West St. Paul, MN. In a day where we feel increasingly disconnected, personality tests promise to fill a gap by offering us insight into ourselves. Whether it’s Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder, or the ascending Enneagram, it is hard to escape the influence of these tests. In times past, individuals came to understand who they were by relating to others. Whether it was your family, community, or church, people understood their identity by looking outside of themselves. Those times are fading, and now individuals embark on an endless journey of self-discovery. What does this say about us as a people? Why are these tests so popular, and do they offer us any hope?
In our day, the autonomous self rules supreme, and thus the purpose of life becomes knowing ourselves better. Our slogans reflect this truth: be true to yourself, the heart wants what the heart wants, believe in yourself, etc. If you want a satisfying life, the one thing you must do is find yourself. This gospel resounds throughout our culture in everything from movies to psychology. Whether it’s Disney’s call to follow your heart or Maslow’s declaration that our highest need is self-actualization, as a people, we worship at the altar of the self. As we increasingly look within, our loneliness only intensifies.
Ironically, by searching for the self, we also lose ourselves. The more intently we look within, the more elusive our sense of self becomes. This is the postmodern mood, one of relativism and ultimate uncertainty. The dilemma of our relativistic self-searching is this—how can we seek the self while that very same self is supposed to be our measuring stick? If relativism is correct that truth is subjectively determined, and I haven’t yet found my true self, the determiner of truth, then how can I know anything at all? With no external reference point, what standard do I use to know anything?
The Empty Promises of Personality Tests
Enter personality tests, a seemingly objective standard to find yourself. Answer these questions, and this test will unlock the secrets of you! These tests promise to capture what escapes us—understanding, direction, and truth. In modern lingo, “Want to find yourself? There’s an app for that!” Is it any wonder that personality tests are so popular? They claim to offer insight into the thing we most desire—the self, all in neat prepackaged categories.
There are two major problems with personality tests. First, they are arbitrary. Far too often, people treat these tests with the same veracity as having a blood test at the doctor’s office. At best, the arbitrary categories of these tests are educated guesses. Second, all these tests operate under the dubious assumption that we can accurately know and represent ourselves by answering questions on a test. As a pastor, I see firsthand that people are self-deceiving as they often think better of themselves than reality warrants.
Nonetheless, what personality tests actually reveal is our own self-perception of who we are, which may or may not be accurate. After completing a test, the results force individuals into prepackaged mass categories, which somehow account for everyone who ever existed. While there are some insights we can glean from these tests, our treatment of them as gospel truth is suspect at best and laughable at worst.
What Personality Tests Actually Reveal About Us
What then are we to make of the popularity of these tests? What do they say about us as a people? To start, our fascination with personality tests demonstrate our utter loneliness. Despite being connected in amazing ways through technology, we don’t know how to connect with others in meaningful ways. In bygone days, individuals would come to know themselves and others not by categorizing them according to arbitrary personality types but through living together in community. People found out who they were by relating to others, not by taking a test. In our day, we replace conversations with tweets and community with glowing screens. Without meaningful community in our lives, it is difficult to know who we are.
Ultimately, the loneliness of our day is rooted in our own selfishness. If life is all about looking within, then it is truly lonely. Life becomes all about me and me alone. In this cultural fog, we lose our foundation for knowing anything at all because everything is reduced to subjective experience. In a very real way, it is impossible for us to rightly know ourselves by only looking within because everything is reduced to the self. Is it any wonder so many people are anxious, depressed, and lonely? The only cure is to liberate ourselves from our worship of the autonomous self.
A Way Forward
Such liberation can only happen as we look outside of ourselves. Life isn’t about me, so I must look for someone else, someone greater. I can only truly know myself by seeing myself before my Creator. John Calvin reminds us that all knowledge falls into two categories: knowing God and knowing the self. Calvin recognized that in order to know anything, especially ourselves, we must start with God. God, not the nebulous inward self, is the center of all knowledge. He is the external reference point needed to know who we are, and we come to know God through both his self-revelation (Scripture) and his people (the church). By living in communion with God and others, we come to know ourselves better.
While personality tests may or may not be helpful tools, their current popularity demonstrates our nagging loneliness. For too long, we’ve chased our tails as we sought to find our true selves by looking to ourselves, only to return dissatisfied. Wanting to know ourselves by following ourselves only leads to selfishness and despair. Consequently, we blind ourselves with ourselves. Instead, we must look beyond the self to God and others. We must see ourselves in relation to our Creator and our fellow creatures. This mirrors the two great commands—love God and love others.
As those made in the image of the Triune God, we are designed for relationships, both with God and others. This means coming to know God through his Word and then living in community with other Christians. Within local churches, Christians love one another by bearing one another’s burdens, encouraging each other, praying for one another, serving others, and gathering together to point each other to the greatness of God, not the self. It is only by denying ourselves in the service to God and others that we truly live—and it is only in these relationships that our true identity and personality flourish.