Personality & the Spiritual Disciplines

October 16, 2020

'People are different by design. One way we can speak of this difference is by the concept of personality types.  After having a conversation about personality and spiritual development I dusted off some old notes and took another look at how personality traits and temperament influence our practice of the  spiritual disciplines (prayer and bible study etc.).


Personality, preference and Spiritual Disciplines


Personality types are helpful descriptions that enable us to get a sense of who we are. Because of our personalities, we have preferences, and our preferences relate to how we relate to and process the world. Robert Kaplan and Dennis Saccuzzo believe "the underlying assumption of the MBTI is that we all have specific preferences in the way we construe our experiences, and these preferences underlie our interests, needs, values, and motivation"[1]  Just as we tend to favor either the right or left hand, so too we exhibit a particular direction in the way we view life, God, and even how we practice spirituality.

The danger with preferences when it comes to spiritual disciplines are that we practice what is easy or comfortable to us. Our personality type naturally inclines us to some disciplines more than others. We enjoy those spiritual disciplines that are in line with our personality and rarely, if ever, engage in the disciplines that actually take, discipline! When you were young Christian this is part of the process. But there comes a point you must enact some measure of structure and discipline if you are to grow as a christian. This a far cry from legalism for  grace opposes merit not effort.

I’m not necessarily advocating that you take a personality test, just that there is a measure of wisdom in knowing yourself. Especially, when it comes to practicing the spiritual disciplines, knowing your natural tendency and  common avoidance explains why you do some spiritual practices but not others. In An Invitation to a Journey, theologain Robert Mulholland notes,

“Left to ourselves in the development of our spiritual practices, we will generally gravitate to those spiritual activities that nurture our preferred pattern of being and doing. The shadow side of our preference will languish unattended and unnurtured...The results of such one-sided spirituality can be devastating to our spiritual pilgrimage.” (Mulholland Pg 69)

So for the undisciplined knowing what practices will be a good entry point is wisdom. Also for those a little farther along the path knowing that resisting your preferences and doing some spiritual disciplines that are harder for you is the next big step in growth. Those things that run against our preferences  needs to be developed and strengthened.

Just because we are not inclined or “good” at doing something does not excuse us from action, particularly when that action is commanded by Scripture! No one gets to say because of my personality type, that scripture does not apply to me.


Understanding Myers-Briggs

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a helpful tool for grasping the effect that personality has on our life with God.   Myers-Briggs is comprised of 8 preferences in pairs on a sliding scale

E - I     extroversion ----- introversion
S - N   sensing ------ intuition
T - F    thinking ----- feeling
J - P     judging ----- perceiving

The first and last pairs are called attitudes because they represent the orientation of the individual in regard to the world and where they gain energy and motivation.

E – extrovert: stimulated by the outer world of people and things
I – introvert: derives energy from the inner world of ideas, concepts, feelings, and spirit

J – judging: primarily concerned with how things should be.
P – perceiving: primarily concerned with how things are.

The middle pairs of preferences are called functions. They have to do with the method one uses to relate to the world or to oneself.

S – sensing: concentrates on what is available to the senses (visible, audible, etc.)
N – intuitive: concentrates on the inner sense of things

T – thinking: uses the intellect to arrive at a conclusion through reasoning
F – feeling: makes decisions based on how one feels about things

Since the Myers-Briggs is an epistemological-based assessment. It is very helpful in the field of education. David Keirsey an educational psychologist categorized the 16 Myers-Briggs types into four major temperaments. The simplified groupings touch on the predominate way we gather and understand information as well as our general temperament in relationship to the world.

SP: The Artisans
SJ: The Guardians
NF: The Idealists
NT: The Rationals

One thing of note, Myers-Briggs is not a personality test. In populate culture a personality is thought of in a deterministic way, like it is a fixed absolute that determines who you are.  Myers-Briggs is an Assessment or indicator of your preferences and personality traits that you currently hold. If used correctly it can function as a self-assessment to identify areas in which to develop. Part of Christian growth particularly in the areas of character and ones inner life (desires, and preferences) aims at becoming a whole person. Said another way, Part of holiness is whol-i-ness. Seeking wholeness is fundamental to becoming a mature human, who exhibits basic self-awareness, social and relational appreciation, natural empathy and clear headed thinking.

Christian seldom ask the question, "Which area of life do I need to work on to become a whole person?" Some people are good at being Christian but unable to spend a day in solitude, silence, and self-reflection without turning on the TV or swallowing their tongue. Others can't sustain personal relationships without becoming codependent or burning every bridge in sight. Since i am on this rant, still others are so spiritual they act like odd balls of uncomfortable awkwardness or "holier-than-thou" dysfunction. Sadly the reason is because they skipped over growing as a human and ran head long into Christian experience and practice.

Assessments like the Myers-Briggs help you see yourself from a vantage point. Such a perspective allows the person to learn about themselves in a constructive way. This new perspective opens an avenue in which you can give all you know of yourself to all you know of God. An avenue that allows you to work on balancing overtly strong preferences with its counterpart bringing them to a balance and understand how God personally made you to most naturally engage with him. As well as see those aspects of yourself where you need to exert more discipline for you don't naturally engage in those disciplines.


Personality, prayer and how we most naturally engage with God.

Below are some characteristics of each Myers-Briggs type and some notes on how they will tend to experience God in prayer and in the existential aspects of spiritual life. Look for both the one most like you and unlike you realizing that both are important in becoming well rounded christian. But first, let me set the stage by introducing Lectio Divina.

Lectio Divina (“sacred reading”) is a historic, time-tested method of Scripture study and prayer dating back to the Middle Ages. (If you are getting nervous, go read Martin Luther’s “Letter to My Barber” and you’ll see that this is exactly what he prescribes). Here are the various aspects of practicing the Lectio Divina. They are not steps per say more aspects but many move through them in the order given.

Lectio: slow, thoughtful reading of a text of Scripture
Meditatio: welcoming this word from God into our lives; chewing and ruminating on it
Oratio: responding to God in prayer
Contemplatio: Listening to the Holy Spirit and enjoying the presence of God


NT Characteristics - The Rationals

  • Logical, rational, intellectual
  • Thirst for truth
  • Long to understand, explain, master, excel
  • Straightforward and direct
  • Tend to be impersonal/insensitive
  • Appreciate excellence and seek to avoid mistakes
  • Demanding of self and others
  • Love planning; tend to be very future-oriented
  • Generally excel at whatever they do

NT Prayer:

  • NT’s are the most mystical and contemplative of all the types. They thrive on earnest, thoughtful pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
  • Authors Michael and Norrisey recommend that NT’s practice “Thomistic Prayer,” which is essentially discursive meditation: taking a biblical/theological truth and “walking around in it,” studying it from every angle and contemplating its facets and implications.
  • NT’s will especially thrive in the Meditatio step of Lectio Divina.

Thomistic Study and Spirituality
Recommended by St. Thomas Aquinas and using syllogistic methods of thinking (looking at it from every angle) and orderly progression of thought from cause to effect (rational thinking to arrive at an appropriate conclusion). NT's have a great thirst for truth and for the freedom that flows from knowing truth. They desire to comprehend, explain, predict and control. The tend to be leaders, and also tend to pursue perfection and see stupidity and incompetence as the worst possible faults. They can be overcritical and are often work-a-holics. They are poor losers -- very competitive. They tend to be impersonal in relationships. NT spirituality is ordered and question-oriented. May use seven auxiliary questions: "what, why, how, who, where, when, with what helps" to explore the text. the discipline of deep Bible study with a systematic method, consulting commentaries and theologians as you come to the objective and reasonable meaning of the text is natural to this type.


NF Characteristics - The Idealists

  • Creative
  • Optimistic
  • Verbal/outspoken
  • Great need for self-expression
  • Deep feelings; love affirmation, hate criticism
  • Excel at empathy, understanding, compassion
  • Natural “rescuers” of others
  • Want their outer life to be totally congruent with their inner self
  • Often dissatisfied with the present

NF Prayer

  • NF’s must experience personal relationship with God. They are always looking for deeper meaning, insight, significance. Journaling is often key to the prayer life of an NF: they tend to pray best “at the point of a pen.”
  • Michael and Norrisey recommend that NF’s practice “Augustinian Prayer,” or transposition: imagining the words of Scripture as if God is speaking them directly to me, right now, in my current situation.
  • NF’s will tend to thrive in the Oratio and Contemplatio steps of Lectio Divina.

Augustinian Prayer and Spirituality
Named in honor of St. Augustine -- who developed rules of spirituality for the monks and convents in North Africa. The key word is projection, using creative imagination to transpose and apply Scripture to today's situation. Especially used by NF's who are usually creative, optimistic, verbal, persuasive, outspoken, writers and speakers; good listeners, counselors, conflict resolver and peacemakers. Handling negative criticism is difficult for NFs, but they blossom under affirmation. Visionaries. Prayer is a discourse between God and the self. Journaling prayers and writing a confession to God is an natural discipline for the NF. What is meant by confession means more than just asking for forgiveness of sins. It means probing one's past to see God's hand and search out one's inner motives and psychology in a written conversation with God. (For more on this way of writing read Augustine's confessions).


SJ Characteristics - The Guardians

  • Deep sense of obligation
  • Want to feel useful – givers, not receivers
  • Very practical, common-sense
  • Strong work ethic
  • Value tradition, authority, structure
  • Conservative and stabilizing
  • Guardians of the values
  • Tendency toward pessimism

SJ Prayer

  • SJ’s prefer regimen and routine, so liturgy is especially helpful and meaningful to them. They enjoy a sense of connection with history and with the past. Prayer books and tools will be especially helpful to them.
  • Michael and Norrisey recommend “Ignatian Prayer” for SJ’s: becoming part of the biblical scene through imagination. For instance, as you read of the crucifixion of Jesus, you imagine what it would be like to stand there in the crowd; as you read of the Exodus, you imagine what it would be like to be one of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.
  • SJ’s will thrive most fully in the Lectio phase of Lectio Divina.

Ignatian Reading and Spirituality
People drawn to this kind of reading often have a strong sense of duty, and a good imagination. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order, developed this method in the 16th century. He took his inspiration from the psalms, which show a way of praying rooted in God's character and past works. In remembering and celebrating the salvation event, the people relive, participate in, and symbolically make past events real. practically it involved reading the bible with ones senses. Through multiple reads one engages what it would have smelt like, looked like, sounded like,  until the reader can fully engulfed themselves in the story.  Casting oneself back into the events of the past, one imagines the scene through all five senses, making the story real and present and becoming part of it.


SP Characteristics - The Artisans

  • Impulsive
  • Dislike rules and structure
  • Action-driven, crisis-oriented
  • Flexible, adaptable
  • Live in the present, love the “new thing”
  • Cheerful, witty, charming
  • Good entertainers
  • Thrive on risk and challenge
  • Best at short-range projects; dislike long-term planning

SP Prayer

  • SP’s have the least need for long periods of formal prayer. They tend excel at “practicing the presence of God” – experiencing God’s presence in the events of every day. Because SP’s are very sensory, being out in nature is key to experiencing communion with God.
  • Michael and Norrisey recommend “Franciscan Prayer” for SP’s: spontaneous, free-flowing, active prayer that emphasizes tangible acts of service and devotion. They embody prayer in all they do. Doing good deeds for others or giving gifts to others are prayerful, devotional activities for SP’s – more than all the other types, “their work is their prayer.”
  • SP’s will thrive most fully in the Oratio phase of Lectio Divina

Fransiscan Prayer and Spirituality
St. Francis introduced this type in the 13th century. It is characterized by an attitude of openness and willingness to go where the Spirit calls. SP's are impulsive free spirits, often witty and charming. They love action and work best in a crisis. They are good at unsnarling messes, making them good negotiators and diplomats. They tend to be flexible and open-minded, living in the present. They are best at short-range projects, because they need to see results. Centering life in God. Creation is a Bible – every sense is impressionable; Gospels are appealing as another example of the incarnation of God in creation. Appreciate the grand gesture, and given to just behavior. Although very sacrificial, SP's don't respond well to the symbolic. They usually dislike formal prayer, preferring spontaneous, impulsive prayer or seeing work, celebration, or enjoying nature, etc. as prayer.

End notes
[1] Kaplan, R.M., & Saccuzzo, D.P. Psychological testing: Principle, applications, and issues. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth 2009) p. 499 A helpful book in this area is "Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types by Michael and Norrisey"

Suggested readings
Harbaugh, Gary L. God's Gifted People (Augsburg, 1990).
Keirsey, David and Marilyn Bates. Please Understand Me (Gnosology Books, 1984).
Michael, Chester P. and Marie C. Norrisey. Prayer and Temperament (The Open Door, 1984).
Oswald, Roy M. and Otto Kroeger. Personality Type and Religious Leadership (Alban Institute, 1988).


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