Self-Awareness and the Enneagram: A Response to Kevin DeYoung

I identify as a personality type Three on the Enneagram. I am one of the “Achievers.” We are motivated most deeply by a need to accomplish tasks, reach our goals, and be successful (as we define it).

Our biggest fear is failure.

We don’t want to fail.

I don’t want to fail.

So I was personally startled by Kevin DeYoung’s recent blog post over at The Gospel Coalition entitled, “Enneagram: The Road Back to You, Or to Somewhere Else?” He ends the post with a warning; there is inherent danger in the Enneagram because of its “spiritual significance.”

I have grown to appreciate the Enneagram for the self-understanding it has brought me as well as the awareness and health it has brought to my family and church. But I had this initial moment of panic. What if I am wrong? What if I am failing to rightly understand myself? What if my use of the Enneagram is leading me to a place of…failure?!?

Such is the life of an Enneagram Three.

I then shook myself from my anxiety and realized I’m not a failure—and perhaps DeYoung’s warning is unwarranted.

What is the Enneagram?

DeYoung’s definition for the Enneagram comes from The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. I haven’t read the book. So my response is not based on my reading of Cron and Stabile. My understanding of the Enneagram comes from the workshops I have attended at my local church and the conversations I have had with leaders in our church who teach it.

I do agree with how DeYoung describes the Enneagram. At one level, it is a personality tool based on nine different types. It has some overlap with other personality profiles like the DISC assessment, Myers-Briggs, and Tim LaHaye’s Spirit-Controlled Temperaments. I have used each of these other personality profiles and the Enneagram is far and away superior because it is rooted in motivation rather than behavior.

DeYoung rightly quotes from Cron and Stabile who note the Enneagram is more than a personality profile for labeling one’s self and others. The Enneagram is a tool for self-awareness, allowing a person to see both his or her true self and his or her shadowy false self. The Enneagram is a tool for self-awareness allowing a person to see both his or her true self and his or her shadowy false self. Click To Tweet

The Enneagram as a Helpful Tool

DeYoung offers a few commendations and then presents a critique whereby he judges Cron and Stabile’s description of the Enneagram to be “more harmful than helpful.” I am saddened that a tool that has brought so much help and healing to so many people I know, myself included, would be labeled “harmful.” Granted, any tool can be harmful if it is misused. A circular saw is helpful in cutting 2×4’s but harmful if used to trim one’s finger nails.

The fundamental mistake in DeYoung’s critique is his assumption that the Enneagram is somehow the means of conversion or a limited version of salvation. He notes that Cron and Stabile do not discuss the doctrines of conversion or “sin as lawlessness, sin as spiritual adultery, sin as cosmic betrayal against a just and holy God.” So let me be clear about this: the Enneagram isn’t the gospel. It is a tool for those who have responded to the gospel to grow into their true selves created after the likeness of God. The Enneagram isn't the gospel. It is a tool for those who have responded to the gospel to grow into their true selves created after the likeness of God. Click To Tweet

If Christians assume the Enneagram is the only tool for spiritual transformation on the road of following Jesus, then this tool could be ultimately unhelpful. However, if we turn to Jesus, in faith and repentance, and come through the waters of baptism into God’s new world, if we are intentional about following Jesus as a disciple and we use the Enneagram as a tool of self-awareness—in addition to many other spiritual practices—then it can be extremely helpful.

The Contours of Scripture

My primary disagreement with DeYoung is his claim that the language of the Enneagram as described by Cron and Stabile doesn’t match the language and contours of Scripture.

My response to DeYoung on this issue would be this: Jesus doesn’t want us to lose our soul (that is, our sense of self). Rather, he wants us to find our true self in him.

After all, was it not Jesus who said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).

Jesus has come to rescue our soul and heal us from the damaging effects of sin so we can bear the image of God. The Enneagram helps us become aware of the kind of self Jesus is saving—our true selves bearing witness to the goodness of God.

When we come to Christ through faith, repentance, and baptism, our relationship with God is restored. But these initial steps are not the end of our salvation journey; they are just the beginning.

Paul encourages those who were once dead in sin, but now made alive in Christ, to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires…and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22,24). The Enneagram is a tool for us to understand our new self uniquely made in the image of God.

Sin does cut us off from enjoying fellowship with God, but it also cuts us off from our true selves. Sin is disobedience and rebellion towards God—but it is so much more than that. Sin has fractured the image of God in us, shattering our understanding of who we are supposed to be. When used in the right Christian context, the Enneagram helps us become aware of how God has created us…and who we are supposed to be. Sin has fractured the image of God in us, shattering our understanding of who we are supposed to be. Click To Tweet

Self-Awareness and God-Awareness

The Enneagram does have spiritual significance. But I would offer, in contrast to DeYoung, the implicit spirituality of the Enneagram is what makes it so helpful.

DeYoung is correct in citing John Calvin on the knowledge of the self. Calvin opens The Institutes of the Christian Religion with these words:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

The knowledge of God and the knowledge of one’s self are connected together—and one can lead us to the other.

Self-awareness can lead to God awareness. Misusing the Enneagram could feed into a humanistic spirituality of finding God by looking within. But using the Enneagram in a Christian context, where God is found through the gospel, could open up a deeper awareness of the presence of God in and among us.

Furthermore, this connection between self-awareness and God-awareness can become a small crack in secularism, opening a door for the gospel. People schooled in a secular world typically don’t slow down enough to recognize their own immaterial self. Pausing to acknowledge one’s own consciousness through tools like the Enneagram, becoming aware that they are more than a synthesis biological processes, could open them to the God of creation—the God made known in Jesus Christ.

In the end, followers of Jesus should discern for themselves whether or not the Enneagram is a helpful tool or not. Explore this tool in cooperation with other spiritual practices like worship, communion, prayer, Scripture reading, silence, and solitude. Set aside any concern that the implicit spirituality in the Enneagram is somehow dangerous or harmful and allow it to open up new vistas of self-awareness and self-understanding that you may see God’s work within your own heart.

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