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TIL 204 | Personality Traits

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, I’m delighted to invite one of my colleagues, another professor, and a good friend of mine, Jeremy Pierre to the podcast. He is an Associate Professor of Biblical Counseling at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s written a very helpful book for us called The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life. If you haven’t read that, I would encourage you to read it. He helps us to shape out ways to think about us as human beings and different aspects of our being, and seeing ourselves as a collective whole. I think you would find it as a helpful resource. Jeremy, we’re so grateful that you’re here to talk to us today about this new and exciting topic of personality traits.

Jeremy Pierre: I’m grateful to be here.

Dale Johnson: As we begin, there seems to be a lot of confusion. I think one of the best things for us to do is to begin with what the Bible has to say about personality.

Jeremy Pierre: Like so many things that are actually very important to our daily experience, the Bible doesn’t lay out a system for us to understand it. If you try to look up in a concordance ‘personality,’ and then trace it back in the Bible, you’re going to be disappointed. But you shouldn’t be disappointed with the Bible because that isn’t the point of it. Rather, it gives us a lens through which we understand God’s purposes for humanity. That’s the core of how we understand things.

In terms of personality, we can do a number of things in observing Scripture. We observe in narrative form, for instance, that the people are described in very different ways. They respond in different ways to similar situations, and God’s interaction with individuals is different. What’s amazing is that God had to address and deal with Abraham’s particular foibles in the particular way he arranged Abraham’s life to make him from a man with low moral courage—handing his wife off to guys he was scared of—to a man of extreme moral courage when he went out and fought the kings to save his nephew. The interactions with him were different than with Jacob, his grandson. Jacob was a crafty deceiver, and God had to draw that out of him by allowing him to be deceived and allowing him to understand from Laban what it feels like, making him into a man of integrity. We see in narrative description that there are different styles with which these guys relate to the world.

That’s one, and then the other way we see the Bible acknowledging the reality of different personalities is the direct address. When Paul wrote to Timothy or to Titus, when he wrote to different churches, when Jesus addressed the different churches in Revelation, when there’s direct address given to different people, there’s different things that are emphasized. There are different things about that person that are acknowledged in terms of the care that is received to them. Both in narrative form and in direct address, the Bible does acknowledge the common-sense reality that we all acknowledge: people relate to the world in different ways.

Dale Johnson: As I think about people in the way that we respond to life, sometimes as we consider what the Bible says about these things in our modern day, we use this idea of personality to hide behind it as an excuse. Sometimes someone might say something like this, “Well, you know, I’m just extroverted. I’m a boisterous personality,” and what they find themselves doing is talking too much. You have someone else who would say, “Well, I’m just introverted, and you know, I don’t get along with people very well.” They find themselves isolated, and they find themselves in a situation where they’re excusing their sin in relationship to other people. Sometimes we think about personality in that way. Is personality something that is determinative? How does it influence the beings that we are?

Jeremy Pierre: The examples you just gave—extrovert versus introvert—that’s just one binary measurement of a characteristic that one particularly popular personality test (the Meyers-Briggs) measures, and it measures 4 of those binaries. Other tests measure other personality traits. What we need to keep in mind when we’re using tests like that is that they can help us understand the style with which we tend to relate to the world. That style is an established part of how we interact, and awareness of it can be helpful.

The problem is that it’s not being viewed from a theological lens of “What are God’s purposes for human response?” God’s purposes for human response is that we reflect the values, the beliefs of God himself. For instance, if we accept the binary of extrovert and introvert, an extrovert can use that bright personality, that engaging personality for either God’s glory or for his own. He can use it in righteous ways or unrighteous ways. What we traditionally call an introvert is someone who is perhaps more to himself, more reflective, more thoughtful before he speaks. That can be used to God’s glory or it can be used for selfish means. In any personality trait, nothing excuses sin in the sense that we do not get a pass because of our tendencies. Rather, we have to think of how we should steward that tendency to the glory of God.

Dale Johnson: Earlier you mentioned a couple of these tests that attempt to measure personality traits. One of those would be the Meyers-Briggs. If I remember correctly, this was a test that began around the turn of the 20th century, it’s been around for quite some time, and it’s become very popular. Another one of those personality tests that’s certainly gaining popularity in the modern-day is the Enneagram. As we think through those personality tests, are they useful at all?

Jeremy Pierre: What’s so interesting about Meyers-Briggs versus Enneagram is that they’re actually measuring different things. Tests like the Meyers-Briggs are trying to look for traits. The Enneagram is a slightly different thing because it’s trying to measure core values. What’s interesting to me is you can see both the limited scope of the test when you see that they’re measuring different things and also the reality that we’re complex beings. When we talk about personality, we don’t always mean the same thing and we’re not conceiving of it the same way. This is a construct we’re trying to do our best to understand. The Enneagram is measuring core values. I’ve taken the Enneagram as part of my research for all this stuff. I’m a Helper. I’m a type 2 which describes a lot of what drives me and motivates me in terms of wanting to care for people and relate to them well and all the pitfalls that can come from that.

The problem with that test and any other test is that they’re measuring you along one or two axes of the complexity of who you are. They’re looking at two angles, two perspectives, where there might be dozens and dozens of perspectives of who we actually are and why we function the way we do. As long as people know what it can do and what it cannot do in telling you about yourself, they can be helpful to simply gain self-awareness. Where I see a lot of danger is people who take the latest tests and they now think, “I now know who I am,” and then they interact with everyone out of that knowledge. If someone doesn’t square with them or someone interacts with them in a way that pushes the wrong buttons according to whatever tests they’ve taken, they see it as a reason to withdraw from that person. They use it as a reason to not lean in or they use it as a reason to not take up certain tasks that clearly need to be done in their contacts, but they’re not for that. That’s very individualistic thinking rather than collective, and the Bible pushes us to think about both. We are precious as individuals in God’s eyes and yet we’re made for community and thus our own direction—tasks we take on and the things we interact with aren’t determined by just what we sense we’re good at or bad at. What does the community need? We need to always be pushing outwardly.

Dale Johnson: You mentioned that danger of us thinking that these things create or define our identity, and we know the Scripture gives clarity on who we are. It explains we as believers as being identified with Christ. That’s who we are and everything we do flows from that. What’s important about all that we’ve talked about up to this point is, for our context, as we bring these ideas that can be helpful into the counseling room? How do we make that transfer of the knowledge that we’ve gained about personality traits and bring that into the setting of the counseling room for it to be helpful as we work with people?

Jeremy Pierre: What we’ve been driving at is a way to conceive of personality that is portable. We understand personality as a style of response. Response is the key word there because we’re always trying to help people understand why they’re responding to their context in the way that they are. It’s a style response, but it’s based on an established pattern of response which also is reflective of core motivating values or desires. That’s actually where the Enneagram is a helpful conversation partner compared to a Myers-Briggs, for instance. It’s not just traits; it’s also values that motivate. But it’s not just values that motivate, it’s also our established pattern of action that puts us in certain ruts. When we’re counseling someone, it’s helpful in knowing this person and how to best communicate to them, what to expect from them, how I should actually direct the truth of Scripture to them in a way that doesn’t just square with my perception of the world—because we as counselors have a certain style with which we relate to the world.

Sometimes we can front load that to the extent that we’re judging the responses of the counselee based on how we would respond in the same situation. We’ll all tend to think that our responses are a little bit more righteous than their responses. It’s good to be aware of it because we can both go back to Scripture and allow that to be the judge of what God calls righteous in this situation. It may not be if someone is lonely or someone’s severely inward and isolating. Maybe it’s easy for you to go out with five people after church or establish three deep friendships or do whatever, but for them, it doesn’t look exactly like that. You’re asking, what does it mean for them to not isolate and honor God by engaging with people? It may look different than the way I engage with people.

Dale Johnson: As we’ve talked about some of these ideas relative to personality traits, we’ve attempted to think through applying these ideas in the counseling room. As we sum all that up, give us a couple of takeaways from your study of personality traits.

Jeremy Pierre: One that I hope resounds powerfully with folks is that Christian growth is not about changing your personality, but about maturing your personality to better reflect the character of God. We all have this tendency to look for different Christian leaders—men and women who exemplify values and traits that we want—and then we look at our own style with which we relate to the world or our own tendencies and we try to map ourselves after them in all of the specifics. We want to have the dynamic personality of this guy or the incredible reflectiveness of this woman, and we think that that is what godliness is. That’s a display of godliness that honors him in the uniqueness of who those people are, but our job as Christians is, by faith in Jesus Christ in pursuit of his word, to mature in the persons that he has made us to be in our unique styles with which we relate to the world. We waste a lot of time longing to be something other than we are, when Christ wants to do the miracle of displaying his character in who you are.

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