The first time I read it, I was convinced someone had been following me around. If I kept a journal, I would have been sure they were reading it. As it was, I was certain someone had opened a door inside my mind, walked into the darkest places, and written it all down in this book.
The book was Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert’s The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective. (It’s pronounced any-a-gram.) I had been flipping through it, but quickly realized this wasn’t a book to flip through. Intrigued and scared, I wasn’t quite sure what it was.
The Enneagram is an ancient personality typology, understanding people through the lens of their passions and their temptations. The fear came from a desire to turn a blind eye to the worst parts of me. I was pretty familiar with the Myers-Briggs test at that point, and appreciated learning about my type and how I interacted with others. I knew the color of my parachute, had found my strengths, and figured out who moved my cheese. In other words, I was conversant in personality types and leadership literature. But self-awareness, I was learning, only goes so far when you just celebrate your strengths.
At the recommendation of a friend, I took the Enneagram online assessment, which categorizes each person as a number, one through nine. I was a three. It sounded like a nice number—number of persons in the Trinity, number of gifts from the wise men, the number of things that should be in a list. There’s even a Latin saying—omne trium perfectum—that means “everything that comes in threes is perfect.”
Turns out, the Latins never heard of the Enneagram.
If it sounds a little mystical at first, that’s because the roots of the Enneagram stretch back to the fourth century —or so authors Rohr and Ebert posit. Its exact origins are contested, but by many accounts, the idea of having nine types (“Enneagram” means “nine-pointed shape”) derives from Evagrius Ponticus’s eight deadly thoughts and the central thought he called “love of self.” Ponticus was a Christian monk and ascetic, a Roman citizen in the late 4th century who lived in a monastic community outside of Alexandria many years of his life.
During his tenure in Alexandria, Ponticus developed a list of deadly thoughts: vainglory, anger, greed, gluttony, sloth, sorrow, pride, and lust, to which he added “love of self” as the first thought of all. This list provided the blueprint for what were to become the Seven Deadly Sins of the Catholic Church, which Pope Gregory I would assemble from this list some 200 years later.
This is where the Enneagram differs from all the other strengths-oriented personality indicators out there. The fact that it is rooted in a fundamentally dark view of humanity—that we are sinning people who are inclined to sin in specific ways—isn’t exactly a cheerful view.
Some people object to the Enneagram on these grounds; other Christians take issue with Ponticus’s spirituality (he was what you might call a mystic). But in my experience, it has been one of the most helpful spiritual tools I have ever come across. It also seems to be having a bit of a renaissance among Christians right now, which I think can be traced to a growing desire for self-awareness that goes beyond the familiarity of the Myers-Briggs or the color of our parachutes. There are also several voices in the Christian community—Richard Rohr among them—whose research and writing has brought new life to the Enneagram.
The types all correspond with a specific need or temptation. The two, for example, has the need to be needed—they will make themselves indispensible to others and worry they are not valuable when they are unwanted. The eight has the need to oppose whatever threatens to control them or whatever forces of injustice they perceive. The three—my type—lives under the need to succeed. We are driven by a fear of being worthless, and so we will tap-dance our way through life in order to receive the accolades we so deeply desire.
There are upsides to the Enneagram, too—it’s not all doom and gloom. The twos, for example, are often the most helpful people you come across, willing to drop anything to help you out. The eights are the people you want on your side when you are working against evil or exposing abuse. And we threes will work tirelessly to accomplish whatever goal is set before us.
But the real power in the Enneagram lies in its ability to expose the dark underbelly of every person—their sin pattern. This may have to do with why the Enneagram has not been as well known as other personality typologies, because who really wants to dive deeply into their worst habits? This is certainly why I wanted to close the book when I started reading about the threes. It was so spot-on about the things I am ashamed about—my inclination toward deception, my deep desire that people think well of me, my belief that success and not my identity in Christ defines me—that reading this felt like ripping off a mask I had been wearing for years.
It was like coming into the light. In fact, it was a sort of step into the light. “Take no part in the unfruitful words of darkness, but instead expose them,” Paul writes in Ephesians 5. “For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’”
This is how God brings us into the light—not in comfort but in pain, not in ease but in struggling. When we toss words like “raw” and “broken” around in the Christian community, this is what we mean—this is the specific, concrete fact of what it means to be broken: Drawn toward deception, vanity, and pride. Other people will have other issues, but in knowing mine, I can be better equipped to pray, to confide in trusted friends, to read the truths of Scripture.
Every night at 9:40 p.m. I get an email from the Enneagram Institute. A couple days ago, this popped up on my phone as I was getting ready for bed:
Each type unconsciously tends to “train others” to see them in a certain way. Average Threes can be emotionally detached, chameleonic, and in need of credit. How do you want others to see you?
It wasn’t cheerful bedtime stuff, but it was the truth. And it gave me the chance, as these things do, to be grateful for a chance to know the truth about myself. Because only once we know the truth are we really ever in the light.