Personality Tests: Help or Hype?
With the growing popularity of personality assessments, how should believers approach the trend?
Personality theories aren’t a new development. The Four Human Temperaments—choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic and melancholic—were described as early as 370 BC by the Greek physician Hippocrates. Since then, dozens of different theories and assessments have been devised.
Gary Smalley’s popular assessment uses animals — a lion, an otter, a beaver and a golden retriever, to illustrate the four fundamental personality types. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was popular when I was a young adult. It identifies you as a thinker or feeler and an extrovert or introvert, among other things. Then came the Birkman Method — an assessment focused on team-building and leadership development, while StrengthsFinder identifies your talents. Finally, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard of the Enneagram, which assigns you a number 1-9 (representing a human character archetype) to drill down to your inner motivations and fears.
The lure of life change
Although each of these tests is a little different, they all share something in common: They promise life change. This change allegedly comes through the act of understanding yourself and others better. Proponents of these tests claim that as you understand the nuances of different personalities, you can expect to experience better relationships, healthier work environments and even greater ministry impact. Indeed, it seems like these tools have delivered on their promises based on their enduring appeal.
I’m not surprised by the popularity of personality tests. Who doesn’t want radical life change? And most of us desire to understand ourselves better. The Bible makes a case for greater understanding in verses such as Proverbs 4:7 which says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (NIV). Throughout Scripture, true understanding is presented as something valuable to attain.
But as I’ve watched the buzz around some of these tests grow, I’ve wondered if there’s a downside. Personality tests, like any source of extrabiblical intel, need to be approached with discernment. Scripture instructs us to “test the spirits” to discern whether or not a thing is from God. Here are three questions we can ask ourselves to keep personality tests in proper perspective.
1. Am I allowing the results of a test to define me more than Scripture?
I still remember the excitement of reading the results of my first personality test. I pored over paragraphs of description that seemed to describe me perfectly and thought, Oh, that’s why I do that! It was fun to learn more about myself — what makes me unique — and share that information with my friends and family.
This is why we can get so caught up in the latest personality test. It feels good to feel understood! We crave it. Though Scripture says we are fully known and understood already by our Creator (Psalm 139), we don’t always feel it. But one day we will. As Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Until then, Scripture provides the best description of our true identity in Christ. One pitfall to avoid when it comes to personality tests is allowing the results to define us. Instead of relying on our “type” or our “number” to explain our feelings and behaviors, we should look to the Author of life himself and His Word.
2. Do the results of this test push me toward greater obedience to Christ or away from it?
I recently heard someone talking about how one personality assessment had changed her life. She explained that her personality type is prone to give of herself to the point of exhaustion and that the test gave her the confidence to put hard boundaries into place by refusing to serve others. While some people may need to establish healthy boundaries (even Jesus stole away to commune with His Father), we are also called to pour ourselves out for others in sacrificial ways that go beyond our own resources.
A personality test shouldn’t provide justification to sin, either. (“I’m just a verbal processor, so that’s why I gossip sometimes.”) If my diagnosed personality type empowers me to do something that conflicts with what Jesus commands, it’s leading me off track. Regardless of my natural tendencies, Scripture should be the thing that dictates my attitudes and behavior.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” While a greater understanding of myself may help me avoid certain bad behaviors, God’s Word is the thing that equips me for life under His authority.
3. Does this test lead me to become more fascinated with myself or more in awe of God?
Narcissism is on the rise among young adults. This psychological and social problem can be described as an inflated view of self and indifference toward others. According to an article published several years ago, 70 percent of college students scored significantly higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than the average student had thirty years earlier.
Whether this development is the result of a social-media crazed culture, fallout from the “self-esteem movement” of the 80s, or the result of other factors, biblically-speaking, narcissism is the opposite of what God commands for the believer. We are told to not look out for our own interests only but also the interests of others.
I know from experience that learning more about myself can be almost intoxicating. (I mean, I used to get a temporary high taking those “Who’s Your Celebrity Match?” online quizzes in college.) It can also inflate my view of self. As I examine the little nuances of my personality, I can begin to dwell on “the cleverness of me” as Peter Pan famously said, and think more highly of myself than I ought (Romans 12:3).
The truth is, I am special. God created me uniquely from anyone else in the world with specifically assigned good works to accomplish. Not only that, but He loved me so much, He sent His Son to be my Redeemer. The fact that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” inside and out should turn my thoughts to the greatness of God and cause me to give Him all praise and glory. Any tool that shines the spotlight on me without pointing to the glory of God will ultimately take me down the wrong path.
Gifts above personality
A friend of mine recently made an interesting observation. She pointed out that the Bible does not talk about personality. It does not talk about introverts or extroverts, thinkers or feelers, ones or sevens. Instead, the defining categories the Bible talks about are spiritual gifts — attributes given by the Spirit that allow us to serve God, love others and contribute to the church. A partial list of spiritual gifts found in Romans includes prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership and mercy.
While most personality tests focus on what makes us individuals, the purpose of spiritual gifts is to bind us together in unity with others. 1 Corinthians 12:4-5 states: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord.”
Variety was God’s idea from the start — whether there are four basic personality types or nine. But that variety is meant for a specific purpose — to glorify God and serve the church. Learning more about my specific tendencies and motivations is valuable to a certain extent. But God is powerful enough to work outside of my natural inclinations, gifting me for tasks I would never be able to do on my own.
Lasting life change
I’ve taken many personality tests through the years, in part to be able to connect with others and see what all the hype is about. Here’s my verdict: While interesting and at times helpful, such tests are non-essential to living out my faith. It’s unlikely that the Apostle Paul knew his Enneagram number. And we don’t know for sure if Jesus was an introvert or an extrovert (I think a case could be made for either and both).
I don’t need to figure out every detail about myself and how life has shaped me, because Someone already knows me perfectly and loves me just as I am. Ultimately, true transformation and life change happens as I obey Christ and allow Him to renew my mind. And I don’t need a personality test to tell me that.
Copyright 2019 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from Multnomah University with a degree in journalism and biblical theology. She lives in California with her husband, Kevin, who is a family pastor, and her four young children: Josiah, Sadie, Amelia and Jackson. When she’s not hanging out with her kids, Suzanne loves a good cup of coffee, conversation with friends, musical theater and a trip to the beautiful California coast.