I’m currently on sabbatical in Australia- enjoying outstanding hospitality and terrific views whilst doing a little bit of speaking. The main talk that I am doing whilst here is coming up on Sunday night.
But I had intended to write a follow-up to my first piece on personality before I left so thought I would write it now whilst hiding from the winter sun!
In the first piece I argued that our personality types are one of the things most overlooked in our battles to be Christlike. Different personalities bring opportunities: churches are better for being made up of a variety of temperaments. However, we also need actively to be aware of the weaknesses of our personality. The fall means that there will be behaviour that feels natural to us that ends up being damaging.
Let me work through a couple of examples then- one that applies to me and one that doesn’t. Consider an introvert for a moment. I am probably off the scale in this regard! My character is probably best revealed when I tell you that my favourite day off features long reflective walks along the coast with very little human company followed by a couple of hours with a good friend where we do no small talk but rather have intense conversation about how our lives are going. Very little terrifies me more than being thrown in a room with loads of people that I don’t know- or even know a little bit!
What do you do with that as a Christian? It is worth playing up to the strengths of that. I know that, at my best, I can be semi-decent at listening to friends. I am naturally reflective- I don’t mind going away and thinking through an issue (or a sermon) and coming back with a conclusion. And spending time on my own praying is not as difficult for me as it is for others. You see some of the above in the life of the Lord Jesus who does withdraw from the crowds at times. Now I am not saying that my ability to do these things is a result of great effort- they just come naturally.
But I need to pay attention to the other side. It has taken me a while to realise what the chief weakness of being an introvert is. However, I think I have now framed it: the great danger is of seeing other people (unless they are close friends) fundamentally as a threat. You see I have my nice life with my nice opportunities to think pleasant thoughts. It is easy to regard other people as an intrusion to that because they force me to relate to them in a way that won’t come easily to me.
However, it is not ultimately beneficial to see people in that regard- certainly not if we are Christians. You don’t see that attitude in Christ. No- we are made as human beings to relate to others. We are called to love and show compassion towards them. Love, if we are introverts, will involve allowing other people to interrupt our cosy existence. Besides, to have friends we need to start with the uncomfortable necessity of talking to those we don’t know.
I remember a friend of mine, who was pretty introverted, who set himself up in two or three prayer triplets with people he didn’t know well. He explained his reasoning to me- “I don’t naturally want to do this. But I believe that God has made me a relational being and so I know this is good for me.” He proved to be a real blessing to others as a result. Perhaps there are things like that that we would resist but with which we need to engage.
Very often, love is demonstrated by doing what does not come easily to us. For the introvert, love may well start by seeing others as people to be cared for and engaged with rather than as a threat to our preferred way of life.
The other personality type I want to reflect on is the perfectionist. As it happens, I am not a perfectionist. That is probably evident from my preaching! Joking apart, other friends of mine endlessly tinker with their sermon until the moment it is preached whereas my first script is normally my finished version. However, although I am not a perfectionist, I have plenty of friends who are and it has been interesting to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of that.
Again, the strengths are obvious. The perfectionist is willing to work hard to do a job well. They don’t want to let people down and so are often reliable. They work at things with all their heart. To become an able musician, accountant, preacher or teacher does involve diligence and hard work: this is commended by God in the Scriptures.
However, there are potential pitfalls- which is probably the last thing the perfectionist wants to hear. One is less serious whilst the other is perilous.
Firstly, one of my reflections when we did our series on busyness was that it is impossible to do everything perfectly. The Lord has given us a range of responsibilities- in work, family, friendships and church. Given the number of hours in a week (which the Lord knows) it is simply impossible to do all of those at 100%. Rather, we are called to do the best we can whilst fulfilling the other responsibilities that we have. If a job is worth doing then it is worth doing at 70%! It is why, whilst I work hard at preparing a sermon, I can’t make it perfect because then I would never fulfil the other responsibilities the Lord has given me.
But the more serious issue for the perfectionist is this. Please learn to accept the grace of God. I can think of a good friend of mine who is something of a perfectionist. The problem was that he was often miserable as a Christian because he was so conscious of the ways in which he was constantly failing. His response was invariably to try harder as a form of self-atonement. It never worked and the misery simply increased.
The perfectionist needs to know this- they can never be good enough for God. Never. But- praise God- they don’t need to be. What they need is to trust the blood of Christ that flowed for imperfections. And to know that peace with God is only ever received and never achieved. If you naturally head towards a perfectionism that is constantly disappointed with yourself, can I encourage you daily to receive the grace of God with open hands? It is the only way to contentment.
Introversion and perfectionism are simply two examples of natural temperaments that lead to good and bad results. It is worth working through the natural inclinations we have- either for ourselves or as we disciple others. Here are the questions to reflect on:
Where does my natural personality lead me in helpful directions? How can I use that for God’s glory?
Where does it lead me in unhelpful directions? How can I move away from that and become more like Christ?
That may help us towards godliness- which will often involve working against what comes naturally to us.