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When the Enneagram Goes to Church

When the Enneagram Goes to Church

The Enneagram is a stored treasure of human insight into how people work. 

It’s everyday wisdom for everyone.

The question is not where did it come from, but to what end is it put? Is this wisdom in the service of Christ or not? Is this insight helping you love God and your neighbor more or not? For the Christian, this is the decisive question.

If we want to think Christianly about the Enneagram, then we need to transpose its wise insights into a distinctly Christian key — the fear of the Lord. We need to frame everything it teaches in light of our reverence for God. We need to allow the lordship of Christ to shape everything we think about human personality. This is the secret. 

When we transpose the Enneagram into a Christian key, when we frame insights in terms of the fear of the Lord, everything changes. Rather than detracting from the Christian faith or distracting us from the serious business of Christian ministry and spiritual growth, we find that the Enneagram actually accelerates and enhances our movement in Christ-centered directions.

By transposing the Enneagram into a Christian key, its valid insights become genuine wisdom in the service of Christ. But if we fail to do the work of transposition, we risk embracing ways of thinking that are alien to Scripture, foreign to our faith and may be unhelpful to us as followers of Christ.

Wisdom from the Enneagram Transposed into a Christian Key

Sharing in the divine essence – Made in the image of God

Sleepwalking through life – Dead in trespasses and sins

Compassion for self and others – Humility before God and neighbor

Discovering your true self – Putting on the “new self”

Focus of attention/chief passion – Signature sin/characteristic idol

1. From sharing in the divine essence to being made in the image of God.

Enneagram teachers are fond of making an important point about personality —  namely, you aren’t your personality. They insist that we shouldn’t confuse our personality with who we really are. 

Classical Christian teaching, however, begins with the narrative of Scripture in Genesis 1, where we learn that human beings are made in the “image of God” (1:27). This is a very different conception than having a spark of divinity within us. We don’t share in God’s divine essence or nature; that’s more akin to Eastern pantheism than historic Christian theism. Rather, we are distinct creatures altogether, even though we are in his image and thus have the capacity to reflect His nature, character and will on this earth.

2. From sleepwalking through life to being dead in trespasses and sins.

Enneagram teachers also like to talk about the human condition as one of sleepwalking through life. It’s a powerful metaphor to describe how most of us are oblivious to who we are and how we relate to others. We aren’t awake to who we are; we’re fast asleep. Sure, we’re making our way through life. But it’s a kind of sleepwalking that lacks self-awareness — the kind of self-awareness offered by the Enneagram.

To transpose the Enneagram into a Christian key, we must remember the damaging effects of the fall upon the human condition. We need more than self-awareness; we need the new birth of which Jesus speaks. We need to be raised spiritually, not simply awoken from our ignorance of ourselves or our lack of self-awareness. That is closer to Gnosticism than Christianity.

3. From compassion toward ourselves and others to humility before God and our neighbor. 

One of the great benefits of the Enneagram is that it helps us not to put people in boxes but to view them with greater compassion. When we realize that our way of seeing the world is only one way — and that there are eight other ways of seeing the world — we can’t help but be more sympathetic and understanding of other peoples’ way of approaching life. This is where the Enneagram can be so helpful in improving relationships, and I’m quick to acknowledge that expressing compassion is entirely aligned with the Christian faith.

Transposed into a Christian key, this is a great definition of what humility looks like. Of course, for the Christian humility toward others begins with humility before God. Only when we see ourselves as both beautiful and broken, created and fallen, alienated and redeemed, will we begin to have a full and proper sense of humility before God and others.

4. From discovering your true self to putting on the new self. 

Enneagram teacher Marilyn Vancil has written a fine book entitled Self to Lose—Self to Find: A Biblical Approach to the 9 Enneagram Types. She speaks about “two selves,” the authentic self and the adapted self. There is good biblical precedent for thinking about two selves, and it can be very helpful for people to begin to distinguish between who they are (true self) and who they want to be (false or adapted self). I have found this distinction very useful personally and in counseling others.

We should, however, be aware of its limits and its potential to mislead. The Christian faith calls us to something more — something more radical and more profound — than discovering our true self. The biblical teaching about the self is both more dynamic and more moral in its focus.

Of course, Christians can find tremendous help in this process of moral renewal by working with the Enneagram distinction between the true and false self. But Scripture’s vision of the self and its transformation is both more extensive and expansive.

5. From focus of attention/chief passion to signature sins/characteristic idols.

Recently, I was discussing the Enneagram with a friend over lunch. He mentioned how he appreciated the Enneagram’s ability to help him see the “contours of his own sin.” 

I really like that way of putting it.

Enneagram teachers often talk about our “focus of attention,” what we tend to fixate on, or what we are prone to see or not see. This is one of the core features of personality — our attention and where it is directed.

When transposed into a Christian key, the Enneagram becomes a very astute and reliable guide to the idols of our hearts, to the ways in which we fixate on certain things by virtue of our unique wiring, temperament, or personality.

Transposing the insights of the Enneagram into a Christian key, as I have tried to do here, isn’t meant to be a game of semantics or readjusting our words — “You say potato, I say potahto.” To be sure, words are important; they do matter. But they matter because of how they shape the way we conceive of and think about reality.

Yet therein lies the danger with the Enneagram. When we adopt language that is foreign to Scripture and to historic Christian ways of speaking, we run the risk of embracing concepts and categories that are likewise alien to Scripture and the Christian faith. What begins as a subtle difference in terminology becomes, if we’re not careful, a profoundly alien way of thinking. Of course, it takes work to transpose the Enneagram into a Christian key. So why bother?

Because the Enneagram offers us a rich resource for understanding the human personality and interpersonal relationships. The Enneagram is the protein shake of personality inventories. There is so much packed into those nine numbers that the Enneagram is a potential goldmine for pastors and their congregations. In other words, the work of transposing the Enneagram is well worth it.

Adapted from The Enneagram Goes to Church by Todd Wilson. Copyright (c) 2021 by Todd Wilson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, USA.

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