This is, of course, a general human tendency – not limited just to Christians. But it seems pretty rife amongst Christians, and with us it can so easily get dressed up as doctrine or something, it can so easily be given theological reasons, it’s amazing how easy it is to find a Bible verse that will back up whatever it is that seems obvious to us at the time…
We tend to forget something quite basic about humankind: we are all different! Sure, there are some things we all have in common – like the need for oxygen, for example – but there is so much that varies, that for most things we can’t assume that if something works for me it will also work for the rest of humanity; nor is it reasonable to assume that just because something is an annoying distraction to me, which prevents me from hearing God, it could not at the same time be a huge blessing to others, or even a necessity for some!
I’ve recently restarted reading a book called Personality and Prayer, by Ruth Fowke, in which she talks about how our different personality types affect our prayer life. In the past I’ve dipped into a book called Prayer Life by Pablo Martinez, which deals with similar stuff. They’ve both been real eye-openers for me, because they’ve shown me glimpses into some ways that people pray which initially seemed to me weird or even wrong, but now I understand that for these people, that’s actually the only way they can pray and it’s just as valid as my way – because we’re each giving God all that we’ve got, the whole of our mind and heart and everything, it’s just that what I’ve got is different to what you’ve got, so what I can give (and the way I can give it) is different to your own offering. A bit like the widow’s mite, what you offer may seem to me to be not very valuable at all, but God sees in your heart and he knows you have brought him everything you have. And who am I to judge someone else’s servant, when I am merely his servant too?
So I’ve been learning to value other people’s ways of doing this thing we call prayer.
I’ve come to realise that just because for me structure is a hindrance, that doesn’t mean we should immediately abolish all structure, because that wouldn’t be very loving towards those of my brothers and sisters for whom structure is an absolute necessity! Perhaps you also got taught that stuff about ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. I absolutely can not use that kind of thing in prayer, I need to be able to talk to God spontaneously, I need it to flow naturally, if I was trying to think about that sequence I wouldn’t be able to focus on God at all. But I’ve come to realise that there are people for whom this kind of thing is really helpful, they need structure, they need to know what they’re doing now and what they’re doing next, and out of that safety they can then focus on God without having to worry about what to do next.
I’ve come to realise that just because I (as an introvert) need lots of quiet and stillness, that doesn’t mean that the only “right” way of praying is sitting down with your eyes shut or gazing into space. There are people who would go mad sitting still and doing nothing for more than five minutes but can really connect with God when they’re pottering around in the garden or having a jog or making pastry – they need to be doing something, so who am I to say they should sit still? From what I’ve read, I’ve learned that extroverts actually need to be doing something else whilst holding a conversation, otherwise they find it hard to concentrate on what the other person is saying – so what may look to me like someone not paying attention can actually be an extrovert paying attention in the only way they can!
I’ve come to realise that the way we verbalise our prayers varies from person to person, partly to do with our personality types and partly to do with cultural background – I think I was aware of the cultural issues but it was only through reading these books I began to understand how personality types can affect this side of things. I know someone who prays in a way that sounds to me cold and unfeeling, but I know he has a very real and deep love for God, so how come? What these books helped me to understand is this: the person I’m talking about is what in Myers-Briggs lingo is called a T, a Thinking type, whilst I’m an F – a Feeling type. This doesn’t mean he only thinks and doesn’t feel and I only feel and never think. :) What it means is that the core of his being is in his mind, in his thinking part, whereas the core of my being is in my emotions. And so for me a prayer that doesn’t express emotions sounds cold, but for him that’s just his natural way of communicating, and if he is expressing his deepest thoughts to God then he is bringing God the deepest part of himself. (It’s not that he never expresses emotions, just a lot lot less than I do. The whole Myers-Briggs personality type thing isn’t about either/or but about where we are along a spectrum – more like this, less like that.)
These are just a few examples to illustrate the principle: different ways of praying work for different people, so something that looks “all wrong” to me – because for me that way just couldn’t possibly work – may be the only way that works for you. We pass judgements on other people’s behaviour without understanding them. And we so easily find theological reasons or Bible verses to back up our judgement… I recently got into a conversation with fellow Christians about the way some tend to pepper their prayers with “Lord” and to some of us this seems ridiculous because why do you need to keep repeating this word again and again… and someone brought in what Jesus said about not repeating words as the pagans do – it’s so easy to take that bit and use it to bash people over the head for saying “Lord” a lot when they’re praying, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus was talking about, I believe Jesus was talking there about an attitude the pagans had of believing that the more times they repeat some magical phrase the more likely their gods are likely to hear them. Jesus talked a lot about what goes on in our heart, he seemed much more concerned with that than with how we do stuff and I really can’t see him laying down rules about how many times per minute it’s ok to say “Lord”. I know someone who prays like this, and I know him well enough to know that he is not doing it out of a belief that God will hear his prayer better this way.
It’s very easy to pick a Bible verse and turn it into a rule. Didn’t Jesus say when you pray go into your room and shut the door? So does that rule out praying in a group? Or praying when you’re out in the garden? No, what he was speaking against was the tendency to make a big show out of it, and actually going into your room and shutting the door can be a way of making a big show out of how prayerful and spiritual you are… depends how you do it. Depends what’s in your heart, what your attitude is.
And it’s very easy to lay unnecessary burdens on people by forgetting to allow for the differences between us – cultural differences, personality differences, differences in lifestyle… I remember a preacher at a church weekend away who spoke about how important it is to have your daily “quiet time” first thing in the morning, and when we broke into groups to talk about what we’d heard, one woman in my group was in tears: as a mother with young children at home, there was absolutely no way she could do that, she had to wait until the kids were out of the house before she had any chance of quietly focusing on God. And not everyone has the strength and confidence to simply sift out something like that and tell themselves: well, that doesn’t apply in my situation. That woman was very vulnerable and could have gone home burdened with unnecessary guilt. Thankfully, the preacher had enough wisdom and humility to deal with this well – I talked to him about it in the break, and he took my point and started the next session with an apology and clarification.
We so easily judge people, or even whole congregations, by the way they do stuff, not allowing for differences in personality type and/or culture. Look at them, we say in disdain, they’re not waving their arms in the air when they sing, they obviously aren’t as open to the Holy Spirit as we are… I confess, I used to think like that, until God reminded me that I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in someone’s heart and mind – they can be standing totally rigid but their heart is full of love for him, on the other hand they could be doing a great big show of arm-waving and feeling nothing much.
God loves each of us as we are – we’re so good at saying that, but living it out means not judging people for behaving differently, it means accepting one another with our different styles of prayer and worship. Loving one another – that’s what Jesus told us to do.