Introduction to Christian Personality
By: K. B. Napier
Can personality change? Or is it fixed at birth? It seems that most Christians think God gave them their personalities and so they cannot be altered. "You'll have to take me as you find me!" is the retort, if their personality defects are questioned. In this very human way, Believers attribute all kinds of sinful behaviour to God, Who 'made them that way'! Psychiatry talks about ‘personality disorder’ as though personality is fixed by our genes or by evolution.
What we are talking about is personal holiness and obedience. In our churches today there is a smug self-indulgence which attempts to smooth-over a multitude of sins, by refusing to face the problem of personality.
The point can be put this way - if a person cannot change what he considers to be his 'basic personality' or 'temperament' (the two terms are used as though they meant the same, but they do not), then he can be excused many human excesses of his sinful nature. Indeed, the very concept of 'sin' is very much diminished or even removed. This same notion is found in several psychiatric theories. But it is humanistic, not Biblical. The idea is this - if our personality is given to us by God and is fixed, then whatever we do cannot be sin. How can it be sin if it was given to us by God? This is a reasonable argument...but it is wrong.
In usual fashion, modern Christians operate a duality of intent, which is really a form of unbelief. On the one hand we praise God for His power to change lives through the Holy Spirit but, on the other hand, we smile weakly and accept the twists of our personalities which are sinful and dishonouring to God. This allows us to sin in relative comfort. If our consciences prick us we can say "Ah well, that's just how I am made!" Most Christians are unaware that a problem exists and that they are making excuses for sin.
Two reasons come immediately to mind for this attitude toward personality:
(* 'Scientism' is the all-pervasive tendency of pseudo-science or, 'pretend' science, to rule our lives. This is especially true in the field of psychology. Evolution is another example. In many scientific disciplines, including physics, hard-nosed scientists allow their own personal beliefs, rather than the evidence itself, to interpret the facts. It is easy to discover what is 'science' and what is personal opinion, once you know what you are looking for!)
A pastor was heard talking to a member. They were discussing an incident involving an absent member who had recently insulted another person. The one being discussed was always moaning about life; she was grumpy and often rude - if not totally vicious - to others. Yet, she was allowed to get away with it every time. Whenever she started to attack a person, others would simply melt away and pretend not to notice...far better to do so than to 'get involved'.
The pastor ended his chat by saying, with great authority and a beneficent smile: "Of course, being saved doesn't alter our basic personality. If we are grumpy before we are saved, then we'll be grumpy afterward, too!" Both pastor and member chuckled and went their ways.
As one who has often been at the sharp end of unprovoked rudeness and viciousness, this writer can say that NOTHING excuses rudeness or, grumpiness or, backbiting or, viciousness. These vile attributes of men and women have no place in the Christian life. (Look at what happened in the Old Testament when David met with a 'churlish man'...see if you can find the reference and understand why David wished to act!).
That pastor blundered badly. He not only allowed a Christian to be openly destructive, but he also laughed about it! No doubt, he would not normally laugh at sin - in this case he did so out of ignorance. Yet, oddly, the sin itself was obvious! It was evil in the sight of God. When a pastor uses 'personality' as an excuse for sin, he is giving bad spiritual advice and he condones sin.
In this way we all excuse such defects as so-called neurotic 'depression', 'anxiety', ‘paranoia’, being ‘highly-strung’, 'moodiness', verbal aggression, rudeness and surliness. These are nothing more than self-indulgence. But, if we all turn a blind eye to them and appear to be sympathetic, then when we need to cover-up our own sins, the same tolerance will be shown to us. Surely there cannot be a more sinful response to doing wrong? In the example above, the pastor was giving a human excuse, based on a human response to things that are sinful.
The issue is not a minor one. It affects the whole Church and its witness. It affects personal holiness and obedience. It affects discipline and responsibility. This writer has witnessed many cases of this spiritual bankruptcy. How can our churches grow strong when they have perpetual public sin in our midst?
The issue also concerns how we react to so-called 'mental' disturbances. A question needs to be asked - can personality be altered by conversion? Or, can a saved person alter his own personality? These are important questions for, if the answers are negative to both questions, then we are bound to side with the humanist, who sees no reason to believe in a mythical God, who cannot do anything to change a fallen nature! If this is true, then we have nothing to offer either the Believer or the unbeliever.
But this is not the case. This writer clearly asserts that personality can change for the better, on a permanent basis.
Before we can continue with the discussion, we must define what we mean by 'personality'. Later we will look at a Biblical definition of personality and what God expects of us as saved people. Here we will talk about a more general definition.
Personality is a conglomerate. It is the sum total of what a person is - including his beliefs, attitudes, physical attributes, actions, thoughts and so on. Everything a person says or does is his 'personality'- it is not a single factor, but a blanket term for the whole person. Thus the pastor in the earlier illustration was not referring to personality at all, but to a prevailing single part of personality - a mood.
One authority states that "The prevalent mood is a guide to the person's state of mind." When we see a person always smiling and happy, we can say that his 'mood is good'. (However, this can be negated, at least to the layperson, by the ‘smiling depressive’. Nevertheless, this 'smile' is obviously not a true smile, to those who have knowledge of body-language).
Usually this mood reflects an inner attitude which affects the rest of the person; thus we can say that the person's 'personality' is 'happy'. That is, his prevailing attributes are mainly positive. In the same way, a person who is always moaning will have few friends, because his 'personality' is 'grumpy'.
Mood greatly affects the whole personality and helps toward what we call 'individuality'. But the effect of mood is not always good. Mood can help to destroy self and others. It can reduce or obliterate relationships with others and with God. Complete families can be shattered by one person's neurotic 'personality' traits...no family, relative, or friend, can put up with the constant onslaught of mood imbalance or of major personality defects.
Just think of what happens when an ordinary person has an ordinary, everyday, state of 'moodiness'. Others are wary of being with him because they constantly wonder "What mood is he in today?" Is he mad at us, or glad to see us? Is he happy or sad? Will he moan and groan or enjoy life? Is he going to be burdensome or friendly?
If we are truthful, we do not really want to wait to find out! This kind of person drains the well-being of others, so that they no longer wish to commune with the 'moody' person. When they are with that person, they constantly adjust their responses and attitude so that they do not 'upset' him and to remain on his 'good' side. What a terrible way to live! What a farcical situation, devoid of all true Christian fellowship. The moddiness is merely a form of thuggery.
When moodiness prevails, it can lose friends, husbands, wives and children. It can lose jobs. It loses the moody person respect. It robs him of joy in the Lord and gives him a jaundiced view of life. In short, it is a disaster.
Why should others put up with such evil ways? Imagine what would happen if the same person becomes neurotic...his moodiness will become more pronounced, resulting in even greater evils and complete loss of patience in those around him. No wonder this leads to broken marriages. When we look at this more detailed view, we can appreciate why that pastor's response was so glib, lacking in foresight and a proper understanding of the human psyche - sadly very unbiblical.
A Psychiatric View
A radical change in mood is a clue to the state of mind in general. When a person is admitted to a mental hospital the interviewing doctor has two basic questions in mind - has there been a change of mood and, was the change gradual or sudden? Any change tends to alter the whole personality.
'Clinically' speaking, personality changes are possible only when the mind itself is altered by madness or some other mental disturbance. This is one reason why Believers in Russia are/were placed in mental hospitals. This is why Christianity is said to be a mental disease - it alters the personality! (Although, to our shame, we see little of this in the West).
Generally, then, the psychiatric/psychological view is that a permanent change in mood (and its subsequent effects on personality) is a symptom of mental disorder. Many psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses observe Christians with bemused tolerance: Christians are thought to be harmless but unstable personalities.
The professionals hold to the view that 'religious fanatics' are people who have had 'too much religion'. (Hence it is the personal view of this writer that Christians should never, ever be treated in mental hospitals, except - maybe, only if there is no other option - for physical disorders such as senile dementia, etc.).
The Christian Personality
This writer believes there is such a thing as Christian personality and that it is described in scripture, variously but in detail. We have all met those Christians who appear to exude holiness. They do this because holiness is their state of mind; it is their constant mood and so it helps form Christian personality.
Our wrong thinking about personality is grounded in modern ideas of Man. Theologians confidently assert that 'God is dead'. Philosophers seem to be caught between existentialism and humanism. God is said to be a relic of our ancient past - an evolutionary vestige. Thus the supernatural does not really exist and is anathema, a figment of the imagination. Everything can be explained by 'science' and countless disciplines claim to be scientific when they are not. Christians, like everyone else, are caught up in this atmosphere, to the detriment of their intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives.
Man cannot alter his own personality, it is argued, because his personality and 'drives' are inborn and handed-down by evolution. Any defects, nasty as some of them are, must just be accepted as they appear in each individual. This idea runs through much of our social sciences and it is unfortunately expressed by the majority of Christians. And it is wrong.
People become new creatures when they are saved. They do not have to drag a vile personality with them, like a bag of garbage! Why claim newness in Christ, when no-one can see or hear the difference in our lives? This writer cannot help but feel angry when he hears such statements as "He's a Christian, but what a temper!" or, "He's certainly got an eye for the women!" or, "She's okay - her husband is nagged silly though, because she always wants this or that". Our personality defects drag the Name of Christ through the dirt.
The assertions are as follows:
Personality can change through 'madness' or through gross 'mental' imbalance (these terms are here used for convenience). It can also change through demonic activity and by habitual sin. But it can also change through the work of the Holy Spirit!
The change of personality by the Holy Spirit is not an option for special types of Christian. It is required of us all, by God. There IS such a thing as Christian personality, where holiness, purity, peace, joy etc. become the predominant characteristics. We must attack any faults in our personality vigorously and rectify them. This can be done instantly - there is no need for a long period of adjustment. We must never give a benign shrug and accept the flaw as inevitable. Where we come across scripture telling us about this sin or that sin, we are warned to be rid of it immediately. Tomorrow may be too late.
Old people and children are not exempt, whether or not they are Believers, but particularly if they are. They get away with all manner of vileness, because of their age. Age is irrelevant - the time to stop defects (sin!) is NOW. Old people may NOT be allowed to get away with being extremely rude or, aggressive, etc. Children may NOT get away with being abusive, vicious, destructive, liars, etc.
I am amazed by those parents who kiss their offspring adoringly when they kick and scream in a tantrum or, when they deliberately tear the new wallpaper off the wall or, when they go and do whatever they have been told not to do! Those parents are making a rod for their own backs but, more importantly, they are condoning sheer SIN. They are teaching their children how to be expert sinners with no comebacks. The message is plain - do and say whatever you wish! In later years, though, the same sins will return like a hammer, maybe to destroy the family relationship. It is far easier to nip sins in the bud than to dig them up by the roots.
We have no mandate or right to accept our own personality flaws or, the flaws of others, no matter what their age is. On a number of occasions I have heard experienced pastors refuse to administer discipline because of the person's age. This is a disturbingly unscriptural attitude to adopt. I only have to think of the way God dealt with old Eli!
(There was a time when this writer was continuously harassed and verbally attacked without cause, by an older member of a church he attended. It became so bad that he had to approach the pastor for help, who knew about the incidents but had done nothing. A meeting was arranged with both parties. The old person abused the writer even in front of the pastor, who could only agree that the older person was acting in a totally self-indulgent and sinful way. Yet he refused to warn or discipline her. He merely calmed her down and asked the writer to "shake her hand"! The pastor was later asked - with some frustration - why he had not applied discipline. His curt answer? "What do you want? Blood?" Needless to say, the attacks continued afresh and never stopped).
Personality flaws are created by our own bad habits, not by God. Flaws in young children are usually learned from adults or, from the non-intervention of parents. But children and old people cannot be excused. These, too, can be changed. We all LEARN how to be moody, depressed, anxious, nasty, grumpy, sarcastic, etc. A fine Christian young woman slowly became moody, grumpy, had 'headaches' whenever she did not get her own way...and she is still like it years later. Is this Christian personality? Is this what we must expect from Believers?
Certainly not! That woman MUST CHANGE. There can be no argument about it. She is not happy within and she is sinning. She has already altered her own personality, to the detriment of herself, her family and all who meet with her. She has a heavily-flawed personality, but that is not how she began. Why, then, does she do it? Why accept something that makes herself unhappy? The reason is simple - it is easier to resort to sinfulness than to work things out as a Christian. It is easier than to live a committed Christian life. This happens to us all at some time or another. But when it affects our whole being and changes our personality, something radical must be done.
What about 'original' sin...that sin of Adam and Eve that now affects each one of us even before we are born? It is this Sin-principle in us that produces our everyday sins. Sin warps our natural abilities and our personalities. Before our salvation it is natural to follow whatever our warped personalities demand. But, after our salvation, there can be no excuse. Jesus Christ makes us new creatures. He expects us to change immediately and to continue changing so that we become more and more like Him. None of this can ever make us sinful. God never accepts or excuses our warped personalities and flaws. WE MUST CHANGE!
We have seen that for something to be attributed to our personality, it must be permanent and easily observed. A Christian who proof-reads our literature read the first part of this Article and commented "You say you know what it is like to be at the sharp end of a tongue - but what about that incident with the security man at the gate?"
The incident he referred to was as follows:
I was driving through the gate of our local university when a security guard stopped me, as is expected. He started to quiz me about my reasons for being there. Again, a normal security measure. By that time a long queue was behind me. The guard continued his questions and began to get abrupt. This led to him calling me a liar in front of the entire queue. Yet, I had a legitimate research card that entitled me to use the library facility.
I parked my car and walked back to the gate. I politely asked him why he had been so abusive. Not expecting anyone to ask him questions, he backed down and gave a feeble excuse. I told him, sharply, that I did not think much of his attitude...but I did not raise my voice, humiliate him, or retaliate.
Some might think I was wrong to object to his accusations and attitude, and to speak sharply. But, Christians are NOT doormats to be trodden on and abused at the whim of all and sundry. This has nothing to do with 'turning the other cheek'. Christians are afraid to assert themselves when it is correct to do so. The sharpness I used with the guard was a temporary statement of my anger...to be called a liar in public can have many ramifications for a Christian. I did not maintain anger and soon forgot about the incident.
Was that an indication of personality, or of personality defect? No, it was not. Possibly, depending on one's view of assertion, it could be said that my response was wrong. Perhaps it was (although I do not think so) - but we all make defective responses continually. Even so, these are not part of our personality. To be a part of personality, they have to form a pattern; people must expect us to perform in a certain way under given circumstances.
If our performance remains constant in similar circumstances, then it can be said that the way we have acted is part of our personality. Thus, one would need to ask - do I always respond sharply? Do I always respond sharply under pressure? Am I noted for looking for trouble? Am I always grumpy? If the answer to all these is 'no' then the sharpness is not a part of my personality. If there is doubt, then friends or relatives should be consulted, until a picture builds up. (Who has the courage to do this?).
Are some Christians 'meant' to be grumpy, moody, fearful, depressed, easy to anger, etc.? Of course not! Should we accept ‘depression’ as normal, or quick-anger? The very idea is shunned by a sin-hating God, whose new life is given to all who are saved by Grace. If we say we are saved and yet we still keep up our bad habits and flawed personalities, then we are being hypocrites and our faith is devalued. This must surely cause great pain to the God Who has given us so much.
Pastors and others must be aware of the issue of personality. When they see a flawed personality they should deal with it immediately and not let it develop into even worse sins. If they allow such sins to develop unchecked then they become partakers of them. Christians thus approached should listen with grace and must act upon the word given.
On the other hand, the counselling Christian should not take it as a personal insult if the person does not change. The change is up to the believer, not the counsellor. We are all bound, in some way, by the 'old man' within. None of us can claim perfection of personality. Even so, we must never stop in our attempts to be rid of the excesses and flaws of our personalities. The final part of this Article examines a Biblical example of what it means to change our personality until it becomes more Christ-like.
"...present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, (which is) your reasonable service.
And be not conformed (1) to this world: but be ye transformed (2) by the renewing (3) of your mind (4), that ye may prove what (is) that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."
Therefore, if we are to be true to God we must radically change, from clinging to the ways and habits of this world, to union with what is superior and holy. In the New Testament Greek text we find that whatever we think, say or do, MUST be pure and of God. This is said to be 'superior'. Sin and sinful habits are 'inferior', useless, of no service.
We must change our personalities in such a way as to be living sacrifices, more like Christ. Yes, there is such a thing as a Christian personality! Never again let your flaws and sins be called your 'personality'. Instead, be living sacrifices unto God for this is your 'reasonable service' displaying what is the 'good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God'.
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