January 15, 2011
Faith and
Individuality

Do We Get a New
Personality as Christians?
    
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What does it mean to be a new person in Christ, yet still a distinct individual? Does God want us to deny our individuality, so that it doesnít interfere with what Christ is doing in us? Or does he want us to focus on those factors that make us unique, and nurture them?

Ideas abound in so many Christian circles about the ďideal Christian personality,Ē and this is a major reason for our confusion. While it may not be taught explicitly that one personality type is more godly than another, stereotypes persist nonetheless. Many Christians assume that leaders, and other strong believers whom they admire, are closer to having the perfect Christian personality than they are themselves.

As a new Christian, I simply assumed that the extroverted leaders of our church college group, with their football coach temperaments, were displaying Godís personality standard. I disdained my own personality, which seemed too mild and reflective compared to theirs, and did what I could to emulate the personality style of these leaders whom I esteemed.

Our confusion about individuality also results from certain theological misconceptions about what it means to a have new life in Christ. Scripture teaches that we are new creations as Christians. Weíre urged to deny our old nature and die to ourselves, in order to be fully alive in Christ. From there, itís an easy jump to thinking that we must deny what is unique about our own personality and individual potential, in order to be Christ-like.

Some Christians even conclude that they should ignore their most obvious talents, and devote themselves to areas of service for which they arenít naturally gifted. Taking this step seems necessary to ensure that they are ďdying to self,Ē and allowing Christ to be glorified through their weakness.

I fell into such disparaging of my gifts as a young Christian. Iíll never forget the occasion when a church leader whom I respected suggested I should use my musical talent to develop a Christian rock group. I nearly gagged. I had only been a believer for several months, and had already quit a popular band so that I could give my full attention to growing spiritually. It seemed inconceivable that God would want me to immerse myself in a creative activity I enjoyed so much--let alone that Christ might be glorified through it!

In time I discovered that it wasnít just a luxury to use talents I enjoy, but a necessity if I was to be faithful to Christ. Yet this matter was so confusing to me as a young Christian, that I remain forever sympathetic to those who struggle with it.

Personality Change vs. Character Change

There is no question that God wishes to bring change to our lives as Christians. And weíre clearly expected to exercise plenty of self-denial. But what is that he wishes to change? And what are we expected to deny?

It may seem natural to assume that God wants to change our personality, and wants us to deny those personal traits that make us unique. Yet, in fact, he isnít concerned with changing our personality so much as our character. He doesnít wish to radically modify our personality, but redirect it. Few distinctions are more important to appreciate in the Christian life, and few contribute more to our productivity.

Here itís extremely helpful to understand how the New Testament uses certain Greek words that refer to the psychological dimensions of human life. These terms include kardia--the heart, or seat of oneís emotions; nous--the mind or will; suneidÍsis--the conscience; and psychÍ--the soul, or life of an individual. These words appear numerous times throughout the New Testament, referring to both Christians and non-Christians alike. Every individual has these qualities, whether they are Christian or not.

What is interesting is that the New Testament never states that the Christian receives a new kardia, nous, suneidÍsis, or psychÍ. It speaks of the kardia being purified (Acts 15:9, Jas 4:8), the nous being renewed (Rom 12:2, Eph 4:17), the suneidÍsis becoming good (1 Pet 3:16, 21), and the psychÍ being saved (Heb 10:39, Jas 1:21, 1 Pet 1:9). But it is always my heart that is purified, my mind that is renewed, my conscience that becomes good, my life that is saved. The New Testament never implies, though its use of these terms, that God implants a new psychic existence into one who becomes a believer.

The New Testament does describe the believer as having a new life. But here the word it uses is always zŰÍ--which refers not to an individualís distinctive inner life, but to a quality of life that all Christians enjoy. The Christian is one who has a new dimension of life, which Scripture often denotes as eternal life. Its use of zŰÍ to denote this new life in no way implies a change in oneís psychological uniqueness, but rather a change in morality, motivation, desires, priorities, behavior and so on.*

Paul, as a Christian, Was Still an Individual

Thus, when the New Testament describes someone both before and after theyíve become a Christian, we find that the personís personality remained intact after he chose to follow Christ. While considerable change took place in that personís life, he or she still remained the same individual--only now bent toward doing Godís will, rather than toward acting against it.

Take Paul, for example. Before his conversion on the Damascus road, he is shown as an extraordinary man of action and a superb leader. He didnít simply muse about persecuting Christians--he did something about it. He was also a man of exceptional intellectual capacity, who studied under Gamaliel--one of the chief Jewish scholars of the time (Acts 22:3). Neither of these qualities was annulled after he became a Christian; they were simply propelled in a new direction. He became the chief firebrand in the young churchís outreach mission, and a prime spokesman on Christian doctrine.

Not that great change didnít occur in Paulís life after his conversion. He went through extensive transformation both spiritually and morally. He was no longer intent on murdering his religious enemies, for instance. The whole orientation of his life altered. But this character change didnít annihilate his personality so much as bring it into line with Godís purposes.

Martha Was Still Martha After Coming to Faith

Among women in the New Testament, Martha is a fascinating example of someone who retained her individuality after she came to faith in Christ. Most of us have a negative impression of Martha. When we think of her, we recall the incident in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus comes to her home for dinner. Martha busies herself with preparing the meal, while her sister, Mary, sits attentively at Jesusí feet listening to him. Finally, Martha, exasperated that Mary isnít helping her, blurts out to Jesus, ďLord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.Ē

Jesus replies, ďMartha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.Ē We typically conclude that Jesus upbraids Martha for paying too much attention to practical details while neglecting more important personal matters. The lesson, we assume, is that Mary has the ideal Christian personality, and those of us who are like Martha should modify our personality to become more like Mary.

Yet the New Testament has more to say about Martha. Several days after her brother Lazarus dies, Jesus comes to console the family. Martha undergoes a profound spiritual transformation through talking with Jesus, and then she witnesses his resurrecting Lazarus (John 11). Sometime after this, Jesus attends another dinner hosted by Martha (John 12:1-3). Since Marthaís faith in Christ has grown considerably since the first meal, we might assume her personality is markedly different now, especially at the point where she showed such rough edges before--her meticulous attention to detail. She will now be following Maryís pattern of relaxing socially with Jesus, and letting others take care of the food preparation.

Instead, John notes that ďMartha served,Ē while Mary again socializes with Jesus. Martha is still concentrating on preparing the meal. Whatís different now is that no mention is made of her being irritated with Mary for not helping. Hopefully, Johnís silence on this point means that Martha doesnít criticize Mary this time, and has grown more accepting of Mary for who she is. If so, then Marthaís spiritual growth has brought about important character change in her. But whatís abundantly clear is that Martha is still being Martha, still focused on the details of hosting. Her personality remains the same!

Being Yourself in Christ

The message in this biblical teaching on personality, then, is both encouraging and challenging. Itís remarkably encouraging to know that God doesnít expect any of us to be a clone of any other Christian. There is no ideal Christian personality type that weíre expected to emulate, nor are certain talents more important for us to possess than certain others. God has given each of us individuality, which he wishes us to express, and not repress, as we follow Christ. He has put within each of us a unique mix of potential and interests, which to a large extent remains consistent throughout our life--present before we commit our life to Christ, and continuing afterward. As we come to understand the distinctiveness he has given us, we gain vital insight into how he wants us to live our life.

This is where the challenge comes. God does expect us to take our potential seriously. The pressure to conform in some Christian circles can keep us from focusing on those gifts and interests that are most important in our own service for Christ. We each desperately need people around us who see us dynamically, and who help us come to grips with Godís best intentions for our life. We need to be willing to take courageous steps of faith as well.

Yet great motivation comes simply from knowing that God has created us uniquely, and that weíre contributing to the work of Christ, and not detracting from it, by being the individual he has made us to be. We should reflect often on the fact that God has made each of us a one-of-a-kind creation, and that he has work for each of us to do that no one else is as well-equipped to carry out. May we take heart from knowing this, and determine to take the best possible steps to realize our potential for Christ.
   

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