A couple of years ago I wrote a few posts around the theme of personality. It is perfectly clear that we all have different temperaments- look at people’s approach to a crowded room of strangers and you’ll quickly notice a difference between introverts and extroverts. We probably sense within ourselves (especially if we are reflective introverts!) some of the joys and pains of our particular personality. But I don’t think there has been a lot of work done on how this impacts our Christian lives. So in previous posts I tried to do some thinking and essentially made two key points:
Our personalities are reflective of God’s creation meaning that we contribute a variety of strengths and gifts to church and society.
Our personalities will be impacted by the Fall. There will be times when, to obey God, we will need to face down our natural personalities by the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Partly because of my interest in personality I was asked to lead a seminar on the recent Pastoral Refreshment Conference where the overall theme was “Abounding in Thankfulness”. I was given the title above- “Thankfulness for Eeyores and Tiggers.” Now I was at a slight disadvantage in that- confession time- I have never been a great devotee of Winnie the Pooh. In asking my colleagues here at the church they suggested that I was neither Eeyore nor Tigger but was more akin to Owl. That sounded good until I checked an online description- “He often rambles on into long winded speeches…Though he likes to present as knowledegable, he is of average intelligence…He can be cross and annoyed, especially when his friends ignore or interrupt his long winded speeches. In the office, we often find Owls promoted beyond their competence.” Suffice it to say that my colleagues’ opinion really did turn me into an Eeyore.
But, more seriously, the question is this- How can I be thankful given my natural personality? Some of us are naturally “glass half empty” people- or perhaps we can’t even see the glass. We identify naturally with the pain of life. We can see problems developing. Perhaps we are good at noticing those who are hurting. Of course there are huge strengths to such a personality. If I am in emotional pain, I probably don’t want the cheerful optimist to be my companion. I will want somebody who knows how to weep. Equally the natural pessimist isn’t always wrong from a Christian perspective. One of the helpful contributions from the seminar discussion noted that the goal is biblical realism- there is pain now, plans and people will fail now even as we also work on the optimistic basis that the kingdom will grow to be the biggest tree in the field in the run up to when Jesus returns.
One of the challenges, though, for the natural pessimist can be the area of thanksgiving. Martyn Lloyd-Jones picks this up in his work on Spiritual Depression. He poses the question as to why some Christians are not as joyful as the New Testament would indicate they might be and, with a doctor’s diagnostic skill, he notes- “The problems…are in a large measure determined by the difference of temperament.” For some of us, we will need to work harder at being thankful because we will be better at spotting difficulties than reasons for thanksgiving. And we do need to do that work because thanksgiving is a key indicator of spiritual health in the New Testament. In Romans 1:21, a failure to thank God is seen as being right at the heart of human sin. As you work through Colossians you find thanksgiving all over the place. In chapter 1 joyfully giving thanks to the Father is one of four marks of a life that pleases the Lord. In chapter 2 overflowing with thankfulness is part of the ongoing Christian life. In 3:15-17 there are three references to gratitude and thanksgiving including the terse command- “Be thankful”. Jesus commends the one leper who has been healed who returns to give thanks whilst criticising the nine who failed to praise God. More than that, I am convinced that thanksgiving is often the pathway to joy. In leading a seminar at a pastors’ conference it felt appropriate to emphasise this for perseverance in ministry is so often linked with knowing the joy of the Lord as our strength.
So here is the dilemma. Thankfulness is commanded for all Christians irrespective of natural personality. But that won’t always come easily. For the activist Tigger that might necessitate slowing down for long enough to give thanks and see God’s hand rather than simply their effort. For the pessimistic Eeyore it may require looking hard for reasons to give thanks rather than only spotting the problems. How might that happen practically? I want to commend the discipline of thanksgiving. For many of us a sense of thanksgiving won’t naturally waft into our hearts. We will need consciously to work at it. Here are three things that I have found helpful in doing that:
The Psalm 136 story. The Psalm starts “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.” In the following verses you get the biography of Israel- the different ways in which God’s enduring love has been shown for which thanks can be given. I wonder what you would call your autobiography. I witnessed somebody being asked that at an interview recently. For myself I am conscious that my life is a history of God treating me better than my sins deserve. And that can stir thanks. It is a good exercise- consciously to look back over a period of time- the last week, month, year or lifetime, see God’s enduring love and give thanks. Sometimes- as in Israel’s case- that enduring love will be in the midst of a wilderness experience. But there are reasons to be grateful for God’s love in the midst of that. I often use annual landmarks- birthday, new year, visiting an annual conference- as a way of doing this even if I am simply grateful that God has kept me as a Christian for another year despite how fickle I am.
The Colossians 1:3 story. Paul was no idealist when it came to the church. He knew about its problems. And yet, time and again, he could find reasons for giving thanks for a church- often for their faith in Jesus and love for other Christians. Many of us are good at spotting difficulties within the church and our assessment may well be accurate. Leaders often know even more than others about the problems and difficulties going on within the church. But it is good to train ourselves- what are the reasons in the church to be thankful? What is the good that is going on for which to praise God? That discipline will undoubtedly please the Lord.
The Colossians 1:12 story. Life will throw at us any number of challenges and temptations- sometimes as a form of emotional whirlwind. Occasionally it is useful to stop and ask two questions- Who am I? Where am I? Colossians 1 tells me that, because of Jesus’ work on the cross, I am astonishingly one of God’s holy people. And where am I? I am in the Kingdom of God’s Son- otherwise known as the Kingdom of Light. Whatever my personality is telling me- because of Jesus that is who I am and where I am. And if I grasp that I will find that I always have reasons to be thankful.
I am not always good at putting these things into practice. But occasionally when I have found joy feeling very distant I have been able to pursue a discipline of being thankful. The result is that joy can be found. Jim Packer’s reflection on personality is this- “I am not to remain a victim to my temperament. Temperament remains, but temperament no longer controls. The Holy Spirit is in control.” It is for that reasons that even Eeyores can discipline themselves to be thankful and so please God and find joy.