I realized last week that I have such a problem with asserting myself and speaking up.
It’s not quite full-blown glossophobia though. Put me in front of a crowd or hand me a pen and paper and I’m great – i’ll spill my guts. Give me authority, and I’ll run with it. Ask for my opinion and i’ll give it – because I always have one. But when I have to take authority? When I’m in a board room or at a table of people I don’t know, and I have to speak up? I feel totally overwhelmed.
Maybe these feelings stem from my Ghanaian upbringing, where we were told our opinions did not matter unless we were asked for them (and we never were). Maybe my inability to speak up comes from the torture of my siblings, who at 6-7 years older than me would wait patiently for me to finish giving my unsolicited opinion on whatever they had been talking about, then promptly respond with: ‘So right nooooow… what should we do?” Under such circumstances I quickly learnt to remain silent lol. Maybe it’s because I have learnt to be very careful in choosing my words as a writer, and so that has inhibited me from speaking freely without making sure I am using the exact right words in the exact right order to convey a message.
But for whatever reason I suffer from this issue, it definitely leaves me with feelings of inadequacy – especially living in a culture where getting anywhere in your career is in part dependent on your ability to assert yourself and speak up. And sometimes it makes me feel invisible too – like people know my face but not my name.
So what do you do with feelings of inadequacy – when you feel like you are not enough or don’t quite measure up in your friendships, or at your workplace, or in your ministry? How do you not feel inferior to everyone around you who is getting attention and getting praised and rewarded for their brilliance when you know you could be equally as (if not more) brilliant if given the opportunity? How do you deal with feeling invisible because people just naturally assume you are incapable, don’t have anything to say, or are just uninterested?
Well, conventional wisdom will tell you to strengthen those areas in which you are weak. Forbes and Fortune will tell you to spend all your free time learning to do what does not come naturally to you. Self-help books will outline for you the Five Sure-Fire Steps to Asserting Yourself. And all that is great and dandy – except for this one possibility that nags at my spirit every time I start to get worked up about the issue:
What if I was not created to be assertive?
What if, as God looked over His plans for the creation of the universe, He looked at what He already had on paper and decided the Earth had enough assertive people. What if He thought to Himself: the world needs something different. While everyone else is vying for their voices to be heard and for a place in the spotlight, maybe He decided that the world needed more people who were more concerned with listening to what others had to say than with speaking their mind – people who were more willing to lean on Him for words and wisdom instead of defaulting to asserting their own. Maybe He needed more people who were more confident in who they were without having to affirm it, and more confident in His ability through them than in their own. Maybe in the world of Loud-Speaking Janes and Charismatic Jacks, I was simply meant to be ___________ Eudora.
Maybe, those areas we feel inadequate in, were not meant for us in the first place. Maybe instead of obsessing over and poking at our weaknesses, we should spend more time focusing on our strengths.
If there’s anyone in the Bible who struggled with feelings of inadequacy, it had to be David. And I’m not talking about King David – I’m talking about skinny shepherd boy, runt-of-the-pack David. David was so overlooked and disregarded by his family and those around him that the day the prophet Samuel showed up on his doorstep to anoint a member of his family king, he wasn’t even called to come in from the field where he was tending sheep. With seven older brothers who had aspirations to join the King’s army, and were probably more charming and more physically capable of being King than he was at the time, I’d probably have overlooked him too.
But while he didn’t look the part, and both I and Samuel are sadly biased in our judgement of people, God is certainly not. David was indeed anointed King over Israel. But that’s not the part of the story that spoke to me this week.
See, David didn’t actually become King till much later. No, after being anointed he traveled in between the palace, playing the harp to soothe King Saul’s bouts of manic depression, and caring for his sheep in his father’s field.
(A future king who spends his days playing harps and staring at sheep while his brothers are off in battle? [Insert more feelings of inadequacy here].)
The story goes on to tell us that one day, David heads out to the front lines to take his brothers some cheese and bread. On arriving, he hears the Philistine Goliath taunting the armies of Israel, and sees the Israelites cowering in fear. David, confused at the fear of the soldiers, starts asking questions: what does the man who kills this giant get? King Saul gets word that David is asking these questions and summons him. Without hesitation, David says to the King in 1 Samuel 17:
“Master, do not give up hope. I’m ready to go and fight this Philistine.”
“You can’t go and fight this Philistine. You’re too young and inexperienced – he’s been at this fighting business his whole life, long before you were born.”
Yet more reminders of his inadequacy and all the places where he does not measure up. But instead of bending under the constant reminders of his inadequacies – instead of focusing on his weaknesses – David begins to outline his strengths. He looks away from the training he does not have, to the opportunities for growth and the skills God has given him. Saul tries to get him to act like a soldier – he gives him his own armor and helmet and sword, but David quickly recognizes that doing battle like any other soldier will not work for him:
David put it on, strapped the sword over it, and took a step or two to see what it was like, for he had never worn such things before.
“I can’t go in these,” he protested to Saul. “I’m not used to them.” So David took them off again. (1 Samuel 17: 39)
Instead of trying to do battle in armor and with weapons that are foreign to him and with techniques that he is unskilled in -instead of trying to make up for his weaknesses – he ventures out to confront Goliath with two things:
With what he already has at his disposal – his ability to throw a good stone – and with the favor of God.
And while a few stones and a sling shot compared to a giant in full body armor might seem like a clear battlefield disadvantage in our human understanding, David won that fight without even breaking a sweat.
We are naturally conditioned to focus more on our weaknesses than our strengths. If I asked you what your weaknesses and strengths were, you’d probably be able to list more of the former than the latter. But if you would, for a second, do the unconventional and start to refocus on what comes naturally to you… to ask yourself: “What do I have at my disposal? What are my strengths? What areas am I gifted in?” What if you stopped focusing on what you couldn’t do and what you didn’t have and all the ways you don’t measure up to others, and instead focused on what you do have: God-given gifts, a purpose, and a God who goes before you to win your battles?
Reading this story again this week completely changed my mood and perspective. I even pulled out my old Strengths Finder 2.0 to recap my strengths, and started to mentally refocus on how God has wired me. Studies show that while you can spend a lot of time and resources working to strengthen your weaknesses, they’d only ever improve marginally. If, instead, you recognize your strengths, and work on honing and building upon them, they will grow exponentially. Imagine how unstoppable I could be when it comes to those things I’m already naturally gifted in if I spent more time focusing on them?
We can rest securely in the fact that even before the beginning of the universe, God saw a need for each one of us, and created us uniquely to fill that need. We can walk confidently into our purpose knowing that we are strengthened and well equipped to be successful. Like the stones David picked up, or like Aaron at the nearly-mute Moses’ side, anything He has not already given us, He can give us on the way. And His favor – that is unmerited, unwarranted and undeserved – is constantly going ahead of us, paving the way for us to get exactly where we need to be.