Everywhere I turn someone is talking about personality tests, and more and more they are talking about the Enneagram. Our culture craves self-knowledge. Tell me my spirit animal or Hogwarts house, and you know I’ll share my results on Facebook.
I find it both surprising and ironic that the Enneagram has so quickly gained popularity in the culture while some evangelicals remain suspicious of the tool. After all, it is a system that robustly affirms our sin and brokenness. As Western Seminary professor Chuck DeGroat recently reminded skeptical conservative Christians, “The Enneagram has people of all stripes talking about besetting sin patterns. Can you imagine that? It takes sin far more seriously than any contemporary psychological tool, perhaps so seriously that it’s shattering behavioral sin paradigms that give people a false sense of control.”
Recently, a prominent Evangelical leader condemned the Enneagram as “an approach to spirituality that is alien to, and often at odds with, the language and contours of Scripture.” But as Howard Baker, professor of Christian formation at Denver Seminary, stated, “Some evangelicals are wary, skeptical, or critical of the Enneagram based on one author’s interpretation or use of it. That would be like discarding the Bible after reading one ultra-liberal commentary on it.”
While on the surface the Enneagram may appear to be just another personality typology ending in self-knowledge, I believe it can be a tool for stepping into the transformation God extends to us in Christ. But the tool won’t work if we don’t first know its purpose in context of the Gospel.
To know anything about ourselves and the purpose of personality, we must first understand the centrality of relationship in the story of the Gospel. God is in Himself relationship as “three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity.” God exists in a flowing dance of reciprocal love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As humans, we were created in the image of God, which means we are “structured by and for relationships.” Just as the Father, Son, and Spirit give and receive their presence in perfect love to one another, we offer our presence to others and absorb theirs in return, whether we realize it or not.
The Gospel is an enthralling invitation to be reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scripture says to “put off your old self” and “put on the new self created after the likeness of God.” But it can be difficult to know exactly what that means in everyday life. The Enneagram is a tool that can reveal the specific ways we are held captive to our self as well as the unique ways God intends for us to display his glory and love to the world. More than a simple label, the Enneagram is a guide to receiving the transforming presence of Christ in the exact places sin and wounds make us fall short of the glory of God.
Put simply, the Enneagram makes sanctification specific by giving us a roadmap to where we most need God’s healing. As Baker asserted, “The genius of the Enneagram is that it offers nine (actually even more) distinct pathways of transformation. Image-bearers are unique creations of their Creator, and disciples are in the process of being redeemed in unique ways. The Enneagram can be a powerful assist to this God-authored redemption.”
When used in concert with Scripture and community, insights from the Enneagram system can illuminate with acuity how our old self (Romans 6:6, Ephesians 4:22, Colossians 3:9) wars against our true identity as daughters and sons of God. Enneagram coach Beth McCord shared, “The heart of our problem is the problem of our heart! It’s our internal world that needs transforming, and the Enneagram reveals why you think, feel, and behave in particular ways (our heart’s motivations).”
How can we begin to approach the Enneagram as a tool to draw us into the love of Christ and the power of Scripture? To be truly transformational, the Enneagram must be engaged slowly, deeply, and communally.
While it is easy to take an online assessment, the real fruit of the Enneagram grows through patient and curious consideration of our life story. Instead of simply accepting a new label as a One or a Six, the Enneagram invites us to look deeper. Because the Enneagram is focused on underlying motivations rather than surface behaviors, it can take quite a long time to discover our types. As a therapist, you would think I would recognize my personality dynamics within minutes, but it took me a full year to figure out I am a Four!
As my husband likes to explain, finding your Enneagram type is like being in a fitting room at your favorite clothing store, except for the desired outcome. When trying on clothes the hope generally is to find an outfit that fits and flatters. But with the Enneagram, the process of discovering your core style is to try on the wardrobes of each type until you feel naked!
Your Enneagram type should expose your underlying motives in relationships: the need to be perfect, the need to be needed, the need to succeed, the need to be special, the need to be competent, the need to be safe, the need to be happy, the need for control, and the need for peace.
Beyond exposure, your Enneagram type should articulate the story God has already been writing in your life.
As a therapist, I love how the Enneagram reflects insights from attachment theory and object-relations theory about the human condition, particularly how our relationships impact both who we are and how we can flourish. With the help of the Holy Spirit and safe, loving relationships, the Enneagram can help us acknowledge the wounds we’ve received from relationships and the consequential tactics we’ve developed to find acceptance and belonging. Further, the Enneagram guides us in specific ways we can engage our relationships with greater trust and reciprocity.
Using the Enneagram as a conversation tool in our relationship with God and our relationships with others can help us extend to one another a more grounded, receptive presence. It elucidates our enduring sin patterns and reveals the distinctly beautiful ways we reflect God to the world. As a Four, I am learning I no longer need to work so hard to assert my uniqueness in the world, but can find contentment and balance in God as the one who is always with me and for me. I no longer aimlessly allow my rapidly-shifting emotions to rule how I relate to others, and I can steward my empathy and creativity as gifts in service of others.
Baker similarly expressed how he has grown as a One: “Through this tool I learned that my default, besetting sin was anger. The self-understanding provided allowed me to embark on a journey of putting off anger and putting on peace. The Enneagram also became a channel of grace for my prideful perfectionism drawing me toward Christlike humility.”
Likewise, Nashville pastor and author of From Weakness to Strength, Scott Sauls reflected, “As a solid Three on the Enneagram with an artistic Two wing, it has helped me to understand my specific strengths when healthy…It also helps me to understand that when I am in a less healthy place, I can become overly ambitious, and sometimes stretch the truth for my own personal gain and self-protection.”
Beyond increasing self-awareness, studying the Enneagram can create empathy in our relationships. Shockingly, not everyone sees the world quite like I do! Learning about the nine types can build appreciation for others’ perspectives and produce sensitivity toward the wounds and narratives that have contributed to their unique style of living. In my own marriage, aspects of my spouse and myself that were sources of mutual frustration for years are now places where we can remember each other’s history and point one another toward who we truly are in Christ.
Spend time studying the Enneagram through books such as Marilyn Vancil’s Self to Lose, Self to Find and Enneagram classics like The Wisdom of the Enneagram. While some Enneagram literature is not written from a distinctly Christian perspective, much of it is full of wisdom Christians can affirm. Read type descriptions online at places such as The Enneagram Institute and Enneagram Worldwide. Learn about cultivating a receptive, life-giving presence in Christ by reading The Relational Soul.
Consider what you are learning alongside your study of God’s Word. Look to pastors, spiritual directors, and counselors in your community to point you to spiritual disciplines and practices to aid growth. Let what you are learning be part of your conversations, but also allow it to be in the back of your mind as a signal to stay aware and awake as you go about life. Truly, the change this tool points toward is lifelong.
The Enneagram helps us see our story clearly, continuously acknowledge the ways we push away love, and intentionally work to stand in our transformed identity in Christ. Instead of being at odds with God’s Word, the Enneagram propels us to heed to Scripture and be connected to its Author.
Katie Jo Ramsey is a recovering idealist, therapist, and writer. She is currently writing her first book proposal, a memoir of surprising joy in physical suffering alongside insights from theology and neuroscience. Follow her writing on Instagram, Twitter, or KatieJoRamsey.com.