3 Cautions with Personality Tests

A while ago I was playing a game called 9 Books with our family and a family friend. It’s one of those parlor games where you need to know the trick to get it, and once you get it, you can never play it again. In this game we put books in a 3×3 pattern on a table and one person left. The rest of us picked a book and then the absent person was called back. Our family friend pointed to book after book and when she pointed to the one we picked as a group, he called it out. The trick was to figure out how he knows, and I must not be good at it because I was probably the last person to figure it out. In my case I had a lot of guesses, but when I finally guessed correctly, it was an aha moment.

Tim LaHaye’s Spirit Controlled Temperament was like that for my family (and many other evangelicals) when I was growing up. I was taught the four temperaments—choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine, and melancholic—and we took the test to figure out which one we were. It seemed to explain each of us. (For the record I was a choleric-sanguine mix.)

Those two incidents are analogous to me for how people tend to feel when they get the results back from a personality test. It seems insightful; there is an aha moment. When I find out I’m Cool Blue (Insights Discovery), it seems to give me information that I didn’t have before.

And personality tests are big business. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the most commercially successful personality test; it’s used more than two million times a year. But there are others–close to 2000 personality tests on the market today.[1]Louis Menand, “What Personality Tests Really Deliver,” September 3, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/10/what-personality-tests-really-deliver However, it’s questionable to me if they really are helpful for sanctification. Like parlor games I think they can be fun and interesting, but I question whether they actually lead to greater growth. Apparently some outside the church wonder similar things, even calling them the astrology of the office.[2]Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office,” September 17, 2019, … Continue reading One author said, “Personality testing is an industry the way astrology or dream analysis is an industry: slippery, often underground, hard to monitor or measure.”[3]Annie Murphy Paul, National Public Radio, “Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture The Real You?,” June 25, 2016, … Continue reading I’m sure some are more scientific and others less so (I’m looking at all you otters in the 4 Animals Personality Test), but I wonder if any are truly helpful for the biblical counselor. They’re interesting. They’re probably fun. But are they actually insightful? Can they really help me change?

Some people invest them with almost biblical importance. Here are three cautions I have about personality tests.

Caution: We Might Confuse Personality with Spirituality

So you’ve taken a personality test and the results say you are a patient person. That’s great! God gives some people a greater measure of patience in his common grace to us. But don’t confuse the results of a personality test with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23-23). Those are virtues that are the result of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives. They are by definition, unnatural. So be careful not to take the results of a secular personality test as evidence of spiritual growth. They’re not the same. God’s work in us is something that can only be explained by the Spirit, not by personality.

Caution: We Might Believe that Personality Is Fixed

Even though some have found evidence that variables in taking the test can affect your results (i.e., you can get different results with some tests depending on when you take it), overall we are tempted to think like the world that our personalities are fixed. So we get our results back and believe we cannot change. But where your personality is not Christlike, it has to change. It can change. The Great Commission and the 2nd Great Command aren’t just for extroverts. Us introverts have to share the gospel and love our neighbor. A personality test result is not an excuse for avoiding your neighbor too. Even introverts can be progressively sanctified resulting in loving others better. Personality tests are based on the assumption that personality cannot change. That’s not a biblical assumption.  

Caution: We Might Believe they Are Explanatory Rather than Descriptive

This is my primary concern. I can regard them as tools of self-discovery that explain me. I think they tell me why I do something rather than what I do, and the personality test makers promote them this way. They sell them as describing why we think and behave like we do. There are two potential ways I can misuse this assumption.  

  • Accusingly: “You do that because you’re an otter!”
  • Excusingly: “I cannot really help it. It’s what Cool Blues do.”

But Scripture doesn’t let us accept such poor explanations for our behavior and thinking. Instead it teaches us that all sin comes from the heart (Mt 7:15-20; 12:33-35; 15:10-20; Mk 7:14-23; Lk 6:43-45). It’s the bad fruit of a bad tree. It’s good news then that Jesus changes hearts. A personality test might describe the characteristic ways that I handle conflict or whether I prefer people or tasks, but it can never explain why I do what I do. The Bible is rich with motivation theory. Why let the insights of unbelievers explain you?

Like parlor games, personality tests are probably mostly harmless—with the above cautions in mind. Just don’t expect your personality test to say something about you that is more important than what Scripture already says about you. Be careful making life decisions off of a personality test. Don’t live based off the “insight” you received.

Are there any cautions you might add? Any pushback you might give?

References

References
1 Louis Menand, “What Personality Tests Really Deliver,” September 3, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/10/what-personality-tests-really-deliver
2 Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office,” September 17, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/style/personality-tests-office.html?.?mc=aud_dev&ad-keywords=auddevgate&gclid=Cj0KCQjwt-6LBhDlARIsAIPRQcKIMy3FHWkex5pioSrHoedPIYPm4wDTUeOyl8Pw-shMfjvQBhuM1GkaAl_QEALw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds
3 Annie Murphy Paul, National Public Radio, “Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture The Real You?,” June 25, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/25/483108905/personality-tests-are-popular-but-do-they-capture-the-real-you

The New Puritans Don’t Do Forgiveness

In an interesting article in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum decries modern cancel culture, pointing out that some feel trapped in a world of unforgiveness. Who’s trapped?

  • An editor of the New York Review of Books that “was not accused of assault, just of printing an article by someone who was—Ian Buruma discovered that several of the magazines where he had been writing for three decades would not publish him any longer.” 
  • Daniel Elder, a prizewinning composer (and a political liberal) posted a statement on Instagram condemning arson in his hometown of Nashville, where Black Lives Matter protesters had set the courthouse on fire after the killing of George Floyd, he discovered that his publisher would not print his music and choirs would not sing it.
  • Alexi McCammond was named editor in chief of Teen Vogue, and then people discovered and recirculated on Instagram old anti-Asian and homophobic tweets she had written a decade earlier, while still a teenager. McCammond apologized, of course, but that wasn’t enough, and she was compelled to quit the job before starting.
  • One former journalist told Applebaum that his ex-colleagues “don’t want to endorse the process of mistake/apology/ understanding/forgiveness—they don’t want to forgive.” Instead, he said, they want “to punish and purify.” But the knowledge that whatever you say will never be enough is debilitating. “If you make an apology and you know in advance that your apology will not be accepted—that it is going to be considered a move in a psychological or cultural or political game—then the integrity of your introspection is being mocked and you feel permanently marooned in a world of unforgivingness… And that is a truly unethical world.”[1]Anne Applebaum, “The New Puritans,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/.

Applebaum calls the self-righteous mob the New Puritans, and they are professional shunners. When “sinners” offer the apologies demanded, they know they won’t be accepted. They truly are trapped in a world of unforgiveness.

Unbelievers talk about forgiveness, but mostly just to say that something or someone cannot be forgiven. Cancel culture is just the latest example of unforgiveness, but we have been an unforgiving people from the beginning. Outside of Christ changing us, how could anyone forgive a debt—and that’s what forgiveness is. An offender has a debt that only the offended can write off. How can anyone do that? Only believers can, and only believers that recognize they have sinned greatly against the King and inexplicably been shown mercy (Mt 18:23-35).

So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. Matthew 18:26–27 (ESV)

If you don’t understand and appreciate the gospel, you will never be a forgiving person. We who have been so generously forgiven, must generously grant forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an exclusively Christian virtue. I’ve seen marriages invaded by adultery fully restored. Not left in an uneasy truce, not left weakened and ill, but completely reconciled and whole. I’ve seen daily verbal assaults and general selfishness of a spouse forgiven. A marriage that should have so much distance after years and years of sin has become a glorious example of Christ’s love for the Church. I’ve seen siblings reconciled after incredible hurt has been done. Again, I’m not describing holding the offender at arm’s length after proclaiming forgiveness. I’m describing real reconciliation. Can your religion—or irreligion—do that? I don’t think so.

Have you ever thought about whom[2]Meaning, which person? All of our sin is ultimately against God, Ps 51:4 you’ve sinned against most in your life? For me, it’s easy. I’ve been married 29 years, and while I’ve sinned against my parents, my siblings, and my own children, I’ve sinned most against my wife, and it’s not even close. Yet she is the one person I am closest to in this world. We are best friends. How? God has forgiven her, and therefore she regularly (often daily) forgives me. That’s the only explanation. So many marriages eventually crumble under the cumulative weight of each other’s undealt with, unforgiven sin. Why is ours stronger than it was before I started sinning against her almost three decades ago? There is only one answer—Christ-honoring, God-glorifying, Gospel-motivated forgiveness.

Real, genuine, biblical forgiveness is amazing. The world has nothing like it. They have no way of healing broken relationships. They continue to harbor bitterness. Only God could come up with forgiveness. The New Puritans don’t do forgiveness. They don’t do grace. They don’t do mercy. Aren’t you glad that God does all three, and because he does, we can as well?

References

References
1 Anne Applebaum, “The New Puritans,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/.
2 Meaning, which person? All of our sin is ultimately against God, Ps 51:4

Hebrews 2:9 and New Coke?

Do you remember New Coke? You have to be a certain age even to be aware of this story. It happened during my teen years, so I remember this pretty well.

In the Spring of 1985 some knuckleheads at Coke decided they would launch the reformulation of Coca Cola to compete with their rival, Pepsi. Obviously this was months, even years in the making.

Just after World War II Coke’s market share was 60%. By the 1980s it had fallen to 24% and Pepsi was beginning to outsell Coke in supermarkets. Coke was still dominant because of its vending machines and restaurant sales, but the executives thought the handwriting was on the wall. They were scared.

Pepsi was promoting taste tests that kept coming back with Pepsi being the preferred drink. Coke downplayed them, but their own internal research showed the same thing. They were afraid Pepsi was going to overtake them.

So in a bit of hubris they decided to change the taste of Coke and make it sweeter, like Pepsi’s taste. They completely eliminated the old Coke formula and went 100% with New Coke. They were all in. It was a marketing disaster. Within three months they brought back the taste of Coke under the Coke Classic brand name. Eventually that went away and New Coke died the death it needed to die. Coke completely reverted to its original formula.

Why did they change the formula? Why not just add the New Coke taste as another product and still keep the Old Coke too?

I read a story on this a few years ago in the book, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell that said part of the problem was how they conducted taste tests in the ‘80s. Pepsi was winning taste tests head-to-head with Coke, but they were a particular kind of taste test. They were actually called sip tests. As you can guess, you didn’t drink an entire can, you just took a sip or a small cup. And in sip tests Pepsi would win hands down. But the problem is nobody drinks pop like that. Nobody takes a sip and puts it back in the fridge. Another taste test involved giving tasters a case of Pepsi and a case of Coke and checking back with them in a few weeks. In those home tests Coke would win.

So the Coke executives changed the formula for Coke on the basis of sip tests even though that’s not really the way to taste a product.

Hebrews 2:9 (ESV) But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Jesus tasted death for all of us, and it’s important to know that this wasn’t a sip test. The word “taste” might make us think that it was just a little mouthful, but that’s not the intention of the Greek word.

When our oldest son was a baby, my in-laws visited us one time. We were at a restaurant and I think my mother-in-law put a little pop in the end of a straw and put it on Justin’s tongue. His little baby face showed shock at the taste of Coke. You could say that he tasted Coke.

The word in Hebrews 2:9 doesn’t mean a taste like that. It actually means that Jesus thoroughly tasted death. He experienced it all. He didn’t take a sip test or just the little drop in the end of a straw. He drank it all.

This means that we don’t have to face death like Jesus did. He took the punishment for sin. He faced God’s wrath in death so we don’t have to.

Jesus tasted death for you. That’s what this passage says. Now it’s not saying that you won’t die if you trust Jesus. He’s saying that death has been stripped of its power, or its horror. We don’t need to fear death. You will die should Christ tarry His coming, but you won’t experience what makes death truly horrible—separation from God.

Paul the Apostle says it this way.

1 Corinthians 15:55 (ESV) “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

Death has been stripped of its sting for the Christian. Jesus faced the sting of death. He was separated from God the Father for six hours on the cross so you don’t have to be. God the Father condemned Jesus as He became sin for us. That’s the sting of death and Jesus took it for you.

Death has been emptied of its power for the believer. We don’t need to fear it. Many Christians have believed this at the point of death, and they have calmly, joyfully, gone to see their heavenly Father.

Now, because of Jesus, we don’t lose with death. We only gain. We gain heaven. We gain Christ. We gain freedom from sin. We gain presence with the Lord. Death has been emptied of its power by the One who tasted death for every man.

Love Like My Mom

My Mom called on a Saturday night over two and a half years ago to tell me that my younger brother, Jeff, had died.[1]Picture is of my brother Jeff My Mom didn’t grow up in a family that knew the gospel. In fact, she was the first person in our family to trust Christ. Her parents were divorced at a time when a scoundrel husband could just move across a state border and avoid paying any child support. And her dad did just that. Life was harder for her.

Jeff was called mentally retarded when that term was acceptable in the ‘70s. He would never have been able to live on his own, and so he lived with my parents his entire life. My mom and dad would never think of institutionalizing him. He was actually a great help to them as an adult. He loved routine, so they gave him jobs to do regularly. He could bring wood in for the wood stove. He could shovel snow. He could bring up the laundry. He could put away dishes.

Sometime after I graduated from college Jeff started having seizures. He had never had any health problems related to his disability before. After a seizure he would need several days of rest before he was fully recovered. My mom would lovingly take care of him until he recovered.

My brother didn’t have Down Syndrome. In God’s grace many Down Syndrome children are incredibly compassionate and loving. They are tender and affectionate. That was not my brother. There really wasn’t much emotion in Jeff’s hugs. They were perfunctory not passionate. He wasn’t a robot; he could show frustration, and he even smiled quite a bit. But he didn’t do the normal things that a baby, a young child, and even young adults do to express love to their parents. My mom never got an affectionately clingy infant in my younger brother. He would hug when he was told to, he would even say “I love you” if you said it first, but it wasn’t like when other people said it. I don’t doubt that Jeff actually meant it as well as he could, but love was a concept that really was beyond his ability to understand. He was never able to understand the question, “why?” And you really have to understand that to understand love.

I’ve thought about this over the years, and it’s occurred to me that my Mom’s love for my brother was a wonderful example of what Christian love is supposed to be. We don’t define love like unbelievers. We don’t just love those that love us. We are able to love those who don’t return any love—even our enemies (Luke 6:27-29). Of course with those closest to us it can be hard to love as Christ loved and seemingly get very little in return… maybe even nothing in return.

But it is how God loved us.

…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8 (ESV)

In fact, we were his enemies and he still loved us.

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Romans 5:10 (ESV)

My mom has been a living definition of biblical love to me my entire life. For a long time, I didn’t notice it. That’s just what a mom does. But now I’m enriched by it. My love is too often selfish. I give to get. But my mom, like God, just gave. And she did it because the gospel changed her. And she did it for my brother’s entire lifetime.

My brother is gone, but I still think of my mother’s love for him. It’s a sweet picture of God’s love for me, and it reminds me of how to love others.

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Luke 6:35 (ESV)

References

References
1 Picture is of my brother Jeff
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