How do we think biblically about personality tests? Are they helpful, harmful, or potentially both? Does Scripture have anything to say about personality? In this episode, Alasdair Groves discusses these questions and more.
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves. Welcome to Where Life and Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, where everything we do is about restoring Christ to counseling and counseling to the church.
You ever take a personality test? Myers-Briggs or Enneagram or anything like that? I’ve been thinking about personality tests recently, well, off and on for years now, and you get into the counseling field and these things are going to come up no matter what. But I’m thinking particularly recently, and let me give you a little background about what sparked my thinking the other day. I’m a huge fiction enthusiast. I love stories. I love reading stories. I especially love stories that take normal people outside of a normal context, put them somewhere abnormal, and say, “What happens? What happens to human beings in a strange setting?” So I have greatly looked forward to reading books to my kids, and the older they get the more fun books we can read. I remember rejoicing when finally I could read all three of my kids Narnia. So we read through that a couple times. We read Lord of the Rings. Right now we’re a good chunk of the way through Harry Potter. And in Harry Potter, I hope I’m not giving anything away, I feel very strongly about not giving things away, but it would be difficult to have spent too much time in our culture and not know at least a couple things about it, whether you’ve read it or whether you feel okay about reading it or not… a school is a major part of it and in this school there are four houses and you get divvied up into those houses based on character traits at the beginning of your time at the school. Unsurprisingly, my children found out that there are online tests you can take that put you in the houses and say, “You would be a Gryffindor. You would be a Ravenclaw.” And so, of course, they were delighted to take the test and have since been discussing what this says. And it got me thinking, it’s interesting how widely and easily personality tests appeal. Here are my kids in elementary school and middle school getting all excited about personality tests. This is something that instinctively appeals to us, at least in the 20th, 21st century West. We live in an individualistic society so I suppose it’s not utterly shocking that we’d be interested to think about our personalities in these ways. But here’s my simple agenda for our time today. How should we think about personality tests biblically? Does Scripture have anything to say about how we engage with or don’t engage with personality tests?
Well, a super brief background. They have been around for a while in something like their present form. Most people date it back to World War I in which you had something like a personality test that was trying to actually identify people who would be especially vulnerable to shell shock. But there’s tons of them out there. If you Google “personality test,” you’ll get results like 14 personality tests you can take online right now. The most popular over the years has probably been the Myers-Briggs. The Enneagram has been especially popular in the church in the last decade or two. You’ve got DISC. You’ve got Strength Finders. You’ve got what’s called the Five Factors Model. Anyhow, there’s a lot of them out there. Working Genius actually by Pat Lencioni and the Table Group (I’ll probably say more about that a little bit in a few minutes) is quite a recent one.
Anyhow, there’s a lot of them out there and I have been trying to think, what is the right way for us as Christians to engage this kind of exercise? It seems like the place to start would be to ask a question of, what is the biblical perspective on personality in general? I mentioned a moment ago that our setting culturally might have something to do with our interest in these sorts of tests. But the Bible, I would say, at the very least, is much less interested in systematically defining personality or personality types than we are. Now, certainly in Scripture, we do see people with different preferences, different interests, different strengths and weaknesses, different character, different responses to life experiences, and so on. And all of those can play into what we mean by personality. So, I mean, even just something as simple as you have a contrast between Isaac, who’s more of a homebody, and Esau, who’s more of a man of the field. You get Peter who is more brash and you get Thomas who is more hesitant. So you see different kinds of people coming at you in the pages of Scripture and Scripture certainly celebrates the diversity of people that God has created. There’s this uniqueness to each human that he makes in his image. There’s a way that each of us reflects who he is in a special way, because none of us are exactly the same. Scripture will speak about the wealth of the nations being brought into heaven to the glory of God. All the different beauties and wonders and glories of all the cultures throughout all of history that in any way, shape, or form, give him glory are in some way going to echo into eternity.
And we intuitively agree even now. We delight in the various ways that each person’s gifts are going to be able to contribute to the church. Think Ephesians 4, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12. So Scripture certainly shows us instances of people with different personalities and it certainly values different kinds of people all seeking to bring their differences to the table with acts of service and with wisdom to the building up of the body, the service of the church, and to the glory of God. So, to that extent, I don’t think we need to fear conversation about personality, especially in any way it might be oriented towards helping us thrive and flourish as members of the body of Christ.
So what about personality tests in particular then? What’s a biblical approach to personality tests as we know them today? Well, my basic approach goes something like this: go ahead and take them, any of them, but be careful. And let me explain. You see, there is humility and value I think in listening to what others see in you, even letting people who have developed tests over thousands of iterations. Let them offer their reflections to you about ways that you may be operating and may not be aware of. At their best, here’s what I think personality tests can do that is helpful. First, they make you think. They make you think about how you engage in this world. They can help you see and even predict characteristic patterns of temptation, of weakness, places you’ll be apt to sin, ways you might try to deflect blame. It can help you see your strengths. Where will you especially find joy in work? What kinds of gifting do you bring to the table? So there’s all kinds of ways that even something developed in a purely secular model can, as you process through it, evoke helpful insights into, how do I tend to operate? So, for example, if you want to take my Harry Potter comments from earlier, in House Gryffindor, courage and loyalty are the kinds of things that will get you in there. Well, if your test comes out and says, “Hey, courage and loyalty. Gryffindor. That’s something that you probably resonate with in your life. People around you would probably see this in.” You’re hearing something, which is that you may well be more easily and naturally suited to a role that takes lots of risks. You may be better equipped for a role that launches you into really significant endeavors, but you’ll also be in more danger of being a loose cannon and you’ll also be in more danger of causing problems that might have been avoided if you’d had a cooler head. Okay, so Gryffindor, there’s some possible insights into ways that you might naturally lean towards wisdom and helpfulness and ways that you might naturally be tempted.
Or take Enneagram, there’s nine types in the Enneagram. Being a Nine, for example, those of you who know the Enneagram, you’ll probably be a good person to bring in to help people sort out compromises and you’re likely to actually find it easier rather than harder to sacrifice things you want for the good of the group that you are with, to let go of your preferences in respect for what others are hoping for and wanting. On the flip side, you’re going to be in danger of taking the path of least resistance and you’re going to want to be especially attuned to the danger of building up bitterness and being blind to it, a go-along-to-get-along kind of person who’s always saying, “Well, let’s do what you want to do.” Those would be some of the potential strengths, potential weaknesses. These are helpful insights to have as we seek to walk faithfully with the Lord.
So, the number one thing that I think personality tests engaged well at their best do is it gets you thinking. Number two, it gets you talking. It allows you to have conversation with others about your strengths, weaknesses, preferences, blind spots, tendencies, and so on and so forth. If you take a personality test and you say, “Hey, here’s some interesting things the test suggested about me. What do you think? Here’s what I’m processing. Here’s where I might need to grow. Here’s an area of strength that it’s suggesting I might have. And that makes sense to me. Does that make sense to you? Do you see that? Would you say it differently?” So, as a springboard for conversation and community, I see that as helpful.
And then, on the flip side, when you’re talking about other people, Philippians 1:9, it’s just one of my favorite verses. It orients me so profoundly in my counseling across the board, which just says, “My prayer for you is that your love would abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,” or “knowledge and all discernment,” depending on your translation. So if you love people, you will want to know them better. The more you love the Lord, the more you want to know him. The more you love your sports team in your local area, the more you’re going to read blogs about them and know when they’re playing and know their statistics. There’s no end to the way that love drives towards a desire for knowledge and knowledge, the more you know, the more effectively and fruitfully you’re able to love, which actually is exactly where Paul goes in the next two verses. He talks about how this abounding love that feeds insight and insight that feeds love leads to fruit being born for those around you and that all leads to praise and glory to God in Christ Jesus.
So we want to be people who know others. If someone else takes a personality test, it actually can help you better think about, what might they appreciate? Where might they struggle? How could I be more sensitive to them as I seek to speak into their life or offer encouragement or offer challenge and so on and so forth? Basically, I feel like it’s hard to go wrong with anything that pushes you to articulate more clearly who you are, who others are, how you can grow in love, maturity, and wisdom.
Now, in both senses, the get-you-thinking sense and the get-you-talking sense, it’s actually in one sense there’s nothing unique about personality tests. A good book can do the same thing. A good lecture can do the same thing. A good piece of art can do the same thing. Anything that provokes discussion. “Hey, I’d never quite seen the world this way. I never thought about this before. I hadn’t processed this in relationship to you or to our friendship or to the way that I tend to struggle. This got me thinking.” Anything that presses us forward towards each other with a desire to know the Lord and know his people and know how to love better is going to be helpful. So better to be thinking and reflecting more rather than less if you’re doing it with love and humility and the desire for wisdom.
One last thing before I get to the flip side, which is the dangers and concerns that I have and the “be careful” part of the equation. Personally, I’ve always found these tests interesting, and the one I’ve found actually most intriguing of late is the Working Genius model, which as I mentioned was developed by Pat Lencioni. He’s a Catholic guy, a thinker, and in the leadership space guru for consulting with organizations and helping them be healthy. And why I find that one in particular interesting is because instead of starting with individual strengths, weaknesses, etc., it actually starts with, what does it take for a team to pull off a project? And from there, it breaks down, what are the parts of a project? What are the phases of work? And from there says, “And how might you slot into that? Where do you especially love to engage? What do you find harder? What’s frustrating for you about engaging in the different phases of work and what do you especially enjoy?” And I appreciate that starting with the community, starting with the group rather than the individual. That was an intriguing update on any other test that I have seen.
So I’m saying, there’s a place for it if it’s evoking good conversation that’s pointing you toward the Lord. What are the concerns? Where would I say be careful? Why don’t I just identify three dangers of personality tests? Number one, the big danger is that you take it on as an identity and/or as a destiny rather than simply a helpful set of observations. And this is really easy to do. It’s really easy to slide into this without even intending to. “I am an ISTJ,” use some Myers-Briggs language, “therefore I will always,” fill in the blank, or, “I must always,” fill in the blank. There’s a difference between, “Hey, here’s a tendency I have. Here’s something that I’m going to be prone to,” again, good or bad, versus, “This has become this label that now defines everything about who I am and I’m in it. There’s no getting out of it. This is just the fundamentals of who I am and no change is possible. Everything must be filtered through this lens.”
Secondly, I think there’s a real danger of using it as an excuse for sins or an excuse for not working to grow in the face of weakness. I’ll use the Enneagram this time. “Oh, that’s just my Seven coming out,” even though it’s driving everyone crazy. And it may indeed be that the Enneagram Seven captures something about who you are and that does tend to drive people crazy and that may be a struggle for you that’s not a struggle for others. However, the call to you in love is to step and say, “Okay, how can I grow in this area? Even if it’s something that I may always instinctively lean toward, what would it mean for me to grow in that? How can I love others better in the face of this particular tendency I have that I am learning can drive people crazy?” rather than simply saying, “Eh, you know what? It’s just who I am. Everybody needs to deal.”
So, number one, you don’t want it to be an identity or a destiny that trumps the ability to grow or change. Number two, you don’t want to use it as an excuse. And number three, I think there can be a danger of trying to explain everything through the lens of the test. And, actually, you see this in any test that’s beyond Harry Potter level that’s really trying to go deeper where they start to add subcategories and they start to nuance it and say, “Well, okay, you’re a Nine, but you then have these two wings, and which wing is it more that you lean toward?” And then there’s these triads and it can go on and on from there. I just think there’s a reality that we are all individuals and ultimately any personality test begins to break down if you press it hard enough. You can’t explain everything about who you are through the lens of any particular test.
So, conclusion, personality tests, not in the Bible. Most of them not made by Christians. However, that does not make them evil and I believe that they can be helpful if they are used carefully and in community. And if that community is fundamentally oriented towards people loving each other, helping each other to grow in Christ, to encourage each other in Christ, to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. So, whether you are talking about personality or anything else, my prayer is that God will use the diversity of our strengths, and our giftings, and our passions, and our self-awareness about those things, and about our weaknesses, to build up his church.
Thanks for joining us today. Signing off from house Ravenclaw.
Alasdair is the Executive Director of CCEF, as well as a faculty member and counselor. He has served at CCEF since 2009. He holds a master of divinity with an emphasis in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair cofounded CCEF New England, where he served as director for ten years. He also served as the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling for three years. He is the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life & Scripture Meet, and is the coauthor of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).