Last summer I spent a week in Italy teaching through three minor prophets on the Alpine Bible School. A group of us were enjoying an ice cream on an afternoon trip to a local village. About fifteen minutes before we were due to be back at the minibus one of our group started to become just mildly restless making diffident “Erm…” noises. What amused me was that I was seeing an exact replica of my own behaviour when I begin to feel nervous about being late- indeed I was probably only sixty seconds away from my own hesitant attempts to move the group on. Further questioning revealed that my friend and I had almost identical personalities- we react to things in a very similar way. Given that he was in his mid-20s I did remark to him that he was likely to turn into me in fifteen years time. Strangely that remark appeared to depress him.
Personality has always interested me as a concept. I have to confess that I haven’t read widely on the subject (as the rest of the piece will probably indicate) but I do find people endlessly fascinating. As you study people, it is clear that we instinctively react to situations differently. We are a random collection of introverts and extroverts, optimists and pessimists (otherwise known as realists), those who are intense and others who are laidback, thinkers and those who are more emotionally engaged, the natural conformists (“the police”) and the instinctive rebels (“the bandits”) and so on. The mixture makes the world a more interesting place and, occasionally, a frustrating one when different personality types are forced to work closely together.
It makes life interesting as a pastor as well. Most training on preaching contains a section on applying the Scriptures to a congregation- I am about to lead this session on our Bible Handling course next week. Often the advice is given to preachers to think through the different situations that the congregation might be in. For instance, what would the application of the passage be to an old person, a young mum, a new Christian or somebody facing a difficult situation at work? The advice is good and works well for practical application. But I am increasingly convinced of the need to apply to different personality types. There are certain truths that certain temperaments find hardest to accept (e.g. the perfectionist and grace). Pointing that out is helpful if the truth of God’s Word is to sink in.
But how should we view personality or temperament? Different personalities clearly exist within the Scriptures- Abraham is distinct from Jacob, Ruth and Naomi would probably land in different places on the optimism scale and Paul is not Peter. Nevertheless the promises and commands of Scripture are the same for all personalities- the extrovert is not let off the command to listen for instance. So how do I both recognise my natural instincts whilst acknowledging that Scripture will call me to believe and do certain things that won’t come naturally? Here are two ways forward.
1. Recognise the way God has made you and use the gifts He has given you.
We probably know the New Testament teaching that the church is a body made up of people with different gifts and that it is stronger for being such. Imagine the nightmare of a church full of preachers but with nobody who could do admin! I think you could say the same about personality types. The church needs the full mixture- indeed there is probably quite an overlap between temperament and gifting. I am deeply thankful for extroverts who naturally relate better to newcomers than I do. I am something of a broad brush thinker so will instinctively ignore the complex details of either a plan or a passage of Scripture! But church plans and my exegesis are enriched by those irritating detail merchants. Many years ago now I led a Christian group with somebody whose personality was almost dimatrecially opposed to me. He was bold where I was diffident and loved going into battle when I was itching for compromise. It created some tension at times but I am fairly convinced that the group was better than if either of us had led it on our own.
That means we should be able to see the strengths of our natural personality type and give thanks to God for them. There is an extent to which our temperaments are a reflection of the image of God in us.
2. Our temperaments are flawed and need work.
One of the most helpful comments I remember from a sermon was this- “Never mistake temperament for holiness.” That is exactly right. People like me need to hear that particularly. Temperamentally I run a mile from conflict, have been trained by background to be polite and am reasonably positive most of the time. That can look like holiness but probably isn’t. I suspect I would be a very nice non-Christian! Bizarrely I am probably at my most godly when confronting somebody because love will be the only thing that would make me do it- ironically at the time when most people would suggest that I am being ungodly!
The point is this- all personalities will have weaknesses. The pessimist will probably need to fight to believe the promises of God, the optimist will need to train themselves to weep with those who weep, the placid person will need to fight for the truth, the emotionally attuned individual will need to submit to the Word of the Scriptures, the laid back person will have to fight to work hard and so on. None of that can be excused with the cop out- “That’s just who I am!” The goal in all of this is that we become like the perfect man, the Lord Jesus.
As we think about the weaknesses of our temperament we need to ask this question: does personality ever change? I think my answer to that would be no and yes. I am not sure we should ever expect a complete 360 degree change in personality. But the Spirit- using His Gospel- can do a work of transformation in us. I am doing quite a lot of work on Martin Luther at the moment. His early life is marked by anxiety, intensity, perfectionism and fear. Those aspects of personality do recur at various points in his life- they never leave him completely. But does he also- as the Gospel gets to work in his life- become joyful, funny and marked by a great sense of life? Absolutely. And I would say that I have seen the same in others over the years when grace has got a grip on people.
Those are just initial thoughts. I would say that our natural temperament is one of the most important things about us. We would be wise to pay attention to it- both to be thankful to God for the positive aspects of it but also so that we might not remain victims of the weaknesses of it. It is worth praying about the dangers of our temperaments for the Spirit is able to work in us to change us.