What to Make of the Enneagram
Dr. James Emery White Dr. James Emery White's weblog
- 2020 Aug 24
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/marekuliasz
Many of us have taken the Myers-Briggs test. We talk about being ENTJs or INTJs, or INFPs or ENTPs, FOXTVs or MSNBCs.
Okay, I made those last two up.
On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I am an INTJ, which stands for introvert, intuitive, thinking and judging. Or, as I like to think about it, INTJs are normal and others are irritating.
I can’t begin to tell you how important it was for me to get in touch with the first of those four letters—being an introvert. I honestly didn’t know it for a long time. I didn’t hear people talk about such things, so it wasn’t on my radar. People assumed (and I would have assumed) I was extroverted because I was good with people, comfortable in up-front roles and public speaking, and found myself in leadership positions.
But I wasn’t an extrovert.
The truth is that I got all of my emotional energy from being alone. (That’s the key difference between an introvert and an extrovert—where you get your emotional energy from.) Too much people time, and I would end up in the fetal position not knowing why I was so drained.
But I do now.
I love people, but I get my emotional energy away from people. Knowing that has helped me immensely.
But is personality awareness spiritual? Or does it just breed a kind of narcissism—a self-centeredness, a preoccupation with ourselves? The Bible’s answer may surprise you.
If I had to give the Bible’s headline, it would be, “Apart from knowing who you are, you cannot know who God is.” Or as one of the leaders of the 16th century Protestant Reformation put it, “There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self, and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.”
Because when it comes to the Christ life, there is a self to lose and a self to find. If that sounds like psycho-babble, it’s actually scripture. Here’s how the apostle Paul wrote about it in his letter to the Ephesians:
“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV)
And in his letter to the Colossians, he put the same idea this way:
“Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Colossians 3:8-10, NIV)
There is a self to lose and a self to find. We have a personality, and there are parts of it that are operating exactly like they should, and parts that aren’t. You can’t put off your old self and put on your new self if you aren’t in touch with... self.
The goal is to discover yourself in light of God’s truth so that you can quit being who you shouldn’t be and fully embrace who you are to be. Your truest, best self that God intended.
So how do you get to know yourself? And I mean deeply? There are a lot of ways. You can gain self-awareness through trusted friends, counselors and spiritual directors. You can utilize tests like the Myers-Briggs or things like StrengthsFinder.
But there is something much more ancient. It’s called the Enneagram. I know, some of you are saying, “The enne-a-what?” Others of you might be wondering, “Is this some kind of new-age thing?”
The truth is that the Enneagram is anything but new; in fact it’s very biblical.
It’s deeply rooted in ancient Christian thinking and Christian spirituality, going all the way back to the era known as the time of the desert fathers, which included the earliest centuries of the Eastern Christian monastic movement.
The earliest name we have attached to the Enneagram is a man by the name of Evagrius, from the 4th century, who came up with a set of eight corresponding virtues and vices that he used to help think through spiritual formation and relationship with God and the old-self/new-self dynamic. Those eight corresponding virtues and vices are part of the Enneagram to this day. They later became the foundation for what became known in the Middle Ages as the “seven deadly sins,” with seven corresponding virtues.
The goal of these lists was simple: If you could get in touch with who you are – the personal, the spiritual and how they interact with who you are not supposed to be and who you are supposed to be (both the good and the bad) – you would have the kind of self-knowledge needed to become who you are supposed to be. You could chart a path of real, substantive transformation.
But this self-discovery must include the dark side. The shadow side of your personality. The sin. And that’s what sets the Enneagram apart. It goes deep. It not only acknowledges sin but takes it seriously. It gets into motivations and shadow lives, what drives us, and what sins we are most vulnerable to in light of what drives us.
You don’t just walk away from this with a typology—you live with this. You look deeply into a mirror and see the nature of how your personality works, and how it should work. It’s like a spiritual microscope you turn on to yourself.
Here’s how one Christian counselor who uses the Enneagram in her Christian counseling put it:
“It taps into our deeper story, going below the surface of outward behaviors, social styles, strengths and weaknesses, traits and talents. It sheds light on our inner motivation, ardent longing, and deep sufferings. It reveals the filters through which we view life and how these influence the choices we make.
“It clarifies ways we are held captive by habitual patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions that we aren’t even aware of or can’t seem to change. Most importantly, it illuminates our true essence as one who has been created in God’s image and how our distorted beliefs and ingrained strategies hinder the full expression of who God designed us to become.”
Now, having said all that, let me warn you. The Enneagram and all things attached to it wasn’t copyrighted by 4th century Christian monks, medieval Christian leaders or by your friendly neighborhood Christian pastor. This means it can be, and has been, co-opted and used by all kinds of groups, philosophies, worldviews and religions. If you want to start googling away on this, please don’t. There’s a mess out there attached to the Enneagram. You will find a lot of new-age stuff that isn’t biblical at all.
But don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. How others have co-opted it and ripped it from its Christian moorings should not keep you from drinking deeply from its well of truth and wisdom. It’s akin to a surgeon’s scalpel: it can heal or wound. It can bring spiritual health, wholeness and insight, or it can mislead and bring deception because of how it is applied.
But used as intended, the Enneagram is something that has been with the church for almost 2,000 years and used by Christian spiritual directors and individual Christ followers for enormous spiritual benefit.
I won’t even begin to try to introduce you to it here and now. For that, I would recommend the writings of my friend Suzanne Stabile who, along with InterVarsity Press, has written the best and most biblical books on its use and application. And if it would serve, I did a series at Mecklenburg Community Church called “Finding Your Way to You” taking an in-depth look at the Enneagram and concluding with an interview with Stabile. You can get the .mp3s or .pdfs of that series HERE.
P.S. I’m an eight.
The 16th-century reformer was John Calvin.
Marilyn Vancil, Self to Lose, Self to Find.
See also The Essential Enneagram by David Daniels and Virginia Price; The Sacred Enneagram by Christopher Huertz; Signature Sins by Michael Mangis; The Road Back to You by Suzanne Stabile; The Path Between Us by Suzanne Stabile. Of these, I would most recommend the writings of Suzanne Stabile.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.