encouragement and to be the same for others. It is the place where we are pruned, but also the place where we are watered and fed.
More and more, I’m convinced that isolation is the realm of the enemy. When we isolate ourselves, intentionally or otherwise, we are less whole. Numerous scientific studies have shown that loneliness is detrimental to our physical and mental wellbeing. The reason? We are created to be social beings. Introvert or extrovert, you weren’t meant to be alone. And yes, this is a broken world, and some people hurt us; but through forgiveness and grace, we can grow from even the most painful experiences. You don’t have to trust everyone with your heart, but I’d encourage you to ask God to show you the people he has for you. You might be surprised.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Shay Mason