Both my hubby and I came from homes where self-awareness and individual identity were neither fostered nor encouraged. I grew up having my thoughts and perspectives carefully controlled while being pushed to succeed academically and socially. He grew up virtually neglected, always fighting for the bare minimum support, and when he did experience success, his parents’ response went something like “Huh?” As a couple we are learners and thinkers and prone to self-reflection. So, the first time we came across the field of personality theory—we felt like we’d seen the light, like we finally had something that explained who we were and where we’d come from!
Only my hubby being the INTJ, Enneagram 5 that he is, quickly figured out that if he wanted to, he could manipulate the personality tests to be whatever number he liked best, and he pointed out that though I’m an ENFP Enneagram 2, I’m pretty terrible at setting up people to depend on me in any practical way since I can barely manage to feed myself let alone my kids.
Then we met a ministry leader whose sole mode of relating to us was through discovering our Enneagram numbers so he could tailor his communication to our personalities and diagnose our motives without knowing anything about our life stories and sufferings. The result—that ministry leader came across a bit controlling and condescending, like he thought the Enneagram gave him some sort of gnostic insight into who we were without actually experiencing us in relationship, and this caused us to pause and consider more carefully the benefits and limits of personality theory.
Personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs and Enneagram can be useful in helping individuals grow in self-awareness. Utilizing observations of human behavior, those tests expand our categories of how we act, think, and relate to the world and the possible motivations behind those behaviors. Yet these tests miss one crucial element—how being made in the image of God ultimately defines both who we are and what goes wrong with us. These tests fail to capture the complexity of human personality and motivation and cannot take into account the unique influences on an individual human heart that shape the formation and expression of who that person is.
When I hear words like these: “Oh so-and-so is an 8, so that’s why he’s like that,” I cringe because without meaning to, we’ve reduced a person to a number on a list of behaviors tied to possible motivations without having to do the very thing Christ himself modeled for us—draw near to listen, understand, and know the person in the flesh. When personality tests become the primary lens through which we see ourselves and others, more often than not we fail to ask open-ended questions that lead to hearing the real stories of a person’s life. Instead, with a personality formula as our guide, we narrow ourselves or the person in front of us to a series of categories that lack nuance, and in the end fall short of truly understanding ourselves or the friend we long to know more deeply.
Our cultural obsession with personality tests captures our God-given desire to know and be known, to draw close to God and others. Children are perhaps the best examples of what it looks like to draw near to another human being— they ask all sorts of curious questions and tell stories to both invite you into their world and connect to yours. This is the same way God first related to us: “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” The gospel message is God’s story of how he sent his son to rescue and redeem humanity. Through out the New Testament we see Jesus talking to people about their struggles, joys, and desires and revealing himself to them. We are wise when we draw near to know others as Jesus did—listening to them in the nitty gritty details of their lives, helping them understand their stories in light of God’s wider story of rescue and redemption. Then on rainy days over a cup of coffee, we can have fun playing around with categories on the MBTI and Enneagram to see what fits while simply tossing what doesn’t. In their rightful place, personality tests become delightful tools to grow self-awareness or springboards for deeper conversation rather than a narrow lens through which we define who we are. As Dan Allender, a wise counselor and creator of Story Therapy says:
“We don’t just have stories, we are a story. It is our responsibility to know our story so we can live it out more intentionally and boldly for the Great Story, the gospel. God writes our story not just for our own enlightenment and insight, but to enlighten others and to reveal his own story through our story.” (Dan Allender, PhD, To Be Told).