John Calvin began Book I of his Institutes of the Christian Religion with the headings “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God”1 and “Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.”2 We learn to know God by reading the Bible and through prayer; we also know the Creator through the creation. Similarly, we come to know ourselves both through the Bible (specific revelation) and through general revelation. The enneagram, a very old personality typing system, is one way we can come to know ourselves.3
The enneagram differs from other personality typing systems. It does not merely describe; instead, it goes deeper, to expose core motivations. More than how you behave, it seeks to uncover why you behave the way you do. This article will give a general overview of the enneagram, but I will not explain it in detail. (For a good introduction, you can start here.) Rather, I hope to convince you of how a Christian can benefit from knowing about the enneagram.
The term “enneagram” means “nine figure.” It is represented by a circle with nine interconnected dots, each dot representing a different Type. Each Type has a different core motivation and root sin, listed in the table. (The root sins include the church’s traditional list of “seven deadly sins”—pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust—along with two more: deceit and fear.) More information about each of the nine types can be found online at the Enneagram Institute. If you take time to read about the different Types and sit with the descriptions, you will gradually recognize which one you most closely relate to.
A person’s enneagram Type is settled into unconsciously over time, but always emerges in childhood. Canadian psychologist David Benner comments, “With a little reflection, most of us can become aware of masks that we first adopted as strategies to avoid feelings of vulnerability but that have become parts of our social self.”4 Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele, authors of The Enneagram Made Easy, state, “The Enneagram teaches that early in life we learned to feel safe and to cope with our family situations and personal circumstances by developing a strategy based on our natural talents and abilities.”5
|Type||Core Motivation||Root Sin|
|One||To be perfect||Anger|
|Two||To be needed||Pride|
|Four||To be special||Envy|
|Six||To be secure||Fear|
|Seven||To be happy||Gluttony|
|Eight||To be against||Lust, arrogance|
The enneagram is helpful for several reasons. First, it can help you understand your own motivations: why you do the things you do, and why you react to things the way you do.
The enneagram can also help you understand the people in your life, giving you a glimpse of what life looks like from a (sometimes very) different perspective. Behaviors that frustrate and confuse us stem from a deep and largely unconscious motivation. Recognizing the latter can help you respond with compassion instead of frustration, and can enable you to more react more practically. This can vastly improve relationships; one couple I know told me that their marriage likely would not have survived without helpful insights from the enneagram. (However, one caution: Do not try to decide someone else’s Type for them; motivations are personal and need to be pinpointed on an individual basis.)
Baron and Wagele also summarize the benefits of the enneagram, as follows: “By working with the Enneagram, we develop a deeper understanding of others and learn alternatives to our own patterns of behavior. We break free from worn-out coping strategies and begin to see life from a broader point of view.”6
Despite these benefits, the enneagram can be uncomfortable to explore. Most often, your enneagram type centers around an area where you are gifted. But that very strength can also be your greatest weakness. It can be disconcerting to read a description that reveals flawed motivations. You will very likely feel a certain dismay when you recognize your own Type.
Going even deeper, the enneagram can expose false guilt and make you, as a Christian, aware of deep sin. Authors Rohr and Ebert write, “Guilt feelings always appear when one’s own ideal is not arrived at or fulfilled. By contrast, real misconduct, which is manifested in the Enneagram in the nine ‘root sins,’ remains mostly hidden. Our ‘sins,’ in fact, are the other side of our gift. They are the way we get our energy. They ‘work’ for us. The Enneagram uncovers this false energy and enables us to look our real dilemma in the eye.”7 In short: the enneagram can help you identify your own particular idol(s)!
Understanding your core motivations is important—but not very helpful if that is where understanding ends. Rohr and Ebert write, “The Enneagram is more than an entertaining game for learning about oneself. It is concerned with change and making a turnaround, with what the religious traditions call conversion or repentance. It confronts us with compulsions and laws under which we live—usually without being aware of it—and it aims to invite us to go beyond them, to take steps into the domain of freedom.”8
Rohr and Ebert describe the nine enneagram Types from a Christian perspective. As aforementioned, the table summarizes each Type’s core need and core sin. Based on Rohr and Ebert’s descriptions of each Type, here is what I think each Type most needs to hear, understand, and take hold of:
One: “You do not need to be perfect! You are loved despite your imperfections.”
Two: “You are loved even when no one needs your help.”
Three: “You are loved for who you are, not for what you achieve.”
Four: “You are enough! And you are beautiful just as you are.”
Five: “You will find fulfillment when you connect with others. You have something to offer!”
Six: “You are safe; God is with you. Trust in the Lord.”
Seven: “God is present, even in suffering. Don’t be afraid to face your pain.”
Eight: “Be willing to be vulnerable; that is when you can experience love.”
Nine: “You matter! Some conflict is inevitable in life; face it with confidence.”
Perhaps you are thinking, why does this matter? Aren’t we saved by grace, and isn’t this irrelevant? In that case, consider one blog post in which author Matt Perman shared insights from a pastor named Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “ out that, while temperament and personality make no difference in the matter of salvation, they do make a real difference when it comes to how we live the Christian life. And, we must be aware of and reckon with those differences.” If you are a follower of Christ, but consistently demonstrate immaturity in large areas of your life, you will give a poor reflection of Christ. For His sake, dig deep; let Him expose the dark places and meet the deep needs as only He can.
Each of the nine enneagram Types tries to achieve significance, love, and security by what they have, what they do, or how they are perceived. But true and lasting significance, love, and security are found in being loved by God. Our identity is in Christ. It is a gift, not something we can earn or achieve. The enneagram helps us to recognize the false places in which we put our trust. Its use can unmask our idols, so that we turn to the only One who can meet our needs and motivate us rightly.
If you would like to learn more, books on the enneagram are plentiful. The book I most recommend is The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert. A more recent book, and an easier read, is The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. Cron and Stabile also have a podcast called “The Road Back to You.”
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1. The Westminster Press, Philadelphia. p. 35. ↩
Ibid. p. 37. ↩
Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert describe the long history of the enneagram, including connections with early church leaders, in Part I of The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective. ↩
David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself. InterVarsity Press. 2004. p. 15. ↩
Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele, The Enneagram Made Easy: Discover the 9 Types of People. p. 2 ↩
Rohr and Ebert, p. 5. ↩
Ibid, p. 4. ↩