Pealing Back

I have a love hate relationship with personality tests. Unfortunately, in ministry vocations they seem ubiquitos. Whether it is the Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, or Work Styles profiles, we are constantly testing ourselves as a practice of self-reflection. The problem is, of course, sometimes we don’t want to know this much about ourselves. Ignorance is often bliss. On the other hand, self-knowledge can be a tool of self-justification. While there are those who hide from personality surveys, there are those that hide behind them. Both are escaptist. One runs from knowing, the other runs from changing.

Yet, as I frequently teach, spirituality is a matter of understanding ourselves in the light of God. Knowing more about myself isn’t a self-interested enterprise. Rather, it is a practice that also guides us to knowing more about God and who God has created us to be. That project requires also finding out about our dark sides, the things Christian tradition has called vices. Knowing both the dark and the light side of ourseleves reveals both where we are and where God is leading us. In other words, we come to see our transformation in grace as we see the things we wish we didn’t know.

I remember vividly the first time I worked with the Enneagram. We were at a retreat and had each taken the survey. In the evening session, after I had been reading up on my “number,” we were invited to share about our understandings and experiences. I was amazed by those around me who seemed ready and willing to peal back the masks and talk humbly and bluntly about their hopes and struggles. I was not as willing. Everything I had read made me cringe. I was not ready to disclose what I had learned about myself, nor was I ready to share where I thought it was leading.

Now, some five years later, I am still in that place. In a recent conversation I shared some of what I have learned about myself through various surveys. It was like pealing off a bandage that has been stuck for some time. Whether slow or fast, the pull and pain are never something to look forward to. I even went back to my notes on my Enneagram number and the same frustrations resurfaced. While I hope that what I learned in five years has moved me further into grace, I could still see the things I wish I did not know.

This kind of self-work is not a matter of works justification. Rather, it is a journey in and through grace. Grace uncovers our struggles, and grace gives us the means to live even more fully into grace. And in light of such grace, we cannot help but try. We are not trying to transform ourselves by our own handiwork but are taking part in what God has begun in us. That is to say that God’s grace does not wipe away our struggles to fulfill our hopes in an instant. In fact, grace has a way of revealing the stregnth in our weakness. God invites us into the journey of living into our salvation– that is, who God created us to be and become. The tricky part is that we are stuck in time. We cannot help but look at this journey in terms of cause and effect. Yet, as Paul reminds us, we are to keep at the race.

Pealing back the masks we wear intentionally or those shaped unconsciously over time. This pealing back is what Thomas Merton called living into our true-selves. Much is made of autheticity today. People long to be accepted for who they are. These personality assessments have a way of confirming the worst of our personalities, for after all it is simply “who I am.” So we tell each other our types in a hope that we are somehow being transparent or authentic and expect others to adapt. Within the larger frame of Christian spirituality, however, these tests help us to see who we are becoming in the light of God. The change is on us personally. We are to know ourselves, and that means the blind spots in our individuality while at the same time seeing the strengths and opportunities. In other words we must look at our results through grace– seeing the drawbacks being transformed into opportunities.

The trick, at least for me, is learning how to see myself in a less self-depricating light. In other words coming to a place where I no longer cringe at the results, but ask in prayer how might I turn to more healthy and vital ways of living into grace.

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