Having Faith in the Enneagram
Way back in February, I wrote a post called, “Who Are You? 10 Ways of Knowing Yourself.” In it, I featured all kinds of fun tests, questionnaires, and activities to get to know yourself a little better. One of the things I mentioned there was a test and personality typing system called the Enneagram. Since then, I have to admit, I’ve been a little bit preoccupied with typing myself, reading about my type, and learning every last thing I can about the Enneagram.
At the beginning, it was just a fun way of knowing myself, like the famous Myers-Briggs questionnaire. As I delved deeper through books and podcasts, I saw that it was a much more dynamic schema to help me understand myself, my relationships with others, and how I change while under stress or at my healthiest. I found so much depth and complexity in the Enneagram, and so far it has been such an impactful tool on my spiritual journey.
The two best resources I’ve found for Enneagram beginners are the book “The Sacred Enneagram” by Chris Heuertz and the Liturgists Podcast episode on the Enneagram (Episode 37). I’ve also really enjoyed exploring the Enneagram Institute’s website, the Enneagram Spiritual Formation Plan from Saturate the World, and the staggeringly honest and touching songs for each Enneagram type by Ryan O’Neal who records under the name Sleeping At Last. He has a podcast episode dedicated to each of the enneagram types (he’s up to seven now and continues to record and release pieces as they are finished).
First, a little history… many claim that the Enneagram is an ancient tool transmitted through oral teachings to a select group of acolytes that has been passed down generation by generation. There are claims that it has origins in Ancient Persia, the Greeks, the Romans, or any of the noted civilizations of the past. I’m of the mind that this is all a bit apocryphal and because it wasn’t written down until the 1950s and 60s, it’s more likely to have a modern origin than one swirling in the mysterious past. That is not to say that there is no basis for those claims, just that this historian likes to trust written records before apocrypha.
That being said, as we get into the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, so many faiths started to bend and change with the rapidly changing times. In my own faith, the Second Vatican Council sought to modernize the Church while reintroducing more ancient forms of worship and teachings. In this modern Great Awakening, believers of all faiths began to examine their place in the faith of their parents and hoped to integrate their individual identities with a collective belief. I think this is one reason the Enneagram started to become more formalized and a bit more popular in spiritual circles. “Who am I?” and “Who am I in my faith?” were important questions in a time of great social change.
For many years, the Enneagram was under the purview of faith-based retreat leaders and leadership in some religious orders. Then in the last five or ten years, the Enneagram has really exploded in popularity. Some have said that as we are in another time of social change and upheaval. It makes sense, then, that we would like to get to know ourselves, to find some certainty or truth within, so we can position ourselves properly in a life of uncertainty. I also think that Millennials are known for being identity-driven and look for meaning and spirituality apart from established tradition. So many Millennials are in the phase of their lives as young adults where they look at their character and personhood and try to find their way in the world. I think that’s the biggest reason why the Enneagram is so current and relevant to our generation today.
That brings us up to the present. If you just sort of glossed over the history, glad you’re back! Now that I feel I’ve done a least a little justice to the Enneagram teachers before me and gave a bit of an overview, I’d like to say a little something about how it intersects with my own spirituality and how I’ve found God in the process. I’d like to start with typing first…
If you’re interested in typing yourself, there are many online tests, but I’ve found just reading through the descriptions on the Enneagram Institute and in the Sacred Enneagram book and finding one of the nine types that really resonates with you has had a lot more impact for me. The tests I think simplify the process too much and skip that rich exploration of identification that you get from the more labor-intensive process.
If you are stuck between two types, the Enneagram Institute has a lot to say about type misidentifications. If you feel like you have a major type and minor type or one that feels likely but not 100% you, that might be what Enneagram teachers call a “wing.” Once you’ve started to get a better idea of your type and maybe your wing type, you may begin to relate a little more to the things I’ve been feeling and reflecting on since I started down this path myself.
For me, I’m a Type 1 with a Type 2 wing. Type 1’s main description name is “The Reformer” or “The Perfectionist.” I think the names can be a little bit of a distraction and not terribly accurate. As a perfectionist, though, I’d like to rename my type “The Refiner.” I feel like I’m always crafting and cultivating and refining things in my world, so that sounds about right. Type 2 is “The Helper” and it’s a good way to frame my “do-gooder” nature and how I find so much purpose in right action and helping others (whether for good or ill!).
There’s this idea that the description of Type 1 is the way I deal with and understand the world. Nature or nurture, it’s how I’m wired. I believe in truth and justice, constantly refine and correct myself, hold society and others to the highest standards, and believe that by being “good” I can avoid or at least manage my interactions with uncertainty in the world.
My type is also a mask I put on toward the world to protect the very fragile inner self that I don’t necessarily value or want others to see. As a believer, I only really allow God to see that true inner self. As I strip away the mask in front of Him and let Him rewrite my identity a little, I’m able to understand myself more, pivot from a place of strength and certainty, and see clearly and with wisdom the world as God sees it. That is to say, with eyes of love instead of judgement.
When I first typed myself, I wasn’t very clear on the spiritual dimension. I knew it was a well-practiced tool for those on a spiritual journey, but I guess I just didn’t get it. How could this nine type system have anything to say about my relationship with God? Isn’t that a little limiting? Is this whole Enneagram thing just superstition and kind of reductionist?
I will say that over the years, I’ve struggled with a few lies in my heart about my identity and my value to God. We all have our lies and the things that speak to our hearts when we aren’t certain of the great love God has for us. I was at a retreat a few years back when the speaker asked us to think for a minute about the lies that repeat in our hearts. Then we were asked to share those falsehoods with the retreatants nearby. The two women near me shared their lies of belonging and worth. That their true worth may have been based on their outward appearance or that they weren’t valued enough by others to ever truly belong. What wicked lies! It broke my heart to hear these from people I care about deeply. I know these lies limited the love they gave themselves and maybe limited the love they could give for others.
The greatest lie for myself was, “You can never do enough.” That resonated with me but I wasn’t sure how it was a lie and how it was creating a block in my relationship with God and others. Of course I could never do enough! Of course my value was dependent on what I did and what I produced and who I helped in the world. I mean, that’s a never-ending task for us all.
It didn’t occur to me that others didn’t necessarily have this driving refrain in their hearts to always do more, be better, reach higher, and produce excellence at every opportunity. Call it my “Inner Tiger Mom,” but it had been serving me well. I was able to accomplish many things in my life and was driven to succeed in whichever field I called home. Doesn’t God want me to do good in the world? Doesn’t He want me to pursue excellent and perfection? Didn’t Jesus tell me in Matthew 5:48:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I read that scripture verse as a call for me to be better, do more, attempt to achieve perfection even while failing at it. I guess I just saw it as a noble thing, a helpful thing, a way to purge any lasting sin or weakness from my heart. A way to be righteous and worthy. Worthy of love and worthy of grace. Worthy to call myself a child of God.
Then came my long and twisting Enneagram journey that brought me to the Sleeping at Last podcast and song about Enneagram 1. When I heard the lyrics, I honestly just burst into tears! Most particularly these few verses:
But the list goes on forever, of all the ways I could be better, in my mind. As if I could earn God’s favor given time, or at least “congratulations…” I’ve spent my whole life searching desperately to find out that grace requires nothing. Grace requires nothing of me.
Because I do have that drive and determination, I had forgotten the whole story of salvation! It’s so obvious in Scripture that Grace requires nothing from me. No act. No success. No accomplishment. Romans 5:8 sums that part up perfectly:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Whether you identify with the concept of sin or not, we all feel our weaknesses, our faults and failings. And yet… and yet God loves us. God gives us grace and reconciliation to His heart based on nothing but our position in His kingdom as His sons and daughters. We don’t have any way to “earn” this love and grace. It’s a gift from the very heart of Love itself. And the grace He gifts? It has so little to do with our efforts and righteousness and has everything to do with His generosity and love.
I could rest assured in this passage from 1 John 3:20
For whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and He knows everything.
He sees me and knows me. He knows my coming and my going. And yet He freely gives grace to all the parts I consider imperfect and unworthy, weak and faulty, the things that I was working so hard to perfect and transcend. Not only that, but there isn’t a single thing I could do to be more loved or more treasured. Just that fact that I’m His is enough. That’s it. That’s all I need to be. His.
And that’s what broke me so thoroughly in those song lyrics. The truth that I can’t refine myself so much that I can redeem myself. That I can rest knowing I have a truth, an identity, and a place in the world that God crafted for me, specifically me, and nothing will change or shake that. I can rest, assured, and confident. I can let go of these burdens and responsibility to make the world “good,” to hold the world to its best, to inspire and uplift and craft and perfect the things around me. I can let go of this enormous weight I carry and the immense guilt I feel when things in the universe are less than fair and equitable and loving and kind and good.
I guess this is a lesson that I will continue to learn over and over and it’s a lesson I don’t know that I would have seen so clearly and swiftly were it not for my little exodus into the world of the Enneagram. Were it not for this spiritual journey that took me to a place of reflection and contemplation.
I guess that’s why I find it so enlightening and important. I have such a strong conviction that we are each individually crafted by God with hearts and minds and souls that see and experience the world in different ways. I feel that all those around me and those I meet are created with every detail and every hope and every heartbeat of grace that I am. We are all asked, I think, to move beyond our masks and the scaffolds we craft around ourselves. We are tasked with revealing ourselves fully to God and to the world. And we are encouraged to respond to the revelations of others with compassion and grace. To fully know and be known in the world. To love and be loved in return.
There is this passage at the end of the Gospel of John that has always struck me to the core. It’s right before Jesus begins his journey to His suffering and death. He takes some time to pray for His disciples, to teach them, to reassure them. He also prays for us, for those believers to come in the future. Jesus is so specific about this and makes His final teachings heard throughout time. The whole prayer and teaching is in John 14, but the parts that I think speak to me most clearly are in verses 1-3 and 27:
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
“Let not your hearts be troubled.” “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Why does He repeat this so emphatically? It’s His hope for us and call to us to trust in Him. Though each of us has a room crafted in God’s heart, uniquely and personally, we can be assured that He is there, waiting with love and grace to see us fully, know us truthfully, and embrace each one of us for who we are, not who we pretend to be.
And if I believe as I claim to, that we can see the love of God in the love of those around us, I also believe that when we reveal ourselves without artifice or mask and our neighbors choose to love us, we are in the company of true friends. By surrounding ourselves with loving, uplifting, encouraging, challenging, and truly accepting friends, we can experience the love of God in our daily lives. As often as we continually put ourselves in the presence of those who know us.
To be truly known and loved, I think, we have to know and love ourselves first. The Enneagram has been the most impactful way I have experienced that. I encourage you to start the journey yourself. It has been such a powerful way for me to unlock some of the things in my heart that have kept me from seeing, knowing, and loving authentically. If any of this resonates with you, leave a comment below! I’d love to hear how the Enneagram has impacted your life and your spiritual journey or if any other tools have helped guide you along your path.
The above image is my favorite house of learning in the heart of Philly, the Waldorf School of Philadelphia. I took this one morning while I was walking my son to class. Lots of spaces for rich contemplation. And mud pies.
If you want a few more great resources on the Enneagram from a Christian perspective, check out Relevant Magazine’s archive on the topic or articles here, here, and here. These articles do a bit more justice to some of the questions and concerns believers may have about this topic.