If you want a meaningful life, invest in your relationships.
Years ago, I was sitting in a circle of chairs with about a dozen other men. We were in a cold room on the third floor of an old elementary school that had been turned into a church. It was the edge of springtime and gloomy outside. The leader was encouraging us to each share a burden we had been carrying for a long time and couldn’t seem to get past. Sitting with a small group of people talking about their burdens can be excruciating, but he said doing so takes the shame away because we see that others aren’t judging us. (Oh, if only they knew the firing squad I had stationed at the ready in my head.)
As each man shared, I foolishly assumed I could pinpoint their issue within the first sixty seconds. One guy felt insecure at work and wasn’t sure what to do about a coworker. (Problem: He was insecure. Solution: Be more confident.) One guy was having marriage problems. (Problem: He had anger issues. Solution: Stop yelling at your wife.) One guy was wealthy and wanted to use his money wisely to help people. (Problem: You’re rich. Solution: I’m not. You have the power to fix that.)
When it finally circled around to me, I suddenly felt hazy. It was like fog had filled my head, and I could only make out vague shadows and abstracts of light. All clarity was gone. I started fumbling around in the dark, trying to explain my problem. I rambled about how ministry hadn’t been going well for a long time, how my neighbors didn’t seem interested in me, how I had sacrificed for God but He wasn’t doing much with that sacrifice. As I spoke, I became more animated and emotive. I don’t really remember what I said over the next fifteen minutes, but I do remember the recoiled silence in the room when I concluded my sharing time by yelling, “... and that’s why I’m mad at God!” (As I once heard someone say, “Sometimes anger is how the truth escapes jail.”)
I was as shocked as anyone else. Until that moment, I had no idea I was so resentful. I honestly thought of myself as pretty easy-going, hopeful, and in tune with my emotions. I suddenly realized I had been avoiding the truth. The ideas I had about myself were not consistent with who I really was. I was resentful toward God. I was also resentful toward others and especially toward myself. The gap between my dreams of how life could be and the reality I was trapped in had grown bigger than I could hold. My grip was slipping, and the scariest thing was that I had no idea it was happening.
Have you ever experienced this? Are you able to see the problems and solutions of others with clarity but suffer from blindness when it comes to yourself?
Self-clarity is difficult to obtain and not for the faint of heart. Moving beyond the surface level and into the recesses of our soul is a terrifying journey. We are scared of what we will find and scared of who or what might be down there. Jesus tells us that knowing Him and walking with Him will lead to truth, and that truth will set us free (John 8:31–32).
However, we believe if we discover the truth about ourselves, we’ll be swallowed by shame and humiliation. To desire self-clarity is to risk seeing ourselves, not for who we want to be, but for who we really are. It’s easier to stay asleep to the truth. Self-clarity wakes us up.
At the time I was sitting in that cold room on the third floor, other areas of my life weren’t going well either. My marriage was unhappy. I was consistently overwhelmed and aggravated as a new parent. The nonprofit where I worked was on the verge of bankruptcy. To top it off, our ministry staff spent days publicly telling people about the love of Jesus while privately bickering and mistrusting each other. I was burned-out, and my relationship with God was on autopilot. Relational trust and intimacy were at an all-time low in my life.
But I wasn’t the only one who was affected. My wife felt unsupported by me. My kids felt nervous around me because of my temper. My coworkers felt frustrated by my incessant need to reinvent the wheel and innovate, even when it wasn’t necessary. And I was blind to all of it. I saw everyone else as the problem. But as it turns out, I was playing a much bigger role than I wanted to admit.
There is a question that humanity has been wrestling with since the dawn of time: “What is the purpose of life?” If I could be so bold, I would like to humbly submit my answer:
- The purpose of life is relationships.
The phrase “one another” occurs one hundred times in the New Testament. Almost sixty of those occurrences are commands about how we relate to one another. Examples from this lengthy list include callings to “love one another,” “be devoted to one another,” and “care for one another.”
In other words, God’s great desire for you is to love and be loved. However, we have a problem — a relational problem. Let me illustrate: What do you think is the number one cause of missionaries leaving the field?
If you’re like me, you likely assume it’s due to issues like persecution, lack of funding, or even illness. As it turns out, none of those are correct. The number one reason Christians leave the mission field is conflict with other Christians.1
That’s right. Sometimes even spiritual superheroes want to break someone’s nose. But this isn’t just a problem in the mission field. I’d venture to say this is also the reason Christians leave marriages, leave churches, and leave friendships. Often, the problem is not the world; the problem is us.
- We don’t know how to do relationships.
This is especially tragic for us as Christians because if you ask anyone with basic Bible knowledge, they’ll tell you that the Scriptures can be summarized by Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus tells us that all of life is about loving and being loved in relationships.
Richard Rohr once wrote, “How we relate to God always reveals how we will relate to people, and how we relate to people is an almost infallible indicator of how we relate to God and let God relate to us. The whole Bible is a school of relationship.”2
Did you catch that?
How we relate is how we relate.
Each of us has a relational style — our one way we approach doing relationships — and we apply it to everyone, even God. This is why Scripture tells us we can’t love God if we don’t love others and that when we love others we also love God (Matthew 25:31–46; 1 John 4:7–8). It’s why we’re told in Mark 12 to “love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 31). How we relate is how we relate.
This is why
- understanding our style of relating is critical.
Sitting in that cold room, I looked around and realized I needed better relationships. I was desperate. I was willing to do whatever was necessary. So I started going to counseling and found some guys to meet with on a weekly basis where I could practice vulnerability and receiving feedback.
One of the awful things I had to face about myself was my own lack of self-awareness. I hadn’t been able to see how my style of relating to others was impacting my life. I quickly learned that being oblivious about myself made it harder for me to have robust relationships. As hard as I tried, I simply didn’t have the tools for the level of self-clarity or empathy that others needed from me. It was at this low point in my life that my counselor introduced me to a tool that helped me grow closer to God and others, and to even be less afraid of the truth about myself. It was a tool called the Enneagram.
The Enneagram is a system of personality typing that describes patterns in how people perceive, process and present.3 The basic idea is that our personalities are composed of our emotions, thoughts, and actions. Ennea means “nine,” and gram means “points.” There are nine different personality types — each driven by a different desire. These desires are so powerful that they forge our personality and distinguish one personality type from another. The Enneagram attempts to map all of this in a way that is easy to understand while resisting the temptation to reduce people into caricatures.
Unlike other personality systems that box people into a rigid framework, the Enneagram looks at a wide array of traits that go into our personalities. Each person has a core type —a primary center that drives them. However, we each pull in traits from the other types as well. Imagine your core type as your favorite black coffee. The characteristics you pull in from the other types are the creamers that give your drink the specific taste you prefer. Each person is a unique mixture of all nine types. No two personalities are identical.
How does this help with the problem of our relationships? The Enneagram allows us to see that everyone has different ways of perceiving, processing, and presenting. Understanding that each of us is driven by different core needs improves our empathy so that we don’t assume people are intentionally hurting us or trying to drive us crazy.
The origins of the Enneagram are mysterious and often contested. Some say it came from the early church in the fourth century. Others say it was primarily developed in the last hundred years.
It’s not really clear, but what is clear is that, with such a broad list of contributors (both Christian and not), the Enneagram is best understood not as a ‘Christian’ tool but as a human tool.4 Like economics, medicine, or astronomy, the category is neutral. What we do within that category determines how compatible it is with Christian faith. I’m grateful for the tool of the Enneagram and how it has helped me in my relationship with God, others, and myself.5
Since my days of yelling about God to other men in an old elementary school, I have become an Enneagram coach. I’ve spent years reflecting on the Enneagram — teaching workshops, hosting The EnneaCast (a podcast about the Enneagram), interviewing some of the best authors and teachers available, and doing private coaching. From my own life, as well as from the lives I’ve walked with, I’m convinced the Enneagram can be a useful tool that God uses to show us a path toward better relationships.
- See Paul Akin, “The Number One Reason Missionaries Go Home,” Gospel Coalition, June 15, 2017, www.thegospelcoalition .org/article/the-number-one-reason-missionaries-go-home.
- Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2008), 56-57.
- See CrossPoint Ministry, The Relational Enneagram Workbook (Louisville, KY: CrossPoint Ministry, 2021), 10.
- See AJ Sherrill, The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation: How Knowing Ourselves Can Make Us More Like Jesus (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2020), 13.
- If you have concerns or questions about the Enneagram, see Tyler Zach, “Should Christians Use the Enneagram?” Gospel Coalition, November 16, 2020, https://gcdiscipleship.com/article-feed/should -christians-use-the-enneagram. See also a similar article with the same title (Tyler Zach, “Should Christians Use the Enneagram?” Gospel for Enneagram, July 23, 2020, https://gospelforenneagram .com/christian-enneagram.
Excerpted with permission from How We Relate by Jesse Eubanks, copyright Jesse Eubanks.
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Do you know your Enneagram? I’m a 2 wing 1 and knowing that has helped me understand how God made me, my strengths and weaknesses, and how to relate better with my friends and family in healthy ways. Our chief goals are to love God and love others. Let’s do so well! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full