Featured Post

Book of the Month: Schola Caritatis: Learning the Rhythms of God's Amazing Love

  Starting a new feature for the next several months called Book of the Month.  I will present one of my books and tell you a little of the ...

Saturday, July 1, 2017

be careful

I feel compelled.  And it is hard to know exactly what I mean when I say that.  It is difficult to tell where it is really coming from.  Is it God?  Or is it merely my own anxieties and insecurities?  Or some strange combination of the two (which is my best guess)?  Whatever the case, whatever the reason for the compulsion I feel to write, I'm going to venture on.  After all, isn't that what this blog is for, to write about what is stirring within me at any given moment.  So, here goes.

There has been (and continues to be) an enormous amount of conversation recently, in my little corner of the world anyway, about the Enneagram.  The Enneagram is a nine sided figure used in an ancient personality typing system that is designed to analyze and represent the spectrum of possible personality types.  It is the modern synthesis of  a number of different ancient traditions, but was put into a system of thought in the late 1960's and early 1970's by a man named Oscar Ichazo.  Since that time it has been used mainly by spiritual directors as a tool to help people understand the dynamics of their inner lives.  And an incredibly valuable tool at that!

The problem with it, as with any tool, is that it can be misused.  A scalpel in the hands of someone who is skilled and trained in the art of using it is a priceless treasure.  But in the hands of a novice it can be the cause of great harm.  So it is with the Enneagram.  In the hands of someone wise and discerning, and skilled in the art of directing souls, it can be an enormous aid in the process of helping people understand their inner patterns and landscape.  The problem comes when those of us who aren't particularly skilled or discerning in that area begin to use it on ourselves and those in our lives and world.  We read a book or a blog and are so captured by what we have read (and rightly so) that we suddenly become an expert.  It is almost like reading something about surgery and beginning  to think to ourselves: "Here's what a scalpel is and how it works; and this is where the major organs are, so let's cut each other open and see how it goes."  Discernment is a funny thing; we all think we have far more of it than we really do.  In fact, from my experience, those who think they are the most discerning are probably the ones you want to stay away from.  While those who feel like they are the least discerning are the ones that we need to gravitate toward.  For from the gift of true discernment comes true humility.  Those who really know, think that they do not know anything.  That is wisdom.

Does that mean that we should not read these books or have these conversations about the Enneagram and the wisdom it teaches us?  Not at all.  We just  need to be careful.  Here are a few things to keep in mind. 

First, I have noticed that the Enneagram is enormously helpful in aiding the process of recognizing our patterns and ways of being that may have gone unnoticed or unexplained for years.  The problem is that after the first "Aha" that the Enneagram produces, and the conversations associated with that, we can actually proceed in such a way that it begins to stifle and cut off conversation, reflection, and prayer, rather than encourage it.  The reason is that we stop listening, to ourselves and each other, as our minds immediately run ahead to whatever number on the diagram that most closely describes them.  Instead of listening, we begin to label them and box them in.  We make assumptions rather than trying to discover.  We form opinions rather asking open ended questions.  In that case, the Enneagram can become constrictive rather than expansive.  Whenever you hear (or say) the words "That's because I'm a ________" or "That's just because you are a ________," stop yourself right there.  You are reducing yourself, or the person in front of you, from an endless mystery to a number on a diagram.  It is easy to fall into the trap of dismissing rather than engaging. And it can close us off to each other rather than opening us up.

Also, we need to be really careful when we are using the Enneagram on ourselves.  It is easy to fall into the "that's just how I am" mindset; which can either offer us an excuse for our behavior or can make us feel helpless and trapped inside it.  Explaining and excusing are not the intent of the Enneagram.  The ultimate intent is understanding and transformation, becoming all that we were created to be.  To recognize and understand our unredeemed patterns and habits--those things, events, and people that make us the worst version of ourselves-- and why they occur, in order that we might move toward the redemption and freedom of Christ--the best version of ourselves--through the act of repentance.  That is what spiritual formation is all about.

Finally, always remember that the Enneagram is not, and was never intended to be, an end in itself.  It is only meant to be a tool and a companion.  The Word and the Spirit are still our primary and most reliable guides.  If your studies and conversations about the Enneagram are not moving you regularly  toward the scriptures, where you are constantly being reminded of the truth, beware.  It is far too easy for us to be deceived by the false narratives that live within us and move us toward their own ends.  Remember Jeremiah's admonition: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure, who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9)  It is so easy for me, if I am not regularly in God's word, to be led astray.  It is easy to define myself by what I want to be, or how I want to be perceived, rather than who I really am.  And this can be incredibly subtle.  I know that there is as much "want to be an artist" living in me as there is actual evidence that that is who I really am, but I still choose to define myself in that way.  So we must be careful.  Ultimately this whole spiritual life is not about us anyway, it is about God.  It is hard to remember that when we get swept up in conversations about the Enneagram.  Thus, the main question is not so much "What number am I?" as it is, "Am I moving toward love?"

So I guess all I'm really trying to say is: Be careful.  You are far more beautiful and wonderful and mysterious and unique and complex than any number on any chart could possibly do justice to.  And so are the people around you.  Don't reduce them to a number or a type.  Don't finish their sentences for them.  Don't tell them what their story is, but listen deeply to it with the ears of your heart, without preconceived notions.  Make sure you don't pigeonhole them, but help to uncover and reveal the fathomless mystery of who they really are.  They deserve that.  And so do you.  Have real conversations: discuss, reflect, pray, love.  Don't analyze, don't explain, and don't fix.  Be open to God's Spirit within you and among you.  That's what this life with and in Christ is all about.

There, I feel better now.

"Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long." ~Psalm 25:4-5


  1. Good perspective Jim! I love the enneagram because it has helped me deal with seeing those areas of my life that I fail to see due to the pride of my 2 so for me it has been a tool for spiritual transformation. But we are called to live into all the types, since Jesus reflected all 9 types. One of the things I appreciate about the enneagram is the more you learn, the more layers there are to it and it actually takes you more outside the box than putting you in. But anything like this can become a substitute for listening to the Holy Spirit and allow the Word to be our plumbline. I'm sharing this post with my spiritual community as a caution.

  2. Great words Deitra. Thanks for that. You are so right, it is such a great and valuable tool. Hopefully one that continues to bring us over and over again to the feet of Jesus.