By Casey Tygrett
My research has convinced me of this: When our experience and temperament interact with the presence of God, something very special happens.
It isn’t a silly question, but it can be difficult to answer as we look at all the different kinds of prayer in the Bible. We have selfish prayers like those of Pharaoh (Exodus 8:8), sacrificial prayers like those of Moses (Exodus 32:32), unnecessary and manipulative prayers like that of Jephthah (Judges 11:30-34), and the wide-ranging emotional prayers of David and the psalmists (see Psalm 37, 51, and 137, for example.)
I have resonated with these prayers at times, or even this or that way of praying, leaning on them as a resource for ongoing connection to God. However, these sketches don’t answer the burning question underneath it all—how do I pray?
The reality is that even with these prayers as a map, and even with the great teaching of Jesus on “how” to pray in Matthew 6:9-13—I still pray in a way that strikes a chord within me.
David Benner, in his book Opening to God, says, “Prayer is the natural language of the soul,” and if that is true, then the way we pray naturally bubbles up from within us and rises through the filters that are our temperament and experience. I believe there is a meeting point where our experience and temperament interact with the presence of God in the intimate communication of prayer, and that is where transformation, hope, and perseverance explode into the midst of our lives.
When I use the word temperament, I am referring to the natural tendencies that shape how we think, feel, and process our lives and the world.
For example, simply look at family dynamics. So many of our interactions, disagreements, and tensions come from the natural ebb and flow of distinct human temperaments. Is it possible Uncle Ed irritates me because I am a Type-A, detail-driven person and he is a wide-open, take-things-as-they-come kind of guy? Marriages between strong introverts and wildly engaged extroverts often experience conflict simply because the unique wiring of the two souls becomes entwined. In other words, crowds exhaust one person, but the other is the life of the party. Let the fireworks begin!
As we glance at different characters in the Bible, even the most basic understanding of temperament helps us see the intuitive thinking of Solomon and the radically aggressive independence of Samson. And the emotionally charged extrovert Peter was capable of both great statements of belief (like Matthew 16:16) and boneheaded statements of contradiction (Matthew 16:22), all in the public viewing of his fellow disciples, who were no doubt slapping their foreheads saying, “Oh, no. Oh, Peter. Please, someone make him stop.”
Of course, temperament is not the explanation for everything. In fact, there are good reasons to be careful of painting people and behavior with the broad brush that temperament surveys such as the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (KTS-II) provide. My thought is simply this: if we can use a piece of knowledge like our temperament to help us more fully understand different practices of prayer, and beyond that, craft a healthier prayer life, then we do a huge disservice if we ignore that opportunity.
I came to these conclusions as I completed a doctoral thesis on the topic of prayer and human temperament. A very simple problem drove me to this research: as a church, we had no specific and direct way to teach our congregation how to develop a rich and holy conversation with God. But how can Christians love God with all their heart and soul and mind without this conversation? And what else will give them the foundation for loving their neighbors as themselves? (See Matthew 22:37-40.)
In my research project, I randomly selected 20 of our small group leaders, surveyed them regarding their prayer life at the time, and then trained them to pray using prayer practices that were specifically linked to their temperaments.
I had a great deal of help from a 1985 book called Prayer and Temperament, by Chester Michael and Marie Norrisey, but I modified the practices in that book to fit our local church culture and theological heritage. Each small group leader was challenged to practice his or her temperament-specific prayer practice for eight months, and at the end of that period, I surveyed each of them see if anything had changed in their prayer life.
The results were surprising. Our leaders experienced a “statistically significant” increase in the duration, frequency, and quality of their prayer life. The daily practice of prayer grew among experiment group members. Overall, they felt more satisfied with their prayer life and developed a closer, more intimate relationship with God.
But what does this say about what temperament has to do with prayer? I’ve come to several conclusions.
• The practice of prayer should come out of the deeper parts of who we are.
Regardless of the content, prayer should come from honest and raw places within us. Our temperament shapes it—the high “feelers” are going to pray emotionally rooted prayers, and the high “detail” people will pray on specific situations in clear and direct terms—so it makes sense that a practice of prayer should draw us in and address the real challenges below our surface.
• Understanding who we really are is just one of the outcomes of prayer.
The Psalms in their original context were often sung in worship as prayers to God. So when we read, “Search me, O God” (Psalm 139:23), we are reading an honest prayer for understanding what is going on within us. Look for wicked ways, yes, but I don’t believe the “search” initiated with this prayer stops after exposing the hidden motivations to sin.
If we spend a little time investigating our temperament, we are bound to find ourselves wrapped in a discussion with God on some long-standing realities that have shaped us for as long as we can remember.
• Finally, if we do some thinking about temperament and prayer, we may actually find a new and fresh way to worship God as our creator.
Yes, some parts of our temperament are broken and need redemption, but when we take those seemingly quirky parts and use them to connect with the creator, we are actually giving credit where it is due. It may be an act of worship to find your way into a prayer practice that suits your God-wired temperament.
Casey Tygrett serves as spiritual formation pastor at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois.
It’s How I Am, It’s How I Pray . . .
Look at your habits and practices of prayer today—what is your “go-to” practice of prayer? Are you a spontaneous prayer? Do you use a formal structure in prayer? Do you pray a sentence here and there along the way, surfing the ebb and flow of your daily life? These are all ways of praying that resonate with you because they connect with your personal and individual temperament.
The best way to figure out what this means is to take an online temperament sorter like the KTS-II, available free online at www.keirsey.com. You’ll receive a report that has a descriptive title for your temperament and a two-letter combination. Here are a few prayer suggestions for the different temperaments:
NF: use a journal to write out your prayers or record thoughts and insights that come to you during prayer times.
SJ: use a prayer structure, such as ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) or a prayer list to keep your prayer time focused and orderly.
SP: use a breath prayer, such as “Lord Jesus Christ, Savior of the World, have mercy on me, a sinner” or “Come Holy Spirit, be my guide” at various times during the day.
NT: take a concept, such as grace or righteousness, and spend time thinking on that concept from every angle. Offer whatever insights you have as a subject for conversation with God.
My hope is that these temperament-specific ways of praying, (along, of course, with prayers of intercession and praise) will draw you closer to the heart of the Father.
Never fear, we were born with this divine wiring, and I believe God will meet us where he knows we naturally go.