Personality tests fascinate me. Introvert or extrovert? Easygoing, ambitious, melancholy, or optimistic? What’s your birth order and how does it explain your life? This interest started at an early age: when we’d go over to friends and relatives on Sunday nights, everyone else played tag, volleyball, or jumped on the trampoline. I was the geek in the corner, curled up reading “The Spirit Controlled Temperament” by Tim LaHaye. Spiritual gift tests, DISC, Meyers Briggs … it was all good. This need to classify people is no doubt a personality trait in and of itself. In case you were wondering, I’m a first born introvert (being alone re-energizes me), Type B Phlegmatic with a touch of Melancholy. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?
All joking aside, I think there’s a place to be aware of differing personalities, in life and in the church. The more you know about what makes someone tick, the more grace you can give. For example, at a mom’s group meeting, I walked over to a table where two other women were already seated, and sat down. One of the women pointed out that I’d left a chair between us, and that I was welcome to move over. “I almost always do that,” I responded. “Now that I think about it, I guess as an introvert I just want to give people some space – I’m not trying to be unfriendly!” She laughed, and I moved over.
Perhaps there’s a co-worker who thrives when things are spontaneous and open ended, who always wants to have one more discussion or hear one more opinion before making a decision. You, on the other hand, are not that way. Believe it or not, that person is not trying to drive you crazy. They may simply have a personality that is most at home in that kind of atmosphere. Others work best with clear boundaries and expectations. The challenge is to know when and how to compromise, and try not to take things personally (when I figure out the secret to this I’ll let you know).
Families can have interesting personality dynamics. Introverted mothers who have extrovert children can struggle to balance their need for quiet with their children’s need to talk and share. A family of easygoing optimists might not always know how to relate to the intense, hard charging Type A sibling. “Why can’t he just relax; why is everything such a big deal?” The optimistic spouse may become frustrated with his more pessimistic partner, and vice versa.
And then there’s church. One person worships best when there is structure to hang her thoughts on, another feels stifled by the clock. The extrovert loves to turn to greet his neighbor, the introvert makes a break for the door, or sits still, looking hunted – she used up all her social energy just getting everyone out the door to church. Exuberant music blesses one person, quiet prayer nourishes another. Can we all worship together?
One thing is clear: no matter where we are, we don’t check our personalities at the door. But neither should we remain in our cocoons – we need each other. Each person reflects something of God’s character and creation. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” (I Corinthians 12:4-6).
It’s human nature to think that our preferences are simply the right way to do things. If I love people and parties, why doesn’t everyone? I’m generally punctual: the late person isn’t just different, but wrong. If I enjoy new adventures, new food, and travel, it can seem like a moral failing if someone else enjoys staying at home and eating the same ten foods. I may relish spontaneity and flexibility, but then assume that those who prefer more structure are stubborn and fearful. And of course, they may be… every personality trait ultimately needs to come under the guidance and lordship of Jesus. But on the other hand, someone can relate to the world differently than I do, and be doing exactly what God called them to do. Perhaps their approach is what is needed in a given situation.
“Now the body is not made up of one part, but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason ease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” (I Corinthians 12: 14-18).