Self-knowledge for godliness and ministry (Part 5)

Jennie and I have been discussing personality theories as a worked example of pursuing self knowledge in the service of godliness and ministry. Jennie has discussed some of what they offer, and in my last post, I discussed two interlinked possible problems they can create: justifying sin in ourselves or others. Over the next two posts, we turn to two more related weaknesses—weaknesses arising from over-valuing the insight that personality tests might offer.

3. Secretly thinking that we are superior or inferior because of our personalities

I think it is true that sometimes our personalities can make life easier or harder, just as culture, generational traits, class and family background can. But they don’t make us better or worse people. We are all evil and are saved by God’s extravagant generosity in the cross of Christ.

Nonetheless, many of us either believe that we would be better off if we could have some of the traits we read about that other personalities have, or that we observe in our interactions with others. We wish we could be more naturally disciplined, more naturally spontaneous, more creative, more consistent, more outgoing, more loyal. And those of us who don’t wish we could be a bit different are often very self-satisfied, building up our sense of personal worth by valuing our own strengths far more than our weaknesses, and more yet than we value the strengths of others.

Despair and pride are constant temptations whenever we grow in self-understanding. Our hearts are quick to swell at the smallest sign of worth, and just as quick to shatter when we realize that we walk on feet of clay. In the end, the only lasting solution is to have the knowledge of God speak to our knowledge of ourselves. When we do this, we realize that personality, like family background, culture, class, and natural talents and aptitudes, are good gifts from God.

Those of us inclined to pride need to hear God’s word to the Corinthians: “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor 4:7) Everything we have is a gift from God—intellect, achievement, talent, ability, education, personality, culture. Everything that goes into the mix to make us distinctively who we are has all been given to us. We received it; we did not simply create it for ourselves out of nothing. At best, we might have made something of ourselves, but we had to use the resources and raw material that God gave us, including the ability to turn those possibilities into something concrete of which we can be proud.

And so the question to those of us who look at ourselves, including our personalities, and who are fairly content with what we see is “What do you have that you did not receive?” And the follow-up question is just as pertinent: “If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”

Gratitude and thankfulness is the Christian response to seeing our personality as giving us advantages or strengths that smooth the path of life for us. Pride, and a condescension to other personality types not so gifted, is ultimately an expression of unbelief toward God. Such vices spring from not recognizing that God really, really is the Creator of everything seen and unseen, and therefore we take credit for God’s handiwork in us. The cure is to turn our attention to the goodness and greatness of God—that everything we value about ourselves has its source in him. We know ourselves, even in our strengths, as God’s debtors—beneficiaries of his gratuitously generous gifts.

That is part of the point of the word of God in James 1:17: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Every good and perfect gift has its source in the Father. He is the one who gives, and is unchanging in his stance of generosity to the world and especially to his children. Everything that is good and everything that is perfect in this world is a gift from the Father who does not stop giving.

This, I would suggest, should be liberating to those of us who see ourselves as inferior to others because of our personality (or any other distinguishing feature). Our weaknesses are obvious and crippling to our own eyes, and our strengths nothing to write home about. We wish we were different and more like some other person whose personality seems to open the doors to a charmed life.

Again, the problem is the same as with pride: such a despair and discontent with our lot springs from unbelief in God the Creator. Unlike the problem with pride, however, the unbelief is not based in rejecting that God is the Creator of all. Despair comes from not grasping that everything God made is good—that he only gives good and perfect gifts, not shoddy knock-offs. Everything that goes into our make-up—whether it is valued or not by current society, whether it is considered noble or base, whether it is impressive or mediocre—is good and worth having. God’s gifts are an expression of his own overflowing and ever-generous nature, and so they share in those qualities. Even the most unimpressive human being in human evaluation is weighed down by more gifts flowing from the Father of light than we can conceive or even imagine.

So a knowledge of your personality can be a prod to pride or despair. But this should then spur us on to develop our knowledge of God in its turn—and to take to heart the truth that God is the great and good Creator of absolutely everything—ourselves, in all our distinctive qualities, included.

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