How important are personality and temperament to matters of faith and spirituality? In one sense, not at all – any kind of person can equally be a Christian. But I believe personality is of great significance to the kind of Christian (or atheist or Buddhist or whatever) that you become.
Christianity is not monolithic (no religion is). Within the one ‘Way’ are a breathtaking diversity of streams, styles, pathways, denominations, theologies. I’d suggest that one fairly obvious reason for this is simply the diversity of people and personality types.
Personality and temperament are probably the primary influences on what you value and see as important; both on what you do and how you think things should be done. The kind of person you are plays a huge role in your whole approach to faith, theology, spirituality, church, worship, evangelism etc. It influences the forms of religious expression you’re drawn to, and may be the main factor in finding your overall theological ‘stream’ (charismatic or contemplative; evangelical, activist or sacramental etc). It affects which type and denomination of church you feel at home in, and what role you play in that church.
It’s also often the underlying factor in the kinds of fellow-believers you find hard to get on with, the styles of worship you find grating and the types of theology that you dislike. I’ve said before that the reason I struggle with the likes of Calvin, Cromwell and St Paul is probably as much to do with personality as anything more objective. And how many people leave churches over personality clashes, or over theological differences in which personality perhaps played a more major role than was acknowledged?
It’s for this reason above all that I think we need to understand the relationship between personality and spirituality. So many conflicts within or between churches and Christian groups come down in large part to personality differences; different perspectives on what’s important, and different approaches to theology in which personality plays a hidden role.
So many misunderstandings come down to a simple lack of understanding of our own and other people’s personality types and biases. Problems arise when we view our own personality-based theological or worship preferences as the only way; when we view ‘our’ group as the true believers and others as heretics.
Of course, personality is a highly complex phenomenon; personality can’t ever be fully reduced to a simple schema or system. There are many models of personality typology – Myers-Briggs, the Four Temperaments, The Big Five, The Enneagram etc. All have their strengths and their flaws, and all are inevitably fairly wide-mesh nets.
Used together though they can be helpful in obeying the old dictum to ‘know yourself’ – understanding what broad kinds of people we are, what makes us tick; what our predominant strengths and weaknesses are and how to develop the former and overcome the latter. They can help us understand our prejudices and preferences, what makes us panic or see red, and why we find certain situations or types of people so difficult. Above all they can help you accept and have compassion on both yourself and other people.
At the very least they can give us language to describe the characteristics we notice in ourselves and others. For example, Myers-Briggs gives us the polarities of Extrovert/Introvert, intuitive/sensing, feeling/thinking, and judging/perceiving. And the Four Temperaments gives us four very basic but recognisable personality types of Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholic and Phlegmatic, which I’ve found helpful.
Cholerics are natural leaders; goal-oriented and motivated by results; great in a crisis but not the most sympathetic, pastoral or poetic people; they tend to cut through detail and nuance. Sanguines are sociable, warm, outgoing, motivated by relationships and with a great desire to connect and communicate; often a little scatty and not overly concerned with accuracy. Melancholics are introverted thinkers and analysers, loving detail and order; often deep and creative but with a tendency to depressiveness. And Phlegmatics are generally easy-going, good-natured and peaceable, faithful friends and good mediators, but sometimes needing a rocket under their backsides to get anything done. (I’m broadly Phleg-Mel.)
So Cholerics might approach church with strategies for getting ‘bums on seats’. Sanguines may see church primarily as a place to connect with others. Melancholics will often want orderly liturgy or be concerned about the theological content of songs. And Phlegmatics will probably want a nice safe routine of familiar services.
Personality and theology
Of course there are many other ways of categorising personality, e.g. relationship-oriented vs fact-oriented; left vs right brain (or logical-analytical vs poetic-symbolic); action-oriented vs contemplative, etc. These are all just descriptions of the various ways people think and respond and act; their priorities and motivations and styles. I think they can also be descriptions of how churches and broader theological movements operate.
So as a huge over-generalisation I’d submit that evangelicals are often characterised by an emphasis on truth (or fact) and a desire for accuracy. Charismatics may be more influenced by emotion and also be more likely to respond physically (e.g. by dancing). Contemplatives are often naturally poetic and intuitive. And so on.
I’d also suggest that ardent evangelicals or ardent liberals (if that’s not oxymoronic) are often simply so because of the kind of person they are. Certain types of people are likely to end up as evangelicals; others as liberals; others as something else. Some people are naturally passionate about doctrine; others couldn’t give a monkey’s about it but have a tremendous pastoral concern for others. That’s all okay.
We all think that what we believe and the way we do things is the best way; otherwise we wouldn’t believe those things or do things that way. Most likely none of us are completely right, but perhaps none of us are completely wrong either. It’s okay to be different, to think differently, and to do things differently. Understanding that we’re all so very different (but still okay) is an important part of Christian maturity and community. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity.
Equal but different
Crucially, no type of personality is inherently better or worse, more or less Christian, than others. All have their own strengths and weaknesses; all manifest or approach spirituality in different ways. We will of course have our own preferences for certain sorts and prejudices against others, according to our own type and how we’ve been treated by others.
Some personalities may appear more ‘Christian’ – more naturally patient, forgiving, generous, hospitable or compassionate. But even the best natural traits still need to be perfected and completed in Christ. Sometimes these nice traits turn out to be partially ‘false’, or at least to have complex psychological causes. They may for example be a cover to hidden fear or shame, or an effort to win parental approval. And all good traits have corresponding weaknesses.
I’m convinced we all get a ‘fair’ chance; we’re all handicapped by our personalities in some areas and advantaged in others. Our personalities shape the direction we take, but they don’t determine our eternal destinies.
Character and calling
I’d also draw a fundamental distinction between personality and character. I’d say that personality is the raw material of who you are, the parameters of what you’re like (temperament, gifts, tastes etc); I’d see this as largely innate (God-given if you like), though it may be influenced by nurture. Character is about your choices and your attitudes; it’s what you make of the raw material of your personality.
Whatever your innate personality or temperament, you can develop better or worse character. Certain types of personality are simply more inclined towards certain kinds of character flaw. We all have to fight battles with parts of our nature; just different parts depending (partly) on your personality.
I’d also draw a distinction between God’s general, common purpose for all humans and his specific calling on us as individuals. We’re all called to love, to forgive, to worship etc; we’re not all called to be missionaries in China, or to be Billy Graham or Rick Warren or St Paul or whoever we feel we should be like but aren’t. We’re all called to become Christlike, but in unique individual ways; we’re called to incarnate Christ in our different personalities and lives. Your way of doing that will probably be very different to mine. Each of us is tasked with developing our own character and discerning our own calling. One body, many parts.
Limitations of personality tests
There are plenty of personality-type tests out there –just Google ‘Myers Briggs test’, ‘Four Temperaments test’, ‘Enneagram test’ or whatever. Some people love these kinds of tests (I do); others hate them; again, this probably just comes down to your personality type. 😉
Do try out some personality tests and schemas, but bear in mind that they’re all over-simplistic and over-generalising; they may well leave out the most important things about you. Above all, though we share many broad characteristics and traits with others, we’re all unique individuals. No-one else has quite our combination of characteristics, and at the deepest level our identity and personhood defies categorisation – thank God.
Perhaps the greatest danger with personality typologies is letting ourselves be defined or limited by them, as though our personality were set in stone and could never change. Similarly, it can be easy to misuse them to put others in a box so we can judge, dismiss or control them (‘you’re just such an x’); or to use them just to excuse our behaviour rather than to trying to address it (‘I couldn’t help doing it, I’m a y’). But like all tools, they can be helpful if used rightly.
Personality tests probably won’t save your life or your soul. But they can help you know aspects of yourself a little better, and that’s never a bad thing.