I used to reject personality typologies. You know, Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder and the like. They unnerved me. I didn’t like to see my friends identifying with stock, short, formulaic paragraphs. “You’re so much more than that!” “You could change!” “Don’t limit yourself to that!”
I thought personality types were excuses for spiritual stagnation. They allowed people to say, “That’s not who I am,” while rejecting clear commands that God gave everyone. They allowed people to blame their essential limitations (and, by extension, the God who gave those limitations) for their sins.
I thought they were shoddy replacements for the beautiful, hard work of loving and getting to know other people. They gave one the power that comes from intimately knowing a friend, but without the love or the true, discovered knowledge - a utilitarian approach to relationship formation.
Those bad things happen sometimes. Self-knowledge (or confident self-opinion) and knowledge of others (or confident opinions about them) is powerful, and it can be used in very bad ways. It can replace love, repentance, virtue, and hope.
So I was proud of my rejection. Abstaining from personality typologies, I thought, made it easier for me to see people as they are, instead of merely treating them like members of a mental category. Abstaining from typologies showed my commitment to love and friendship. It showed my respect for the sacredness of the individual. It showed my willingness to take responsibility for my sins. It kept me from overconfident opinions. These things were good. Ideal! And everyone should be ideal. So I was proud.
But then I read East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. There’s lots to learn from the novel about community, personality, heritage, and free will, but one thing in particular disrupted my comfortable rejection of personality types.
Throughout the second half of the novel, two twin brothers strive to be worthy of their father’s affection. Aron is the golden child. Naturally kind, talented, good in school, and sweet-tempered, he effortlessly causes everyone around him to dote on him. Cal, by contrast, is passionate and unpredictable, poorer in school, short-tempered, and jealous of his brother’s easy excellence, with tendencies toward drunkenness and a less-controlled sexual appetite.
When you see them, you’re supposed to think of Abel (Aron) and Cain (Cal), and their disparate efforts to offer God an acceptable sacrifice. It’s an easy comparison, right? Aron, the golden child, offers the acceptable sacrifice. He’s ideal. Not Cal.
But Steinbeck makes it harder. As the story moves on, Aron turns his father’s easy favor into personal confidence, then turns his personal confidence into condescension, until he drops out of his family’s story altogether, believing in his own superiority. Far from offering his father an acceptable sacrifice, Aron leaves his father. Cal, on the other hand, after offering poor sacrifice after poor sacrifice, working with all his might to be accepted, surrenders his striving, and turns to his father in need. He stays with his father through the end.
Abel becomes a Cain. Cain becomes an Abel.
In the process of that transformation, there’s a short, compelling, condemning description of Aron. As he’s walking down the church aisle, a proper white-robed altar boy carrying a bright gold cross, he’s described as easily condemning those sins that were never difficult for him. He didn’t struggle with a strong sexual appetite, so he found it easy to condemn sexual transgressions. He didn’t struggle with aggressive impulses, so he found it easy to condemn violence.
The implication is that he spent so much time obsessing over sins that never tempted him, that he ignored the sins that did tempt him: pride, vainglory, self-made religion, and the like.
See, because he leaned into his ideals, his listed morals, and refused to associate with anything that didn’t fit those ideals, Aron began living in a world of “cleans” and “uncleans.” And as he saw more of the world, growing up, his disgust mounted. He wasn’t ready for a world chock full of fallen people. He confined himself more and more closely to circumstances he could control, could keep pure. Once he saw his father’s feebleness, he rejected his father. He left entirely.
By insisting on living in an ideal interpersonal world, Aron ended up rejecting the world. You can’t be free from the mess and muck of diverse human efforts toward depravity or sanctification. He squandered away the easy approval that he - without effort - had been granted throughout his life. Because what is approval worth, if you don’t have love?
Aron’s story - his walking away from his father’s approval - hit me hard. I saw clearly that it could be my story. I could get so caught up in my moral ideals that I rejected my neighbors. My rejection of personality typologies was indicative of this. By insisting on the ideal for human interactions and relationships, and for lived-out morality, I was keeping myself from seeing real human diversity.
See, what Aron never learned, but what he helped me learn, was that virtue isn’t only universal. It’s also individual. One day, we all will be called to live by the same standards and in the same way that Christ does. Virtue is universal. Yet right now, in the haze of our waiting time, while the Light has come but must come once more, we are a community of all-fallen people, differently endowed by God’s grace to face humanity’s many temptations. Our striving after Christ’s righteousness by the power of his Spirit for the glory of his Father isn’t limited to a certain sort of person. To become like Christ, you don’t have to become like me.
CS Lewis put this clearly. In Mere Christianity, he reminds us that a person with a life-long fear of cats might exercise more courage in picking one up, than a front-line soldier who has never struggled with fear does. Our virtue doesn’t come from our circumstances and limitations - not even the circumstances and limitations of our personalities: what we desire or what we fear or how we operate. Rather, our virtue shows in what we do with those circumstances.
This realization led me to re-examine Aron and Cal.
Aron, by grace, exhibited God’s purity, his excellence, and his community, yes. But Cal, by grace, exhibited God’s efficacy, power, and glory. Who is to say which of those attributes is better? Who is to say which image of God is truer?
True, Cal fell easily into lust and anger and disunity. And Aron didn’t. Yet Aron, invisibly and mightily, fell into pride and vainglory and improper judgment. Cal didn’t. Cal’s sins - disordered sex, willing self-enslavement, rage - are showier, and more popularly detestable. But are they worse than Aron’s? I don’t think so.
See, Aron wasn’t even “better off” than Cal was in navigating this groaning world. He was differently equipped, and just as fallen. Just as in need of grace. In the end, he - the golden child - fell, and his brother - so seemingly hopeless - found redemption.
Truly, truly: man looks at outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.
I finally took one of those tests. It told me that I’m the sort of person who is likely to despise those tests. Got me there. It told me that seeing people and listening come easily for me. And it helped me see that I’m in danger of the sorts of vices that plagued Aron. Because I easily see how people feel and easily look into ideals, I’m likely to fall toward pride and people-pleasing. That has helped me pray, and taught me humility.
I’m still worried about poor uses of personality typologies - as inappropriate moral excuses, as replacements for love, as tools for manipulation - but now I see the good they can do. They can help me see past the current popular account of what’s good and bad, and start seeing people, some of whom will find our society’s popular sins easy to avoid, and some of whom will find them difficult, but none of whom have a leg up on sanctification. Because, in the end, our view of goodness is always too small, our view of ourselves is always too big, and our need for Christ is always absolute.
Let us be holy, as God is holy, however limited or gifted we may be. Lord, come back quickly, and save us.