Assuming that what works for me will also work for you

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.

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7 thoughts on “Assuming that what works for me will also work for you

  1. I don’t have time at the moment to read through this post, but I’m commenting to help me remember to come back, and to say that I just got three books on personality and spirituality and I’m looking forward to digging into them. I can’t believe how many books on the topic are out there!

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      • lol! i’d forgotten all about the post. and now i’m wanting to watch V with rob. but i’ll leave this open on my browser and read it tomorrow. i bet it fits right in to the stuff i’ve been posting on my dandelionwine site. i’m really digging this baab chick. she’s got some great insights.

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  2. Yes, amen.

    And also, now that I’m old and grey, I also find myself discovering that THE VERY sorts of prayer that I used to mock and ridicule (or be afraid of) are the ones I’m finding most helpful now. Good thing God is gracious…

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  3. “it can so easily get dressed up as doctrine or something”

    so true.

    “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”

    i think part of the problem is “What is prayer?” in the books on personality type that i’ve read that relate to prayer they all point out that T’s often see study as prayer. i don’t know that that’s true of all T’s, but it’s true of me, although i’ve never thought of it as prayer before reading these books. i thought it was just what i gravitated towards and where i felt connected to God but that i sucked at prayer. but i like how you said that it’s a matter of giving God all we’ve got. since what i’ve got is an overactive NT, then it makes sense that i would give that to God.

    as the book i’m reading really pushes, i think i also need to venture out into SF sorts of things. touchy feely prayer? gah. the thought gives me shivers of fear. and yet maybe there’s some way i can venture into that zone, and grow and learn something and feel closer to God in a way that might still exhaust me, but that will still grow and develop and encourage me. (i’m thinking that i need to pull out my soul types book and look through some of the other means of prayer and try a few out.)

    “I talked to him about it in the break”

    wow, that’s cool — both that you went to talk to him and that he clarified what he had said. rob is very “quiet time every day” and since having kids i’ve mostly only done a quiet time on saturdays when he watches the kids and i get away. they’re old enough now that i really need to start studying the bible more often on my own again. … but then again, it’s not like i’m ignoring the bible all week. i talk about stuff with the kids, or i think through what bible verses fit in a certain situation, etc. it’s not all clear cut, but it’s there, bubbling around in my brain as i go about my day. does that “count”?

    i don’t know if this relates, but it’s something i’ve been thinking about lately as i read that personality types book… i feel like, in our current congregation, we’re kind of all floating on the water but not necessarily getting anywhere. we do the same things each week, and there’s the general “being led in worship” that goes on on Sunday. but i don’t feel like we’re growing in our worship, we’re just doing what we’ve always done. granted, the music is a little better these days, but i’m still not feeling led. so i tend to revert to either emptiness over the whole thing, or connecting to God through my usual means. (emptiness happens a lot when the kids interrupt me during the middle of the service to ask about some arcane thing that they easily could have asked me later.) when i think back to being in intervarsity, i felt like we had a much broader variety of worship styles being encouraged. and we were talked through that, too. so even if a style didn’t come naturally to me, there was someone saying, “now take some time to quietly think on this.” or there’d be a clear call for discussion or we’d walk through a story or…. … so even if we were doing something that i wouldn’t have ever done on my own, or that i didn’t feel entirely comfortable with, there was someone there walking me through how it was done and i could get my feet wet with this new way of worshipping without feeling lost and without feeling judged. i don’t know how we knew to do that sort of thing, but like you were saying in your thread, kelly, there was this sense that we were learning this stuff ourselves (but together) and there was an attitude that it was ok to try new things together and to encourage each other as we did so. and there wasn’t any sense that one form of worship was “right” and one was “wrong.”

    what i see in most churches is what you mentioned at the very beginning meirav. if it’s not done our way, then it’s not just different, it’s very likely wrong and possibly even dangerous. (in fact, the whole regulative principal of worship is that we have to keep our worship constrained so that our children don’t get tempted to get too emotional during worship or worse, heaven forbid, attend another church that doesn’t follow the regulative principal. … of course, what do most of the children of these regulative people seem to do but find churches that are far more lively than our own. duh.)

    ironically, even churches that do worship all wrong and who very likely are apostate become close kin when it comes to politics… as long as they’re conservative and not jesus freak hippies.

    humans. one of the weirdest creatures on the planet.

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    • “What is prayer” – yes, I’ve come across all sorts of different attitudes to this. Like some who talk as though intercession is the only thing that counts as prayer. Humans are, as you say, pretty weird creatures. :)

      ” it’s not all clear cut, but it’s there, bubbling around in my brain as i go about my day. does that “count”?” – yes, yes, yes!!! I love the way you described it. I’m not good at structure and so I don’t always have a clear-cut “quiet time” (not a term I like anyway, I think of it as my “time with God”) but as long as I chat to him during the day and don’t shut him out then I think that’s cool. (Of course there are times when I do shut him out, because I’m human and stupid. but that’s another story.)

      “when i think back to being in intervarsity, i felt like we had a much broader variety of worship styles being encouraged. and we were talked through that, too. so even if a style didn’t come naturally to me … there was someone there walking me through how it was done” – that sounds great! exploring different styles in an environment where you feel comfortable enough to explore, where there’s encouragement and no pressure and where you know that it’s not going to all be like that… I was in a church years ago where evening service was in a different style on different Sundays of the month, and I think that’s a really helpful way of doing it. And I’m also reminded of one of the exercises they gave us on the counselling course, where we were introduced to two totally different ways of connecting with God (I don’t remember the names now) and we were told: most people find that one of these works really well for them and that they really hate the other. So from the start we knew there was no expectation that we would find both methods work for us. It was a great exercise. (and yes, I found that one was *wonderful* for me and the other was like a form of torture. but the class divided pretty much half way on that, which apparently goes with the general statistics.)

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