May 16, 2020

It’s Not Sin, It’s Just My Personality

By Jeanne Harrison

I get Jonah. I really do. I’ve had a hankering for justice for as long as I can remember. I once wrote a letter to General Mills expressing my outrage over their advertising for Trix cereal. (You remember the commercials: “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!”) Why was that rabbit destined to be eternally excluded? Because he was different? What a horrible message to send children! How unfair for a roomful of adults to portray kids as selfish and unwilling to share.

I was nine years old when I wrote that letter.

I guess you could say my personality can be intense, at least inwardly. For all the things I lack, I’ve never had a shortage of passion, opinion, or emotion. Remind you of anyone?

Oh, the depth of emotion Jonah feels in this short book of the Bible! Indignation, despair, desperation, rage. My favorite verse is Jonah 4:9, when Jonah’s plant dies and God challenges, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” In true melancholy form, Jonah cries, “Yes, it’s right! I’m angry enough to die!”

I can’t read that verse without smiling a little. I know Jonah’s attitude is 100% wrong, but I sure do resonate. I’ve been “angry enough to die” a time or two. I can almost hear Jonah wailing, “That plant was the one good thing in my life!”

Legitimately, it’s been a terrible week for him. First, he was told to do something he didn’t want to do. For some people this wouldn’t be a big deal. In college I didn’t own a car, and I’d frequently ask my dad, “Could you drive twelve hours to take me home for the weekend?” Without fail, he always responded, “Sure sweetheart, I’d love to!” No big deal. God could tell my dad to swim across the ocean and share the gospel with Public Enemy Number One, and my dad would go find his swimsuit. If you’re familiar with temperaments, he’s phlegmatic. An Enneagram 9 — the “peacemaker”— and basically the most likable personality on the planet.

Not Jonah, and not me.

Temperamentally, I’d wager Jonah’s melancholy like me. He’s probably an Enneagram 4 — the “individualist” — prone to deep emotion, mood swings, and a high sense of justice. To make matters worse, Jonah isn’t just told to do something he vehemently opposes, he’s eaten by a fish when he disobeys. You can’t sink much lower than that.

Here, we glimpse the beauty of the melancholy personality. Listen to the poetry in Jonah’s confession: “The water engulfed me up to the neck; the watery depths overcame me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. I sank to the foundations of the mountains, the earth’s gates shut behind me forever! Then you raised my life from the Pit, Lord my God! As my life was fading away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to You” (Jonah 2:5-7).

We melancholies experience a depth of connection with God that’s often forged in the abyss. This time, when Jonah is freed from the fish, he concedes. His feet march to Nineveh, but his heart lags behind. Despite it all, Jonah still can’t get on board with forgiving the injustice of the Ninevites.

When God displays mercy — as Jonah feared He would — Jonah is furious. “This is why I ran from You in the first place!” He rages (Jonah 4:1). The death of Jonah’s plant is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. So we come full circle to his cry: “I’m angry enough to die!”

At first glance, I can’t help but wonder why God chose Jonah in the first place. Surely there were phlegmatic believers who would’ve strapped on their sandals, whistled a tune, and hustled toward Nineveh. Or a sanguine Christian, like my husband. Sanguines are the outgoing optimists. If God called Clint to Nineveh, he would have rallied ten friends — made sure one of them was a musician — and arranged to plant a church the moment the Ninevites repented. I can imagine him cheering, “Y’all ready to do this thing?!”

But God chose Jonah.

Then, unbelievably, God chose Jonah again.

And again.

Could it be that God wants to use every single one of us? The choleric Pauls, whose dogmatism can sometimes rupture relationships (Acts 15:36-39). The phlegmatic Abrahams, whose agreeability can digress to cowardice (Genesis 12:10-20). The sanguine Peters who jump off a boat in excitement, then sink like a stone in doubt (Matthew 14:22-33). And the melancholy Jonahs, who desperately need God’s mercy, but struggle extending it to others.

In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses temperament as he tackles the question, “Why are some non-Christians nicer than Christians?” He uses the illustration of two fictitious people: Miss Bates and Dick Firkin. Lewis writes, “Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so.”

The question is not which temperament is the most holy. The question is, “What does holiness look like for my temperament?” It would be easy to assume my dad is holy because of his patience, when in reality, his phlegmatic temperament would probably be prone to patience with or without Christ. For him, a truer test of spiritual growth may be boldness. In the same way, I can’t excuse temper tantrums in my own life on account of being melancholy. Just as God wants to use each of us, so He’s called each of us to a personal pursuit of holiness.

What would genuine spiritual growth look like in your life? What next step is beckoning you? Maybe that next step scares you or angers you. Maybe, like Jonah, it makes no sense to you. But one thing is certain — that next step has been uniquely designed by God and there’s only one footprint that fits the bill.

2 Responses

  1. This gave me chills! Derek and I were recently talking about the “extra mile” it feels like when God gives us personal convictions based on our individuality. This resonates with me deeply. Thanks for writing.

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