Bryan Lilly

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Personality Types and Spiritual Formation

June 26, 2015

Our wisdom, in so far as it outght to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two preceds and gives birth to the other. — John Calvin[^1]

Christ plays in ten thousand places. — Gerard Manley Hopkins.[^2]

Formation and Personality

Spiritual formation drives a lot of the essays that are on and will appear on this site. Formation is at the heart of Christianity, but what exactly it is and what exactly it looks like are often neglected in much of our modern, Western Christianity. One area that makes the question What does spiritual formation look like? so difficult is that human beings are incredibly complex. What formation looks like for one person may not look the same for another. In a culture that wants a five step plan for change in 5 minutes, the intricacies and time commitment necessary for formation just isn't palatable. But, they are necessary.

One of the factors behind this complexity is that individual human beings can have wildly differing personalities. Our personalities affect everything about us, from behavioral patterns, to emotions, to how we see the world. Each of these categories play some part in how we interpret ourselves and the world around us.

Furthermore, these personalities are themselves shaped by many different factors. Genetics play a role, but given personality differences within families, they are not ultimate. Environment also plays a role, including how we were raised by our families and even the regional cultures in which we grew up. The debate between nature and nurture has largely been settled: it's both/and, not either/or.[^3]

Personality Types: A Shared Language

If there are so many different factors in the development of our personality, and so many different personalities, how can we expect to ever get a picture of spiritual formation? Fortunately, neither genetics nor environments are unbound sets. There may be a variety, but there are also commonalities. It is these commonalities between personalities that allow us to use a shared language when discussing them—personality types.

Personality types are the classifications we use to label our psychological preferences. We find our personality types by taking personality tests, such as the MBTI, DISC assessment, Enneagram, and others. Though typically we do not find much change in our personalities, change is possible. Therefore, these tests are more like a snapshot of our psychological preferences at a given time.

What do we mean when we say psychological preferences? Consider this non-psychological example: Let's say you have a preference for Coke over Pepsi. Most of the time, you will choose to drink a Coke rather than a Pepsi. But, if a restaurant does not have Coke products, you may drink a Pepsi, assuming you don't get water or some other drink. This is an environmental constraint where you may actually choose against your preference.

Some people like Pepsi when they are younger because it has a sweeter flavor, but as they get older they find that they prefer Coke much more. Their tastes have changed. This is an example of a biological factor that has actually changed your preference.

Psychological preferences are similar—but they deal with preferences for behavioral patterns, thought patterns, and emotional patterns. An example of a psychological pattern is whether someone is introverted or extroverted. Someone who is an introvert tends to be energized by being alone, but loses energy when they are around others. They also tend to be internal processors, and seem to be very quiet because they do not speak up as much. Extroverts, on the other hand, are the opposite. They are typically energized by being around others but tire when they don't have anything to do. They tend to be external, or verbal, processors, and tend to be much more vocal in general. Introverts are said to prefer the internal world, extroverts the external.

Personality Types: Should Christians Care?

If John Calvin is right—and I believe he is—when he says that our knowledge of God is intertwined with our knowledge of self, then using tests to understand our own preferences is a no–brainer when it comes to spiritual formation. Right?

Certainly, within the larger population of Christianity, most people probably haven't even thought about whether they should be used or not. Within the realm of Christian counseling and pastoral care, however, there is a fairly robust debate over their use. Given that questioning their use can be confusing, I want to briefly lay out a few problems that people raise regarding their use followed with some very brief responses.

Issue 1: Naturalism

Problem: Personality Types are Rooted in Naturalistic Psychology

Naturalism is the belief that only natural laws and forces operate within the world, and rejects any belief in the supernatural. This is obviously problematic from a Christian world–view, which foundationally believes in the supernatural.

Personality typology finds its maturity in the work of Carl F. Jung, a psychologist whose work was built upon the foundations (sometimes in disagreement) of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. The work of these men, and psychology and psychiatry in general, are naturalistic in origin. There is no concern for, or an outright rejection of, those supernatural elements that Christianity believes is fundamental to our humanity. Therefore, the argument goes, psychology and psychiatry are insufficient to deal with the spiritual needs of human beings. Because personality types are rooted in naturalism, Christians should not use them as a way to understand themselves.

Response: Insufficiency is Not the Same as Incorrect

I've written a seperate essay that explores whether Christians can find benefit in psychology and psychiatry here: Mental Illness and the Church. This essay looks at the issue of whether they should be rejected based on the belief in the sufficiency of scripture.

The issue of naturalism is very much related, but not entirely the same. When speaking of naturalism, it is helpful to distinguish between metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism. Metaphysical, or ontological, naturalism is the absolute belief in naturalism, and denies any existence of the supernatural and purpose or meaning within nature. All of reality is found within the natural world, and is controlled by natural law.

methodological naturalism, is agnostic to whether the supernatural exists or not. Instead, methodological naturalism only works with natural law in order to produce scientific or philosophic methodology. This can be chiefly seen in the observation, hypothesis, experiment, theory based scientific method.

Christians ought to reject metaphysical naturalism; it is a world–view directly opposed to Christian beliefs. Christians do not need to reject the results of methodological naturalism. It merely seeks to understand how the world works. To reject methodological naturalism is to reject any form of modern medicine or modern science—regardless as to whether it agrees or not with Scripture. Christians are not Gnostics, and we do not reject the natural, material world as evil. God has created it, created natural law, and deemed it all good. Science, and other disciplines which employ methodological naturalism, only seeks to explain that which exists in our natural world, not make metaphysical declarations.[^4]

Neither should Christians always accept all findings of methodological naturalism without critique, but such ideas should not be rejected simply because they come out of a framework that begins with natural law, which Christians believe to be the order God has put within the world as a way of sustaining life.

Issue 2: Personality Types and Stereotypes

Problem: Personality Types Cause People to Believe they Cannot Change

Personality types are a system of labeling or classification. Like any other method of labeling, these classifications simplify things which causes a loss of necessary complexity and nuance. By flattening out these complexities, we are introducing unhelpful stereotype which causes people to assume things about themselves or others based on their personality classification. Common stereotypes include beliefs such as introverts are anti–social, or that extroverts are obnoxious, loud, and self-absorbed.

Stereotyping can lead to the extreme of fatalism. Fatalism is the view that the future cannot be changed, so whatever happens is inevitable. Therefore, nothing you do matters. Fatalism is inherently pessimistic and leads to inaction. Fatalism applied to personality types says, This is who I am [typically a stereotype], and I can never change. In counseling, fatalism often plays out as a way of justifying sin. Our personality types often become our identities.

In Christianity, our identity and worth should always be anchored first in who we are in Christ. By virtue of our union in Christ, we actually take on a new identity. Furthermore, Christianity says that not only can we change, but that change is evidence of the Holy Spirit's work within us.[^5]

Response: Personality Types Help Us Know How to Change

There are many people who fall into stereotyping themselves, or into fatalism, after working through the results of their personality tests. We should respond to individuals who have fallen into this line of thinking with compassionate reminders that we are not our stereotypes. We are who we are in Christ—beloved children of God in whom he is well–pleased.

Our response to this outside of a counseling relationship is not necessarily the rejection of personality types. Rather, it would be more helpful to show how both stereotypes and fatalistic application are abuses of both the personality tests themselves and God's design for humanity.

Human beings are much more complex and fluid than we'd like them to be. Personality tests are designed to reflect this. Of course, there are many junk tests including free versions of the most popular tests, which should not be trusted. At the same time, official tests such as the MBTI and Enneagram are scientifically validated tests, which score personality types on a sliding scale and often offer other potential results if the test–taker does not identify with their first results. In short, they recognize the complexities of human personality, and explore those complexities in different ways.

For those who find their identities in their types, particularly to the point of losing hope for change, the problem does not lie in the tests themselves. The tests simply don't have that much power. Rather, what needs to be addressed is the loss of hope; This is largely a symptom of a much deeper issue. The abuse of alcohol does not lead us to a new prohibition; neither should the abuse of personality types necessarily lead to their rejection. In this situation our counsel should not be focused on the personality test and its results, but on helping that person see their identity in Christ and to put their hope in Scripture's promise of change.

Formation and Personality Types

What is spiritual formation? The question deserves its own essay, but three verses are foundational. Romans 8:29 says, For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. Second Corinthians 3:18 says, And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory. Finally, 1 John 3:2 says, Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Ultimately, the goal or end result of spiritual formation is a formation of Christ's character within us until we attain the unblemished image of God.

Space does not permit a full explanation of these passage, but the 'foreknown ones,' the 'ones with unveiled faces,' and the 'children of God' are all Christians from all time. Each phrases are deep and rich with meaning, which I encourage you to look into. Furthermore, the phrases 'conformed to the image of his Son', 'being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory,' and 'we shall be like him' are also similar. Between the three we have a promise (Romans, 1 John 3:2) and a process (2 Corinthians).

God promises that all Christians will be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28). Our lives are the journey during which that transformation happens (2 Corinthians 3:18). The process for this transformation is by contemplating the Lord's glory (2 Corinthians 3:18), which culminates when we finally get to see Jesus, and therefore his full glory, face–to–face (1 John 3:2).

So what does it mean to contemplate the Lord's glory? Of course, there are many ways—the common spiritual disciplines of reading Scripture, prayer, and solitude are all individual ways of doing so. There is also community-based ways, such as the church's liturgy and preaching with the sacraments of communion and baptism.

Of course, there are many others. Understanding your personality type is another avenue that can be used for contemplating the Lord's glory. If you remember Calvin's quote, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self are intertwined. As we learn about ourselves through our personalities, we see aspects of our personality that reflect the image of God, because we are all made in the image of God. Personality types also reveal some of our sinful preferences, which reflect the image of God by way of negation: if you are easily angered, God is slow to anger. If you always run from being social, God is a community. If you never spend time alone, Jesus often left the crowds to pray.

And, while the avenues of formation are similar for us all, what our particular formation looks like may be different. This is because God has created us with a variety of personalities. In his poem, As Kingfisher Catch Fire, Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins writes,

…for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of men's faces.

The Psalmist writes that God has knitted each of us together in our mother's womb, and that includes our personalities. Just as the multiplicity of races and cultures each reveal something unique about God, so do the 'ten thousand places' of our personalities.

Our personal formations include our personality formations. And our personalities find formation as they are brought before the Lord's glory.

Conclusion

All of the above isn't to say everyone should jump on the personality bandwagon. There are reasons where wisdom says that personality tests are unhelpful. For example, those predisposed to fatalism should probably not take any tests. For others, however, understanding your personality type with your weaknesses and strengths present another avenue to contemplate the glory of the Lord. For those who wish to do so, I offer this advice:

First, interpret your personality types through the lens of the Lord's glory. As you learn more about God through learning more about your self, you learn more about your self by learning more about God. When we are confronted by the Lord and his glory, there are aspects of our personality that we will see as glorious. But, there are also aspects which we will see fall short of the glory of God.[^6]

Second, interpret your personality types within a community. One of the affects of the Fall and our sinfulness is that we are not able to fully see ourselves as we really are. We all have blind spots. That is why formation is as much, if not more so, a communal event as it is individual. We need others who love us enough to challenge us. Also, the fullness of God's character is displayed in the many personalities he has created. When you are with others, you are able to contemplate the images of God in them, and they in you, and see God in ways that you cannot see him alone.

Footnotes

[MBTI]: Myers–Briggs Type Indicator [DISC]: Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance