Pablo Martinez explores how our psychological makeup influences how we feed our spiritual lives.
- Why do I find it difficult to pray?
- Why do some Christians seem to have a natural ease to pray?
- Why do I find it hard to feel the presence of God when I pray?
- Is my problem a lack of faith?
These frequently heard questions reflect an important reality: our prayers are not only affected by spiritual conditions but other things as well. Three factors have a powerful effect on our prayer lives. Two of them have a permanent, continuous influence: our temperament and our personality. They are closely linked to our character. The third one, the circumstances of the moment, fluctuates according to factors like tiredness, stress or even our daily rhythms.
There are two main purposes for offering this article: firstly, I want to help ordinary Christians who may be struggling unnecessarily with their prayer life and spirituality. Many Christians believe their struggles are sinful, not understanding that very often they are the result of their own emotional makeup. We need to think of prayer without guilt, because too often we associate the two. Prayer should not be just one more burden in life, but a pleasure to enjoy.
My second purpose is to help Christians develop their prayer lives to their full potential and to be more aware of how these can be affected by their temperaments and personalities. We pray differently because we are different from one another. Mutual acceptance between individual Christians and churches can be greatly enhanced as a result of grasping the basic principle that variety is a treasure than enriches, not an obstacle that bothers.
In analysing the psychological factors of prayer, I do not want to minimise the role of the one who 'intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express' (Romans 8:26b). Nothing could be farther from my intention. It would be a mistake, however, to ignore the remarkable influence that our psychological makeup has on our spiritual life in general and on our prayer life in particular.
Why do our temperament, personality and circumstances affect us so much? The answer is that we are a unity of body, mind and spirit. These three interact in such a way that when the body suffers, our mind and spirit are also affected. When CH Spurgeon, the famous preacher, suffered a painful attack of gout, he had severely disturbed moods. A physical problem was affecting his mood and it may have affected his preaching sometimes. We all know examples of this interaction between our different parts.
Christ's prayer in Gethsemane, one of the most impressive prayers ever, is a striking example of this principle. Jesus prayed with tears in his eyes and anguish in his soul (Hebrews 5:7), but these emotions did not stop him wholeheartedly seeking the face of his Father. That evening he was under severe stress – lonely (the disciples had fallen asleep), tired, facing torture and death – but this never interrupted the precious fellowship with the Father. In fact, the words of Jesus in Gethsemane give us a masterpiece of prayer. Jesus needed to cry: he was deeply anxious. That didn't make him a sinner – depression of itself is not a sin. His tears while praying did not make him less spiritual but more fully human. His need to pour out all the anguish in his heart showed he truly 'has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin' (Hebrews 4:15).
How temperament affects us
Let us see briefly how temperament actually influences our prayer lives. Temperament is the most constitutional – or genetic – part of our character, being mainly determined by biological factors. Temperament cannot be changed but it can be shaped into the likeness of Christ and controlled by the Holy Spirit. It would be futile to expect a drastic change in the genetic makeup of our person, but we can expect the 'polishing' work of the Holy Spirit. The new birth does not change temperament, although grace helps us to live with it.
One of the most helpful classifications of temperament was developed by CG Jung (later popularised in the Myers-Briggs test). I like it because it emphasises flexibility and a certain possibility of change. This is important because no one likes to be labelled in closed boxes. We should remember, too, that every human being is unique and therefore classifications are always somewhat relative. Stereotypes are the opposite of divine variety. Jung's classification revolves around two fundamental axes:
- One's general attitude in life: introversion – extroversion:
- One's predominant psychological function. Jung describes four psychological types: thinking, feeling, sensorial and intuitive.
A detailed study on the subject, especially on how each temperamental type influences our prayer life, is developed in my book Praying with the grain: How your personality affects the way you pray. (1) Here I will just give you one example: the prayer life of extroverts. Their natural tendency is towards action rather than meditation. They will be the ones doing things in the church because they like to be active all the time. Consequently, they find it difficult to maintain a regular prayer life. The more extrovert a person is, the more difficult they find it to pray and to concentrate while praying – too much to do! Introverts, on the other hand, are much more methodical and will set time apart.
Extroverts find difficulty in cultivating their inner life, their thoughts and feelings flow spontaneously outwards. So beginning to pray is rather like having to make an enormous leap. They will usually choose praying with others rather than privately. Prayer meetings give them the opportunity to relate with others, which is precisely the source of energy they need to start praying. Once they are in the atmosphere of a group, they enjoy participation; this community flavour is just the kind of stimulus they need to warm them up spiritually. For them, prayer is linked with service and action. The focus of their requests is the needs of the world rather than the inner world, unlike the introvert.
The hard part of discipleship
Paul's exhortation to accept one another (Romans 15:7) – some versions render it 'receive' or 'welcome' one another – is a hard part of discipleship. The coming together of genetic, biographical and circumstantial factors makes each individual a little universe that is very different from all the others. This is reflected in the way in which we understand and live out our faith.
For this reason we must understand that many of these differences do not stem from a greater or lesser amount of faith but are the result of the way we are. Remember that no temperament is better than any other. All of them have admirable features when viewed from a divine perspective. The Lord can use each of us just as we are, with all our virtues and defects, and he often uses us not so much in spite of our weaknesses but through them. God has given the intuitive type an enormous capacity for mysticism. But the latter should not then condemn the sensation type as superficial and simplistic because their prayers are briefer and more spontaneous. In the same way, the sensation type must not accuse the intuitive of always having their head in the clouds. The thinking type must not complain that the feeling type is hypersensitive, all heart and no head. The feeling type should not reject the thinking type as just cold intellect.
From the temperamental point of view, no type of spirituality is superior to any other. The church is a many-dimensional body containing a multitude of differences. One of these differences is temperament. Fortunately the unity of the church does not depend on the uniformity of its members.
It is reassuring to reach the conclusion that temperament is the seal that stamps an individual uniqueness in our relationship with God. Our temperamental code is so personal that it admits no possibility of being copied. Therefore, just as no two human beings have the same fingerprints, neither will two believers have an identical spiritual experience. This personal and distinctive seal of our faith, so deeply grafted into our temperaments, constitutes one of the most precious possessions in the life of each believer and of the church.
Pablo Martinez is a psychiatrist, author and Bible teacher, based in Spain.