When Self-Discovery Becomes Self-Worship

by Josiah Dangers

“What’s your Enneagram number?”
“What’s your Meyers-Briggs code?”
“What are your top five on Strengthsfinder?”
…Hammer or duct tape?
…Beaver or Golden Retriever?
…Which Disney Princess are you?
… Marvel villain?
…Pokemon character?

Can soul-care become idolatry? Can self-discovery become self-worship?
In the contemporary Church and in missions, we spend an inordinate amount of time helping people achieve a “healthy soul.” We endeavor to use every tool at our disposal toward that noble end. We administer various self-discovery tests and discuss the results. We talk to people about why they do the things they do, why they react the way they do, why they sin the way they sin, why they thrive the way they thrive, why they stress the way they stress.

But if we are not very careful, we can actually lead them on a journey of counterproductive introspection and self-absorption instead of leading them on a journey toward Christ. We will fail in our efforts to improve a person’s soul-health every time if we don’t help them to look up.

The Gospel key to soul health is to look up. The Gospel proclaims, “get your eyes off of yourself and onto your Savior.” The Gospel call is not to become a better version of yourself but to be crucified with Christ and become a new creation (Galatians 2:20). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The call of Christ is a call to come and die.”


The Race
In Hebrews 12:1-2 we read that we are in a race: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Have you ever watched a stage of the Tour de France? How much time do those riders spend looking at themselves? Almost none. How much time do they spend looking over their shoulders? Very little – just the occasional quick glance. If you fixate on yourself while traveling at 30-60 MPH on two wheels that rival your pinky finger in girth, you won’t win the prize – you will win the prestigious “worst case of road rash” award as the rest of the peloton races ahead.

To be sure, each athlete in the Tour spends time in self-evaluation and preparation. The best riders spend an obsessive amount of time in training. However, the best ones are not fixating on themselves – they are fixating on the prize. They, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, discipline their bodies into submission for the sake of the prize. They recognize that who and what they are in and of themselves is insufficient to win the prize unless they train and become something that they naturally are not.

Sounds a lot like sanctification, doesn’t it?

What your soul needs is NOT to become more like you. After all, you are the primary cause of your soul’s sickness (Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 7:18). What your soul needs is to become less like you and more like Jesus (John 3:30). Granted, each one of us is designed to reflect certain aspects of the image of God. No one will ever reflect the fullness of the image of Christ. The catch is that so many of us spend our time and energy trying to discover what facet of the image we were designed to reflect instead of simply pursuing Jesus and allowing Him to call to life aspects of His image in us.


So what about all these tests?
Personality tests and the like can be useful. There are good ones out there, and there are many worthless ones. However, even the good ones are just tools. The Enneagram is not the Gospel. Nor is Meyers-Briggs, DISC, or any other test. Where they are useful, use them. After all, all truth is God’s truth, but nothing besides the Word has the corner on ALL truth.

These tests can be very helpful in identifying besetting sin patterns, areas of weakness or strength, causes of interpersonal tension or communication failures on teams, or even incorrectly deployed personnel. But please, for the sake of the Gospel, ask this question as you use them: Is my study of myself through this test causing me to become more like Christ, or is it leading me toward self-worship and idolatry?

With that question in mind, here are two potential pitfalls of self-discovery tests.

1. Excuses
That’s just me.  That’s the way I am.  That’s how God made me.  Deal with it.

Oh good… now we are blaming the Creator for our bad behavior.  Friends, that dog don’t hunt.  If you have a natural tendency to treat people badly, to be so driven that you hurt people in the process, to be reclusive, to be loud in self-promotion, to be arrogant or judgmental, call it what it is: sin.  Don’t ask others around you to accommodate it.  Put it to death!  Hate the sin in yourself enough to deal with it!  Repent where needed!  Use your list of weaknesses, needs, or sinful tendencies as a prayer list.  Run to your Savior and find freedom!

Never hide behind a number on a test.  That number, that descriptor, that code, should only serve to illuminate your need for Christ and your potential as a new creation in Christ.  You will only be free from your sin and reach your potential in Christ, or as Paul puts it, “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (Ephesians 4:13) as you fix your eyes on Christ and become more like Him.

2. Pride. 
Our natural tendency as humans, regardless of our activity, is to compare ourselves to those around us. How easy it is to end up thinking: my list of strengths is cooler, more dynamic, more flexible, more impactful, or just plain better than yours.  I scored higher than you.  I am more balanced that you.  I’m more ______ than you.  I might have this weakness, but at least I don’t have THAT weakness like they do!

The Bible has a word for this line of thinking: pride.  One of the seven deadly sins, pride will manifest itself in the form of self-idolatry in a heartbeat.  Self-idolatry is one of the most insidious forms of idolatry because it is so hard to self-identify. It’s like dirt on your forehead – it’s perfectly evident to onlookers but invisible to you.  It’s only visible when looking into the mirror of the Word – the perfect, liberty producing law (James 1:24,25).

When you see your sin, your weakness, and your brokenness, join Paul in declaring, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a)


As we seek health for our souls, we must never allow soul-health to be the center of our pursuit.  Pursue Jesus.  As you do, you will discover that your soul will find its rest in Him. As a follower of Christ, your default in seeking to understand yourself should be to run to the Word of God.  What does God say about you? What does His Word say about your sanctification?  How does He want you to treat people?  How does He want you to communicate? Listen first and foremost to His voice and allow Him to guide you into all truth (John 16:13).


Josiah’s African roots go way back. His grandparents were career missionaries in D.R. Congo, and he grew up in Uganda, where his parents are still missionaries. Josiah studied at John Brown University, where he met and married Autum, his wife of 14 years. He spent eight years serving first as youth pastor and then as worship pastor at a local church in Colorado. In 2015, he moved to Uganda where he served as a camp director. He’s now back in Colorado serving as the Director of Missionary Care and Development for New Hope Uganda and as a worship leader at Woodmen Valley Chapel. Josiah and Autum have five adventurous children.

Check out this collection of our most-read articles

Consider this the Table of Contents for a book on missions, cross-cultural living, grief, TCKs, MKs, missiology, common pitfalls, transition, short-term missions, relating to senders, and a whole lot more.

I figured it was time to compile our most-read posts and present them to you, organized by topic. So here they are, 85 of our most-read posts ever.

My hope is that this article, this Table of Contents, if you will, would serve as one massive resource for those of you who are new to our community, those of you who’ve been hanging out here all along, and even for you, our future reader, who just found our little corner of the internet. Welcome!

Many thanks to the authors who’ve poured into our community, aiming to build and help (and sometimes challenge) the missionary world and the churches that send. If this site has been helpful to you, would you consider sharing this post with your friends and colleagues and missions leaders?

A Life Overseas is loosely led, with a tiny overhead (that covers the costs of the website), and a bunch of volunteer writers and tech folk. Why do we do it? We’re doing this for you! We’re doing this because we like you and we want to see cross-cultural workers (and their families!) thriving and succeeding and belonging. We’re doing this because we believe the Lamb is worthy. We’re doing this because we believe that God’s love reaches beyond our country’s borders, extending to all the places, embracing all the peoples.

I hope you are encouraged. I hope you are challenged. I hope you are reminded that you are not alone. This can be a hard gig, for sure, but you are not alone.

If this is your first time here or your thousandth, stick around, browse around, let us know what you think, how you’ve been helped, and what you’d love to see in the future. We’d absolutely love to hear from you!


With much love from Phnom Penh, Cambodia,
Jonathan Trotter


Third Culture Kids / Missionary Kids
10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love to be Asked
10 Questions Missionary Kids Dread
To the Parents of Third Culture Kids
Funny Things Third Culture Kids Say
8 ways to help toddlers and young children cope with change and moving overseas
6 Permissions Most Missionaries’ Kids Need
An Open Letter to Parents of Missionary Kids
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid
10 Ways Teachers Can Support Third Culture Kids
Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid
My Kids Are Not Little Missionaries


Rest / Burnout / Self-Care
margin: the wasted space we desperately need
Please Stop Running
Ask A Counselor: How in the world can we do self-care when . . . ?
Living Well Abroad: 4 Areas to Consider
8 Ways for Expats Who Stay to Stay Well

Top 10 Digital Photography Tips

Family / Marriage
Missionary Mommy Wars
A Christmas letter to parents, from a kid who doesn’t have any
Nine Ways to Save a Marriage
The Purpose of Marriage is Not to Make You Holy
Why “Did You Have Fun?” is the Wrong Question
Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)
When the Mission Field Hurts Your Marriage
Dear Single Missionary
Homescapes MOD
I’m a missionary. Can I be a mom too?


Cross-cultural living & ministry
3 Kinds of Selfies You Should Never Take
Missionaries are supposed to suffer . . . So am I allowed to buy an air conditioner?
Introverts for Jesus: Surviving the Extrovert Mission Field
To My Expat Friends
What Did I Do Today? I Made a Copy. Woohoo!
The Teary Expat Mom, Shopping
A Cautionary Tale: Expats & Expets (What not to do)
The Introverted Expat
5 Tips for Newbies About Relationships with Oldies (From an Oldie)
The Aim of Language Learning


Please Don’t Say, “They Are Poor But They’re Happy.”
Let Me Make Your Kid a Buddhist
How to partner with a poor church without screwing everything up
Rice Christians and Fake Conversions
Responding to Beggars
10 Reasons You Should Be a Missionary
There’s no such thing as the “deserving poor”


Theology in Missions
The Idolatry of Missions
When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t
Rethinking the Christmas Story
But Are You Safe?
When Missionaries Starve
Why I Will Not Say “I Never Made a Sacrifice”
The Gaping Hole in the Modern Missions Movement {part 1}
Is Jesus a Liar?


10 Reasons Not To Become a Missionary
In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries
The Cult of Calling
Want to see what a porn-addicted missionary looks like?
Telling My Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
When Missionaries Think They Know Everything
Visiting Home Might Not Be Everything You Dreamed
Misogyny in Missions
The Proverbs 32 Man
Stop Waiting for It All to Make Sense


Grief & Loss
Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised
When Friends Do the Next Right Thing
Ask a counselor: how do we process loss and grief?


What If I Fall Apart on the Mission Field?
Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping
Dear New Missionary
5 Mistakes I Made My First Year on the Mission Field
Why I Quit My Job as a Missionary to Scrub Toilets
Jet Lag and Heart Lag
When You Start to Pick Your Nose in Public…
You Remember You’re a Repat When . . .
Going Home


Short Term Missions
What to Do About Short Term Missions
Stop calling it “Short Term Missions.” Here’s what you should call it instead.
Your Short-Term Trips Have Not Prepared You For Long-Term Mission
The Mess of Short Term Missions


Relationships with those who send
A Letter to Christians Living in America from a Christian Living Abroad
Dear Supporter, There’s So Much More I Wish I Could Tell You
Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas
How to Encourage Your Overseas Worker
When Your Missionary Stories Aren’t Sexy
Facebook lies and other truths
Please Ask Me the Non-Spiritual Questions


If your favorite article didn’t make the list, put the title and link in the comments section and let us know why you love it. Thanks again for joining us here. Peace to you.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash