My dad had a fiery temper. He was a passionate man. He loved passionately. He also angered passionately. Those who know me will probably be thinking: “Soo Inn’s a little like his dad. He too has a quick temper.” And you would be right. In the past my excuse for my bad temper would probably be, “Well, it’s all in the genes.” Which is also the excuse one of my sons gave me when we talked about his anger. I do not know for sure the exact role that genes play in my temper and my son’s. What I do know is that we should probably stop blaming our genes for our behaviour, especially our bad behaviour.
In her article “When DNA is not Destiny” (“On Science”, Newsweek International, December 1st, 2008, 58), Sharon Begley points us to studies that show that “the influence of genes wanes with age: in middle and later adulthood, environment plays a larger role than genetics in shaping personality, a hint of the power of accumulated experiences.” Begley also quotes Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck as reporting that “More and more research is suggesting that, far from being simply encoded in the genes, much of personality is a flexible and dynamic thing that changes over the life span and is shaped by experience…”
Last night someone asked me what can a Christian do if he or she was born with a less altruistic personality and had to struggle with Jesus’s demands to love others. I am not sure if he was talking about himself or if it was a hypothetical question. I quoted Begley’s article to him. I also reminded him of the supernatural work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. I suggested that whatever raw material the Holy Spirit has to work with, He is still God and more than able to shape our personality. In the words of the apostle Paul:
So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. But when you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses. (Galatians 5:16-18 NLT)
If we are open, the Spirit can use the Word and our life experiences to help shape our lives and our personalities. I seriously worked on my temper when I became a single parent. It hit me then that if I were to be ballistic in my temper, my kids would be traumatized and they would have no mum to go to for comfort.
My beloved wife and all close to me will be the first to confirm that I still struggle with my temper. But I hope that they will also be able to confirm that I am not as feisty as I used to be. Indeed I recall that in his later years my dad was also a much more mellow person even when he had to suffer the many indignities associated with his struggle with congestive heart failure. People can and do change. DNA is not destiny.
In the many years that I have been doing spiritual mentoring, I have observed that some of the people whom I thought were the least likely to change, have surprised me the most. They showed significant growth and maturation. Others, who seem to demonstrate so much promise, hardly changed, or revealed major dysfunctions in the long run. I am now more cautious in deciding whether someone can benefit from a mentoring programme. I am learning not to underestimate God. Or people.
Again quoting Dweck, Begley writes: “Beliefs can be changed, and when they are, so is personality.” Sounds a lot like conversion, or at least one dimension of conversion.
Since you have heard the truth that comes from him (Jesus), throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God — truly righteous and holy. (Ephesians 4: 21-24 NLT)
There is hope then, both for ourselves and the people we have the privilege to nurture. People can change and change for the better. And when you throw in the Holy Spirit and the Word into the equation, we have a power for change that goes way beyond human potential. That is if we want to change.
In the same article, Begley also reports that “… the belief that personality cannot change may be self-fulfilling.” If we believe that there is nothing much that we can do with the personality we were born with, then we will not change. But such a belief is a denial of the Word of God, and now a denial of the findings of empirical science as well. No wonder Jesus asks us if we want to get well (John 5:6).
No one claims that genes play no role in shaping personality. But it’s time to junk the old idea that only the part of a trait under environmental, not genetic, control is malleable: the life we lead and the experiences we have reach deep into our double helix. (Begley)