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Use the Enneagram As a Spiritual Tool

Enneagram of Personality. Sign, logo, pictogram with nine numbers, ring and typical structured figure.

PeterHermesFurian/Getty Images

Although your identity is never reduced to your personality, the two are connected, and here, understanding the Enneagram can be a useful tool for spiritual development.

You are not your Enneagram number. Identity is complicated, especially in a society that constantly tosses us dehumanizing life scripts with which to define ourselves.

But the truth is, the foundation of your being is not:

your personality

your career

your gender

your sexuality

your race

your income

your gifts

your talents

Just take a step back and breathe. Let that reality sink in for a moment. And then, hear this: While these characteristics are important, and they do somehow coincide with or stem from your identity, beneath them lies a deeper essence, something that is true about you even before you discover all that good stuff.

Let’s imagine your whole existence through the metaphor of a tree. Think of your identity not as the visible characteristics mentioned above but as the root system that runs beneath what is visible about you to the world.

So who are you? What is your identity?

According to the Hebrew scriptures (what Christians know as the Old Testament), underneath it all, every single human who has ever lived and will ever exist is an image bearer of the Creator-God. This is both unavoidable and unchangeable. The Judeo-Christian understanding of identity is utterly obvious in the early writings of Genesis. Rather than teasing the reader through dramatic suspense, the writer quickly settles the matter of identity on page 1 of the Bible:

So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:27)

When scripture declares this over the first humans, they had yet to contribute anything (good or bad) to the world. They were imago Dei (image of God) at their root before manifesting anything visibly in the world.

This means the ground of identity is hardwired as being, not doing.

Belovedness is not dependent on personality, gifting, or any of the characteristics listed above. Belovedness simply is. What does this mean? It means we must always resist the temptation to reduce identity to anything less than the image of God.

Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest and scholar, is one of my spiritual heroes. He believed that we, at the foundational level of our being, “are the beloved sons and daughters of God.” [1]

When we live from the place of rooted identity, health and wholeness become possible in our personality. Your personality, wounds and all, can then become a gift to the world around you. This is where the Enneagram is helpful (as I share more about in my book, The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation).

Although your identity is never reduced to your personality, the two are connected. Like the root system of a tree, the roots are not the stem, but neither can they be severed. Therefore, the greater that one believes in their inherent belovedness, the healthier one’s personality should be. But because it is challenging to receive this divine gift, we end up strategizing, manipulating, and coercing to get approval, affection, and acceptance everywhere we turn.

What, then, is personality? Generally speaking, personality is a well-forged strategy to both thrive and cope in a beautiful and broken world. Personality is unique to every person. The nine types of the Enneagram are various motivational patterns that emerge as a strategy to thrive and cope. However, like a fingerprint, no two people on Earth have the exact same personality. We are far too wonderfully and mysteriously made to be totalized by and reduced to a number on a diagram. Personality, then, is the outgrowth—the stem, if you will—from which our identity flows. Personality is forged by both our unique genetic makeup and our diverse life experiences (nature and nurture). Over time we begin to form patterns of behavior that reflect nine types.

Think of it this way: Your identity is the beloved image of God; this is given and universally true. Your personality is forged; this is particular and unique to you. The Enneagram helps us map nine patterns of behavior that are common to all people throughout the world, while also preserving the uniqueness of every person who has ever lived, including you.

To learn more from AJ and about how the Enneagram can be a pathway for spiritual transformation, check out his new book, The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation.


[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, “Being the Beloved” (sermon, 1993, https://youtu.be/v8U4V4aaNWk).


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    About the Author

    AJ Sherrill

    AJ Sherrill (DMin, Fuller Theological Seminary) has served as lead pastor for churches across the country, including Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

    He is an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he teaches popular courses on transformational preaching and the Enneagram.

    Click here for more!


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