of the thorniest questions we deal with as
Christians is what it means to be a new creation
in Christ, yet still an individual. Does God want
us to deny our individuality, so that it doesn't
interfere with what Christ is doing in us? Or
does he wish us to give attention to those
factors that make us distinctive as individuals,
and nurture them?
Our confusion about this results
in part from an unavoidable fact of our Christian
culture. In so many Christian circles impressions
prevail about what constitutes the
"ideal" Christian personality. While
it's seldom taught explicitly that one
personality type is more in line with God's will
than another, stereotypes about this persist
nonetheless. Many assume that leaders, and other
strong Christians whom they admire, are closer to
having the perfect Christian personality than
they are personally.
As a new Christian, I simply
assumed that the extroverted leaders of our
church college group, with their football coach
temperaments, were demonstrating God's
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.
This confusion about
individuality, though, results not only from
assuming that other Christians are role models of
the right personality, but also from theological
misconceptions-- particularly about what it means
to have new life in Christ. Scripture teaches
that as Christians, we are new creations. In
light of this, we're urged to deny our old
nature, and to die to ourselves, in order to be
fully alive in Christ. It's an easy jump to
thinking that we must deny what is unique about
our own personality and individual potential.
Some Christians even conclude
that because they possess a certain talent, they
should ignore it, and devote themselves instead
to areas where they are less naturally gifted.
Taking this step seems necessary to ensure that
they are dying to "self," and allowing
Christ to be glorified through their weakness.
I fell into such disparaging of
my gifts as a young Christian. I'll never forget
the occasion when, following an early-morning
prayer breakfast, a church leader whom I
respected suggested I 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 attention to spiritual growth. 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 the effort.
In time I discovered that it
wasn't just a luxury to use talents I enjoy, but
a necessity, if I'm 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.
There is no denying that God is
concerned with bringing change to our lives as
Christians. Nor is there any question that we're
expected to exercise plenty of self-denial in the
Christian life. But what is it that needs to be
changed? And what are we expected to deny?
It seems natural to assume that
God wants us to change our personality, and to
deny those personal traits that make us unique.
Yet a close look at biblical teaching on personal
transformation finds that he isn't concerned with
changing our personality so much as our character.
His desire is not to radically modify our
personality but to redirect it. Few
distinctions are more important to appreciate in
the Christian life, and few contribute more to
our being productive as Christians.
Here it's extremely helpful to
understand how some Greek words are used in the
New Testament in reference to areas of human life
that Christ influences. The New Testament uses
several terms to refer to the psychological
dimensions of one's life: kardia (the
heart, or seat of the emotions), nous
(one's mind or will), suneidÍsis
(conscience), psychÍ (an individual's
soul, or life). These words appears numerous
times throughout the New Testament, referring to
both Christians and non-Christians alike. Every
individual has these qualities, whether they are
Christians 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.
There's no indication in the use of these terms
that God implants a new psychic existence into
one who becomes a believer.
Testament does describe the believer as having a
new life. But here the word always used is zŰÍ,
which refers not to the psychological life of an
individual, but to quality of life. The Christian
is one who has a new dimension of life, which
Scripture often denotes as eternal life. The use
of zŰÍ to denote this in no way implies
a change in the individual's psychological
uniqueness, but rather a change in morality,
motivation, desires, priorities, behavior and so
Paul the Christian Was Still
Thus, when the New Testament
gives descriptions of someone both before and
after becoming a Christian, we find that the
person's personality remained intact. While
considerable change occurred in the person's
life, he or she still remained the same
individual--only now bent toward doing God's
will, rather than acting against it.
Take Paul's example. Before his
conversion on the Damascus road, he is shown as
an extraordinary man of action and a superb
leader. He didn't simply think 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 church's outreach mission, and a prime
spokesman on Christian doctrine.
Not that there wasn't immense
change in Paul's life after his conversion. He
went through extensive spiritual and moral
transformation. He was no longer intent on
murdering his religious enemies, for instance.
The whole orientation of his life changed. But
the character change which occurred didn't
annihilate his personality so much as bring it
into line with God's purposes.
Martha Was Still Martha after
Coming to Faith
Among women in the New Testament,
Martha is an 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
Jesus' feet listening to him. Finally Martha,
exasperated that Mary isn't helping her, blurts
out to Jesus, "Lord, do you not care that my
sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then
to help me."
Jesus replies, "Martha,
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." We typically conclude that Jesus
upbraids Martha for paying too much attention to
practical detail, and 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 goes through a profound spiritual
transformation through talking with Jesus, then
witnesses his resurrecting Lazarus (John 11).
Sometime after this, Jesus attends another dinner
hosted by Martha (John 12:1-3). Since Martha's
faith in Christ has grown considerably since the
first meal, we might assume that 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 Mary's pattern of relaxing
socially with Jesus, and letting others take care
of the food preparation.
Instead, John notes that
"Martha served," while Mary again
socializes with Jesus. Martha is still
concentrating on preparing the meal. What's
different now is that no mention is made of her
being irritated with Mary for not helping.
Hopefully, John's silence on this point means
that Martha doesn't criticize Mary this time, and
has grown more accepting of Mary for who she is.
If so, then Martha's spiritual growth has brought
about important character change in her. But her
personality remains the same: she's still being
Martha, focused on the details of hosting.
Being Yourself in Christ
The message in all of this, then,
is one of both encouragement and challenge for
each of us. It's remarkably encouraging to know
that God doesn't expect any of us to be a clone
of any other Christian. There is no ideal
Christian personality type we are expected to
emulate, nor are there particular talents that
are more important for us to possess than certain
others. God has given us each individuality which
he wishes to be expressed and not repressed as we
follow Christ. He has put within each of us a
unique mix of potential and interests, that 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 giving
appropriate attention to 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 the best directions we
should take with our life. We need to be willing
to take courageous steps of faith as well.
Yet great incentive comes simply
from knowing that God has created us to be
individuals, and that we're contributing to the
work of Christ, 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 unique, and that he has work for us each to
do whom 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.