In GOOD SOIL, I’m striving to provide you with some fresh ingredients for a deeply-rooted, well-lived life.
Notice that I didn’t write spiritual life. I remember reading an interview with Eugene Peterson where he was asked about how he talked with people about their spiritual lives. And he said he doesn’t ask people about their spiritual lives, he simply asks them about their lives—for all of life is spiritual and all of life is embodied and emplaced too. So he would ask them about their work, their marriages, their kids, their frustrations, their prayers, and so on.
When I think about self awareness, personal growth, and personality profiles like the Enneagram, Peterson’s wisdom comes to mind. Is this a spiritual resource or a natural one? I don’t know, but it’s valuable.
If you’re totally unfamiliar with the Enneagram, I encourage you to still read on. This won’t be a great introduction to the wisdom of the Enneagram, its nine styles, and how each style relates to others, but hopefully it helps you approach this ancient personality theory. (I have written a quick introduction
for a local magazine and have three articles coming out for a local business journal in the next three months, and if you’re a Central Missourian, I add my upcoming Enneagram events here
Today, I want to provide you with some good soil for your use of the Enneagram. Think of this as “how to get the most out of the Enneagram without getting weird about it.”
We all set? Here are my 5 Rules.
1. Keep It in Its Place
The Enneagram is a wise tool for understanding yourself and others so that you can better love God, serve others well, and promote healthy relationships in your sphere of influence. It is not the Third Testament of the Bible, the fourth member of the Trinity, the sourcebook for Christian spirituality, or a party trick for stereotyping others.
When I was introduced to the Enneagram, it was through the guidance of a wise older counselor and in the midst of a season where I had hit a wall. I knew that my spiritual disciplines and local church involvement had served me well, but I needed to make an inward journey to consider my past, understand my motivations, and learn how to better relate to my wife, kids, friends, and church members. It was a perfect storm for the Lord to gently lead me into a deeper relationship with him, and the Enneagram played an important role in that transformation.
Honestly, I cringe when people say, “the Enneagram changed my life.” Of course, most people are not misusing the Enneagram, but I do think the way we speak of it matters. When I ask people how the Enneagram changed them, they often describe an experience similar to mine—at a moment of need, God led them to the people and resources needed for healing and transformation.
It’s easier to say that a popular, culturally-acceptable personality profile changed your life; but hopefully it’s more honest to say, “God changed my life—through his Holy Spirit, prayer, wise counsel, friends, and self-awareness. And the Enneagram was a really helpful part of it!”
2. Focus on Yourself, Not Others
The Enneagram is a resource for self-awareness, increased humility and well-being. It is not primarily a tool to diagnose and categorize other people.
If you find yourself frequently using the Enneagram to critique and type other people, and rarely use it to recognize your own gifts and weaknesses, then you’re doing it wrong. My rule of thumb: Be relentless in looking for my own sin and signs of grace in others’ lives, but proceed with caution when noticing great victories in my own life or sins in the lives of others.
So, how should we use the Enneagram in the lives of others?
3. Use It to Heal, Not Harm
Now we’re cookin’ with grease. If you understand the Enneagram and have applied its wisdom to your own personality and relational styles, and if someone is ready for you to speak into their life in the language of the Enneagram, then Rule #3 applies to you: You may certainly use the Enneagram to build someone up and help them move toward growth and maturity.
Unfortunately, most people’s first exposure to the Enneagram is negative: Their weaknesses, proclivities, and limitations jump to the surface. The Enneagram allows us to say, with striking but imperfect accuracy, “As a Three, you probably struggle with over-identifying with your role in relationships and organizations, which makes you tell people what they want to hear and shape-shift to fit what’s needed there.” And yet, Resist that urge!
It’s unloving to assume to know another person’s sin patterns through the lens of the Enneagram. If you are concerned about someone’s behavior or think they are demonstrating a pattern of sin, approach them with grace and within biblical guidelines, and leave the Enneagram out of it. Don’t bite the fuse off the Enneagram grenade and throw it over the fence, while you take cover.
On the other hand, I do think it’s appropriate to occasionally reference the Enneagram to encourage someone. “As a Two, you are probably much more aware of others’ needs than me; I want to grow in that.” I like to think of the Enneagram as a source of sneaky wisdom, allowing me to ask good questions and make appropriate suggestions for growth. All this is to say: Use it for good, not evil.
4. Embrace Complexity, Not Stereotypes
There are nine primary styles, not nine exactly similar types of people. Wait a sec, let me find the bold key:
There are nine primary styles, not nine exactly similar types of people.
The Enneagram helps us understand how complex (not simple) we are. Much like #1, I think language matters, not because I want to be the Chief of the Enneagram Police, but so that we are giving credit where credit is due. God has made us wonderfully unique persons in his glorious image, and we are minimizing his creative work when we limit his design of his children to nine types. When someone asks me what number I am, I want to respond, “About 185. How much do you weigh?” I feel like that will play pretty well.
When someone genuinely does want to get to know me and understands the language of the Enneagram, I still don’t want to simply respond, “Three.” I prefer to say, “I identify with the Three primarily, but I’m also an introvert and identify with the Two and the Nine, but of course, all personality is more complex than a few categories.”
5. Embrace Your Reality, Don’t Make Excuses
The Enneagram has helped me so much. It allows me to be more thoughtful and specific in understanding my sin patterns, weaknesses, and ability to hurt myself and others. It enables me to take ownership of my mistakes, hurt of others, and sin. It is a wonderful gift of common grace from God.
But the Enneagram can also be misused here: It can give us language and categories to make excuses for sin. If I hurt someone’s feelings by ignoring them, or if I come home late from work, or if I boast in beatin’ the spandex off someone in a bike race, I can’t brush that off by saying, “Well, I’m a Three, so I often say stuff like that.”
Instead, I need to embrace my reality. The Lord has created me and gifted me in a certain way, and it carries a long shadow behind it. There are consistent ways that I fall short of being the person God is making me into, but I can’t justify those as simply “three things.”
There’s a hidden grace here, too. The shadow leads back to the source.
Often, the best way to discover a gift or strength is to see its shadow (misuse, weakness, or sin) and then ask, “What good thing has been corrupted here?” When we do this, we discover that we can learn far more from our mistakes and failures than our best moments and accomplishments.
6. Don’t Be a Weirdo
This one’s a bonus. Don’t be a weirdo with it. You’re making the rest of us look bad.
Those are the rules! You’re welcome. I am immensely thankful to the Lord that he has provided us with the wisdom of the Enneagram, and I hope you find it as useful in the pursuit of him and of emotional health as I have. The Enneagram has allowed me to provide deep counsel, offer sincere prayers, work with teams, teach classes, and write articles. I’m incredibly thankful for it. But for me, it’s not riding shotgun in my spiritual formation, and it’s not even in the backseat. But it is one of the most helpful maps in the glovebox.