Faith and Personality

The people in the hall of faith have diverse personalities. Esau is a man of the land, a hunter given to emotional outbursts. Jacob is a stay-at-home mothers boy. Moses is insecure, timid, and riddled with doubt. Gideon is also doubt-ridden but is bargaining and analytical. Each of these—and all the others in the faith hall of fame—might be assigned to a distinct personality type.

Much has been written and studied and learned about personality differences in people. These differences color how we see, face, and respond to life. So too, how we see God, how we react to God, and how we express our faith are all highly dependent upon our personality.

One of the most common tools to evaluate personality is the so-called Myers–Briggs assessment tool for personality disorder. This series of questions takes your responses and assigns you to one of 16 personality types. These 16 types are then subdivided into groups of four, each having defining characteristics which make them similar in some way, and then that is labeled as your personality type. “Guardians,” or what are now called “sentinels,” are the type most likely to do things the way that they have always been done, and to hold on to the ways of the past. They tend to see things in black and white and as being either right or wrong.

A fairly recent study looked at the correlation between personality type and religion. It asked a large community of people to respond to the statement: “You are a very religious person.” You might respond “I am a very religious person,” or “I’m a very spiritual person,” or “I’m a person with faith in God.” No group had a strong majority who declared that they were religious. The highest group hovered around 50%.

However, there seemed to be several major differences between personality types, and the individual traits. “Sentinels” or “guardians” are defined by strong, observant, and judging traits. They had the highest percentage—50%—of people who claimed that they were religious. We would expect this because sentinels or guardians love tradition, and they have a by-the-book approach to life. They are conscientious people who prefer guidelines and strong standards. They are also loyal, and loyalty is a type of faith in itself and is easy to apply to a religious institution or faith. Sentinels comprise the group most likely to do things the way they’ve always been done and to hold on to the ways of the past. They are those who tend to see things in black and white, as right or wrong, and they can be inflexible at times.

Another group of the four major groups of personality types are called “analysts” or sometimes “rationals.” They were the group least likely to say that they were very religious. They’re relatively uncommon. Only 30% agreed with the statement that they consider themselves religious. With their intuitive and thinking traits, analysts need a sensible argument based on reasonable collection of solid evidence before they make up their minds. They usually want to improve and change systems rather than simply uphold the system as it is. A system whose continued existence depends upon its followers’ steadfastly continuing its traditions may be less attractive to analysts, and while religious apologetics might prove interesting to them as a philosophical exercise, they would probably not embrace beliefs unquestioningly. They need intellectual room to play, and a religious setting may not provide enough of that kind of freedom. They prefer finding their own way.

“Explorers” or “artisans” share observant traits with the sentinels / guardians and they have the second highest response to the statement “You are a religious person.” It is not yet clear whether this particular trait correlates strongly with religiosity. This hypothesis, the authors of this article say, warrants more research.

“Diplomats” or “idealists” are an intuitive group, like the analysts. They are also open minded and need room to imagine and draw their own conclusions. This probably accounts for their position as the third least likely group to claim that they are religious. They are like their analyst cousins in finding their own way. The combination of intuition and feeling generally points to an imaginative person who is often a bit of a visionary. They strive to improve themselves, and they strive to improve the world around them and others. They’re likely to be spiritual in a free-thinking, non-sectarian way. Chances are good that they see this quality as different from being religious; yet some would say these qualities have religious overtones. Maybe if we ask “Are you a spiritual person” we would get a more positive response from this group.

It’s also worth noting that the difference between these groups and these types as a rule shows a general rise and fall in religiosity. When we compare two personality types with identical traits, those with judging traits tend to appreciate structure, rules, and context for their action and ideas; some more so than others. Religious beliefs provide that framework of structure and context. Nevertheless, we should remember that no group is entirely representative of those who do or don’t describe themselves as religious. Even amongst sentinels, almost half did not see themselves that way.

It is easy to stereotype, but on many questions there may be a broad representation of different views within a single group. The purpose is not to brand one group as “this” while the other group is “that.” The value is not so much labeling; rather, it is discovering how our personality traits play out in the real world, and giving us a better sense of who we are.

What we see from this study is that personality not only affects how we respond to life, but how we see and respond to God. Abraham is a guardian, a sentinel. Noah is, as well. Jacob is an idealist. Esau is an explorer and artisan. Moses is a diplomat. Gideon is a rational. Some personalities seem more inclined to faith, at least as we’ve traditionally defined it. How can faith be dependent upon our personality? Is it because we’re so different, we’re so varied, we’re so un-uniform? Should our faith actually be more similar? Is there an ideal faith response to God?

We’ve already seen that faith is more easily reconciled with personalities of the so called sentinel or guardian type. These are naturally more inclined to do things by the rules. Others question more. Others are more comfortable with new ideas. Others seek to evolve understanding and some even push back the boundaries of understanding of faith. Others demand proof, are rational, and seek sensory certainty and confirmation.

What does personality variation say about God and about our response in faith to God? It just doesn’t seem quite fair that you are born this way and that I am born that way. It doesn’t seem fair that you were born here, speaking one language, with spiritual opportunities and understandings about God, and I am born there speaking different language, following a different culture, and possessing a different personality and a different pictures of God. As we seek to find a working definition of faith, how do our personalities and various attributes of how we were born and where we were born fit in? How do the languages we speak, the holy books we read, and the prayers we pray influence our faith and our picture of God?

Why didn’t God just make us all the same, with the same worldview, the same way of seeing and responding to him? Wouldn’t that make a lot more sense? We’re talking about faith and difference. We’re talking about doubt and disparity. We’re talking about the spirit and contrast. How is it that we can get a uniform definition of faith and be such different people?

Donald: Personality plays a much more significant role than we tend to believe. We pick a Sabbath school class based upon our personality. So probably there are some characteristics common amongst all of us here this morning—the mere fact that we decided to join each other, that we may be singling ourselves out. We may have more in common than we have differences. In fact, I’m quite sure that if you had some different people, different personalities, in the group today, they would see things quite differently than we do as a group.

God gave the people at the Tower of Babel different languages. They had a common language up to that point; maybe they got different personalities at that point too. The differences became much more distinct, and it caused confusion. I look out the window and I see all these different birds. I see a cardinal and then I see a sparrow. I don’t know if they have different personalities. Their size dictates their role at the feeder. Even amongst their own species, they seem to have different personalities.

Why is it important? We have different kinds of vegetables, we have different kinds of fruit. We have different kinds of animals. But we think everything should be the same when it comes to human beings, that we should think alike and see alike and respond alike. It would be rather boring, but it would be predictable. So personality actually adds flavor, it would seem, but it also adds tension, because some people just don’t seem as likely to be involved with a spiritual journey.

Sentinels are the religious ones. Religious people pretty much trump everything. You can call yourself spiritual and faithful, but are you religious? That’s what we really want to know. The group holding to tradition and guidelines hold the keys in some way. It would be interesting to do a personality profile of our church membership. It might shed a great deal of insight as to why people respond the way they do. It may not solve all the problems. I have family members who are opposite personalities. They love each other dearly, but they have to overlook the ends of the spectrum. In terms of being drawn to religion, having a spiritual journey, I think, hope, and pray that people who don’t seem to be drawn to religion but might be spiritual will find a place someday in God’s kingdom.

David: Those of us who are spiritual, might wish the same thing for our religious friends. 😉

Obviously, we’re all created with different personalities, but I don’t think that God created us essentially different at all, in terms of fundamental faith. The one thing I think has been shown (there have been studies) is that there are several attributes shared by all peoples around the world. One of them is belief in the golden rule: Treat your neighbor as you would want your neighbor to treat you. So do we have faith in the golden rule? I think we do. I think people all over the world believe that it represents both what is right and what is good.

There may be individuals, of course, who (through bad behavior) don’t exhibit a belief in the golden rule. But I do think that we’re all born with that shared understanding and that—to me—is faith. As we grow and develop, as various factors and experiences impinge upon us, our personalities may change. Our view of fundamentals like the golden rule may tend to get submerged in the daily crush of life; but at heart, I think what unites every human being is a fundamental belief that we all deserve to treat one another as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

Donald: I don’t think that the golden rule makes people religious. It makes them spiritual, it makes them have faith, it makes them a Christian, but I’m not sure it’s enough for religious people. They want some distinction amongst the denominations and world religions. So I would agree with you, but I just think that it falls short for at least the sentinels. They would want more than that.

Reinhard: You have to remember we are created in God’s image. We have a lot of things in common, in our class. If other people knew what we are discussing, they might be interested in joining us. People are born with innate characteristics already inside them. Environment makes a difference in forging character. Christians know that the Holy Spirit is given to us, God already has something in us. It’s as if we are going to cultivate land: God already provided the land and the seed to plant in it. Similarly, we have the Holy Spirit, which is maybe inactive after a certain time, until we get to know the Supreme Being. That’s when the Holy Spirit starts to become active in us, if we are in a religious home (whatever religion it happens to be).

We start receiving indoctrination from our parents and families, and that molds our personality. If the person receives God’s command, God’s law, in his heart, I think that person is pretty much going to live to be religious. Those who don’t absorb it, as they grow older may recognize they are hungry and thirsty for spiritual sustenance to keep going through life. So environment and genetic makeup make a difference in our personalities and determine which group we end up in.

Ahmed: I would think that the diversity of humankind in language and culture and color and so on is intentional. It affects how we look into our lives and see our different options. Diversity and choice are part of life. We all come to this life with a certain setup of gender, color, language, and so on. And then we have choices. There are things we cannot control. There are things we don’t have choice about (like our gender, language, and color) but there are things we do have a choice about. And having different personalities each with a different perspective makes it a little bit more challenging to really find the truth and persevere in it.

If God wanted to create us all the same and have everyone believe in him, he could have done so easily. But he chose not to. If we choose him, and believe in him by our own choice, as he wishes, then despite all the differences and all the diversity that fills our lives and makes us at times so uncertain about everything, we have faith and belief and certainty which, in the midst of all this diversity, I think is what it’s all about.

Jeff: It seems as though diversity is almost the antithesis of religiosity. Rigid religiosity demands conformity, falling in line with a certain set of mores, a certain set of beliefs, a certain path. It strikes me that personality probably dictates where we fall on the scale between rigid religiosity and open diversity. Ahmed seems to be saying that we should embrace diversity, but in the end it is those who choose God who are in line with God’s Will or God’s thinking. But even that is somewhat of a definition. Does it require an active choice? Or is it (as David has proposed before) that God saves everyone or God saves no-one? This whole spectrum, from one end to the other, I think really does fall in line a lot with individual personality and where you fall to find comfort in your own being.

Don: I can’t help myself. I am the way I am. I wish I was born as a sentinel, as a guardian, because then I would just see the rules, play by the rules, and do the rules.

Jeff: It’s very appealing. Jesus said we need to become like little children. This is a very appealing state to be in—one where you can have complete and utter trust without even trying. This is your lot at that stage in life but it rings completely hollow to somebody who can’t help but look at other points of view, or can’t help but try to develop a wide view of everything. Many times I’ve struggled in my own life, thinking, “If I wasn’t so educated, if I didn’t pursue big, rational thought, then x could be an easier path.”

Don: Those of you who know me know that I fall into the diplomat category who are visionary and strive to improve themselves, the world and others. They’re also likely to be spiritual, but in a free-thinking, non-sectarian way, and to see this quality as different from being religious. So I am who I am. I can’t help myself. Can you help me? More importantly, can God help me?

Donald: Isn’t that stage 4 in the Stages of Faith we’ve discussed? Where you’re comfortable in your own skin?

Don: But I don’t like it because it leaves me responsible for myself, I’d rather have somebody else make the rules and just follow them. I don’t want to take responsibility. But God made me this way. What can I do about it?

Donald: I was involved with university retention—how many freshmen go on to become sophomores—for 20 years. There are lots of studies and conferences about retention. There’s one statement that everybody makes in regards to retention: The number one reason a person remains within a particular group is a sense of belonging. It’s perfectly fine to be diverse, and it’s perfectly fine to be uniform, but if there is no sense of belonging, retention is unlikely. If I feel like I’m accepted, and I’m a part of a community, I will remain as part of that community, independent of everything else. But if diversity is not something that is respected within a religious group, then you don’t feel like you fit, and you’ll leave. Now, I know we’re talking about spirituality, not necessarily religion, but I think they all tie together.

David: Is university the opposite of diversity? We think about large public universities as hotbeds of diversity; as being all about diversity, with diverse fields and methods of study, and diverse personalities among the students and professors. Everything about a university is diverse, which is a beautiful kind of quantum superposition of opposite states. So what puts the uni in a university of diversity? Donald says it’s a sense of belonging. I would add it’s a sense of belonging in an educational endeavor; it’s a sense of shared belief, of faith, in education. I think Ahmed is right to ask: Why not have diverse faiths coming together, unified in the universe created by the God of goodness and the Golden Rule in whom / in which we all share faith?

Jeff: You don’t think of the uni in university as meaning one, as the hotbed of diversity. It made me immediately try to rationalize it and my thought was it’s uni meaning universal, encompassing all ideas. It’s an inclusionary, as opposed to an exclusionary, concept. Maybe the only thing holding everything together is the concept of God, of true, unabashed, unfettered love at the center of everything, which David is defining as the golden rule. But in that sense, it is somewhat of an inclusionary universe as opposed to an exclusionary, one-way concept.

Kiran: I don’t think God creating people differently is a problem. It’s actually a good thing. People may think of churches as stagnant pools of look-alike who share the same prophecy. But the pioneers of Seventh Day Adventism—Ellen White and James Webb—were anything but stagnant! They were constantly changing their beliefs based on new evidence. They were like scientists. If they attended one of our Michigan conference camp meetings today, they might go nuts! We might appear stagnant, not nearly as actively involved in social issues as they were back in the day.

But at the same time, too much growth and too little stability brings chaos and is unsustainable, so you need guardians to protect and provide stability. When all four personality types value one another as assets, that’s when we get progress in church and a constantly evolving understanding of who God is. Except for Adam and Eve, no group in this world has ever had a complete understanding of who God is. And we’re all trying to understand who God is. After being directly alongside Jesus for three and a half years, even the disciples were surprised when he told them “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

Fully understanding God is not possible with our limited minds. But we should not let our little understanding stay stagnant across the ages. We are not supposed to get stuck in one age, we are supposed to evolve in our understanding of who God is, and for that, every personality type is important. An analyst type can look forward but we need the guardian type to hold them back a little bit otherwise they would create too much chaos. When we treat them all as strengths, that’s when we really grow.

I get uncomfortable sometimes in this class, but that’s good. That’s when I change. I have to embrace the discomfort—I think it’s important, it’s not good to be stuck and stagnating in one place. At the same time, it’s not nice to go too far away, leaving all comfort behind. I think there is a balance. I’m not trying to compromise. I think there is a perception that you have to strengthen your weak areas of life. I don’t think that works. I think you complement your weakness with somebody else who has that as their strength, and then you become a unit. I think that’s how we were created. We’re not supposed to be individual people

Donald: A tool we used at university called CliftonStrengths for Students (formerly StrengthsQuest) uses Gallup’s assessment method to assess personality types into various categories, and it picks the top three that you fall within. What’s unique about that personality profile is that you teach its theme to freshmen. Teachers constantly are trying to correct students: “We need to get you from here to there; change your way of going about doing something, your habits are wrong.” It is based on the idea of minimizing your weaknesses and capitalizing on your strengths. If only we could do that and not see other people’s personalities as detrimental, but rather as beneficial to us.

Reinhard: God’s people are unique and “peculiar” people, as the Bible says. Some people like to be at the head, to lead their group or church, Others may have a lesser function but still be indispensable to the whole body. We can’t all be a leader—some have to be followers. As 1 Corinthians 12 says, that’s the gift of the Spirit. Some become teachers, some become healers or preachers. Faith is the gift of God. We all have our own level of function to serve our fellow men within our society or within our group.

Kiran: The disciples of Jesus included a radical, a pro-Roman tax collector—completely opposite personalities—as well as a doubter and a zealot. But after they were united at Pentecost they were able to take the gospel all over the world. So I think as long as there is division among all the different personalities that God created, there won’t be any growth. But when they’re united, there will be.

Don: Can we find a common faith? Is that possible?

David: Do you see diversity in goodness around the world? Is South African goodness different from Norwegian goodness? Don’t we all fundamentally believe in the same goodness, have faith in the same goodness, know what goodness is, whoever we are, wherever we are? Is there diversity in goodness itself? Or is there diversity in faith in goodness? I don’t think there is either.

Diversity may have been created by God but we have a hand in it too, as we grow. We cultivate our diverse personalities. As Ahmed pointed out, we can’t help our upbringing—where we were born, and so on—but we can and do have a hand in developing our own personality. However, what we absolutely may not do is arbitrarily redefine goodness to suit our chosen personality. Wherever we look, from Sudan to Sweden, we see the same fundamental belief in goodness—in God.

Reinhard: There are some things very much in common. Every family, no matter what country, wants to be a happy family, they want their children to grow up to be somebody and help their family and society. But as people of God, the Bible is our standard. The Word of God unites us.

As far as our direction in life, as God said, the truth will set us free—from the bad influences around us. So in that respect, we need to maintain the drumbeat and move forward according to the law of God. In that sense, I believe it is inclusive within God’s people. We have one command or major principle we have to obey: Believe in God. This cannot be challenged.

Don: Kiren, you were a Hindu. Ahmed, you are a Muslim. Jeff, you’re a Christian. Do you all share a common faith?

Ahmed: I can’t speak for others. Islam acknowledges Christianity and Judaism. And Islam thinks of religion as a common message from Adam and Abraham. All along, it’s been the same message. We believe in the Bible. We believe in the Old Testament.

Anonymous: All religions call for goodness or love, for peace. When I go back to my Jordanian culture, I do not see any difference between me and my Muslim neighbor. As long as we love each other, care for each other, we can be friends with one another and live in peace with one another, no matter what. The names of our respective prophets make no difference, or at least did not until I came to the States.

I’ve never thought of religiousity as being any different from spirituality. Could “spiritual” mean or refer to being born again as a Christian? Back home, I don’t even think about spirituality. How is it different from being religious—meaning caring about God, going to church, fearing the name of God, respecting the sacred things of God (including books and houses of worship), and so on?

As to faith: I don’t know what it means. It seems complex enough without throwing in personality as a complicating factor. It doesn’t seem to be getting us any closer to a common working definition of faith. Yet when you’re with a faithful person of the same or a different religion, or a different denomination within the same religion, you feel something in common, something spiritual. For example, I have a very religious, very faithful relative who is not a Seventh Day Adventist. I have very faithful and very religious Muslim friends. I have an atheist neighbor who doesn’t even believe in God, but he always does good work around my subdivision, helping people.

Could the definition of goodness be different from one person to another? My city is marking up sidewalks preparatory to repairing them. My atheist neighbor came to me and said, “Is this mark on your land or on your other neighbors?” I did not know. He thought it was on my other neighbor’s land, and he encouraged me to go to the city and find out because my neighbor might falsely say it was on my property, leaving me to pay for the repair. But I don’t feel like I want to go that far. If I receive the bill, I will pay it. If I don’t then it’s not on my land. He said “If I were you I would fight. I would not let them take my rights.” Is this goodness? Or is letting it go goodness? I don’t know. It’s a complex subject. Personality is personal! It’s not group business.

David: Is the devil faithful to God? Does the devil believe in God? Does the devil have faith?

Anonymous: Yes, he does.

Donald: Adventists like to think of themselves as “peculiar” and strive to be so. Is it good enough to be just good, or do we have to be peculiar as well? This will bring “truth” into the argument. And then you can start evangelizing. Do you need all this in order to witness for Christ?

Kiran: Is there a common faith? Among my Hindu relatives and friends and my Christian friends I see two kinds of people: One believes they can change the world, they are the author of their destiny, and it doesn’t matter which religion they belong to. The other group thinks that there are things beyond their control, that there is something bigger than themselves, and they need its help. I have much more in common with the second group, no matter which religion they belong to. You find both groups in every religion.

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