A Review of
The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation:
How Knowing Ourselves Can Make Us More Like Jesus
Reviewed by Peter Stevens
If you are on social media for any amount of time, it’s hard not to come across the Enneagram. There are blogs, books, and podcasts all dedicated to this strange drawing that is supposed to reveal your personality. Many people love it, and some people are tired of it. Personally, I have spent a great deal of time studying it. I have found it to be extremely helpful in the last few years in making sense of my own inner life. Even if you find it helpful, you are probably still wondering if we need another book on the Enneagram.
In The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation A.J. Sherrill aims to distinguish his book from the others on the market. Most of the Enneagram books give a rundown of the nine types, tell you how to figure out which one you are, and occasionally offer supplemental material on how to dive deeper in your study of the Enneagram. While Sherrill gives an overview of the types, the focus of the book is how, “the Enneagram can be leveraged to cultivate the Christian life.” (13)
In the first chapter, Sherrill discusses the difference between our identity and our Enneagram number. This is a beautiful place to begin the book because of the way that many use the Enneagram. In the same way that our identity is not simply our job, knowledge, or achievements, Sherrill wants us to understand that we are more than our type. He establishes our identity in the imago Dei, while our personalities are how we grow and develop in the world. He writes, “Your identity is the beloved image of God; this is given and universally true. Your personality is forged; that is particular and unique to you.” (25)
In the second chapter, Sherrill moves on to discuss personality and the enneagram more fully. The chapter opens with a continuing discussion on identity, personality, and behavior. While our identity is unchanging, our personality is our “strategy to cope and thrive in a beautiful and broken world.” (38) This not to be confused with our behavior which is “the outgrowth of our motives” driven by our personality. (39) This is important to understand because it gives us the reason for self-awareness and using a tool like the Enneagram. Behavior modification isn’t the key to growing. It’s understanding what drives the motives, which where our Enneagram type is helpful. We need to understand why we do what we do in order to grow. From there, Sherrill dives into a brief explanation of the Enneagram. Each number is described with a name, four descriptive words, the. Survival strategy of the number, a short explanation of the type, the lies that number believes and the truth they need to hear.
The next four chapters are all set up in basically the same way with different topics in each chapter. Each chapter has a theme that is explore through the lens of the Enneagram. Chapter three focus on discipleship and spiritual practices. Sherrill argues that all too frequently “the church has sought to ‘batch’ spiritual formation. We tend to treat humans like widgets and assume one size (or in this case, one practice) fits all.” (64) Instead, we should use a tool like the Enneagram as a starting point to understand what’s happening on the inside of us and start with practices that are appropriate to each personality. Sherrill then offers an upstream and downstream practice for each type. The upstream practices come naturally, while the downstream practices run counter to the personality. These practices create opportunities for each number to either do what comes naturally or stretch themselves by engaging in a practice that will challenge them.
Chapter four explores the Biblical narrative through the lens of the Enneagram. Sherrill explains, “The aim is to find yourself, through other biblical figures, in the drama of scripture.” (85) This chapter uses stories and characters from the Bible as examples of healthy and unhealthy versions of each number. In chapter five, Sherrill introduces the concept of holdings in the context of evangelism. “Holdings are the various ways we subconsciously attempt to put the world back together.” (114) In the context of Evangelism, this means that each number has different way of seeing and responding to the brokenness in the world. Sherrill also explains that this has the potential to a great launching point into Christianity for people who understand the Enneagram and do not follow Jesus.
Finally, chapter six explores character. While we all struggle with a variety of vices, one of the features of the Enneagram is how it describes the growth path of each number and how different personalities move from engaging in vices to virtuous living. The point of this chapter is creating a concrete picture of our pathway to maturity through the Enneagram. Sherrill writes, “We all have default patterns of thinking and acting. Upstream practices are important in reshaping these patterns, but our tendency will be to try to avoid them for the simple reason that they push against our instincts. For integrity to mature, one must commit to three specific principles: aim, practices, and habits.” (130) The rest of the chapter is a practice in figuring out who you want to be, how you’re going to get there, and what you will do to make it happen. From there, Sherrill concludes the book with a reminder that the Enneagram is just a tool and not essential knowledge for human development or even a replacement for religion or psychology.
Overall, this is a solid book and deserves a reading alongside other Enneagram books. A.J. Sherrill successfully created a resource that shows us how to use the Enneagram as a tool for formation. One of the more interesting parts of the book is his chapter on evangelism. Not many books dive into the idea of holdings for each type. He creatively uses the idea of holdings as a way of using the Enneagram evangelically. One place where I believe this book could have been stronger was in the chapter on Character and Virtues. In chapters 5 and 6, Sherrill simply provides a short list of the Enneagram and their holdings and virtues without much exploration of them. The virtues are often skimmed over in Enneagram books as a deeper concept. In this book, Sherrill could have spent a little more time about how each type moves from vice to virtue as they grow. Understandably, every book has is limit of pages and he does include some deeper concepts and resources in the appendix.
If you are looking for a way to take the Enneagram to the next level and use it practically in your life or ministry, this book is well worth your time and investment. While most Enneagram books focus on the system, Sherrill paints a picture of how to use it as a tool for growth and personal development. I believe that even if you don’t fully buy into the Enneagram, you can find some helpful insight into formation in this short and easy to read guide on how we can know ourselves better in order to be more like Jesus.
Peter Stevens is a barista in Maryland. When he’s not making coffee, he’s hanging out with his family, reading, and occasionally writing about books and formation at peterstevensblog.wordpress.com.