Do Evangelicals Pray Passive-Aggressively?

In giving some thought to passive-aggressive relational postures, I’m wondering if this phenomenon ever shows up in spontaneous prayers in church settings.  Do evangelical Christians pray passive-aggressively?

It certainly seems that we sometimes pray manipulatively, use hedging speech, and say things we don’t really mean, but do passive-aggressive relational strategies ever manifest themselves when we pray?  If so, how?

7 thoughts on “Do Evangelicals Pray Passive-Aggressively?

  1. lamehousewife

    This and the “Passive-Aggressive Postures and the American Middle Class” are turning out to be very interesting. I had never thought about it that way. Could it be that touchy-feely way of trying to understand people? Do we need to recover that authentic realization of fraternal correction? I mean, I think it is not just in the Evangelical churches. I think it is American wide. But you raise an interesting question in regards to prayer? Catholic prayer does get very direct. It doesn’t use any passive-aggressive language to my knowledge. But people might be using passive-aggressive listening. Thanks for the thoughts, brother. It’s really interesting.

    1. timgombis

      One of the implicit evangelical virtues is spontaneity, which means that much evangelical speaking and praying is literally “undisciplined.” I don’t mean that dismissively, but just that evangelical speech and praying isn’t disciplined and constrained by historical theological reflection on “what we’re doing” and “what we’re saying.” It’s spontaneous, “from the heart,” which feels more . . . authentic.

      But that results in bringing our latent relational perversions into our praying and speaking to one another, along with leaving them subject to cultural whims (e.g., people using the dread term, “God thing”).

      But “traditioned” churches are disciplined in their speaking and praying. Christians are taught how to pray, are supplied with thoughtful prayers into which they can enter and make their own. Praying such refined and carefully constructed prayers keeps us from praying any old thing and from bringing our relational perversions into our praying.

      The collects are especially noteworthy for their terseness. They are concise, even though they tend to “open up” praying. It’s a generalization, but evangelical praying tends to be verbose (“many words”), which in many ways “closes down” praying, losing people in the many words and wandering circumlocutions.

  2. Jordan Wood (@JordanWood)

    It seems that prayer offers a terribly effective cover for passive aggressive communication. Two situations come to mind.

    The congregational prayer can rather easily become the WMD of passive aggression. The speaker of a congregational prayer often unknowingly wields the quietest power in the sanctuary and even latent antagonisms come to the surface to nasty affect. The danger hear lies in the enormous audience and the pretense of speaking to God. Everyone else gets to listen while a single person’s interpersonal judgments emerge under the guise of inviting forgiveness, proclaiming benediction, or calling out sin. For example, the pastor who prays his congregation would be given a spirit of stewardship even while he advocates for tighter drawstrings on the church’s coffers within leadership meetings. In itself, the prayer is innocuous and good hearted. But within the context of the pastor’s other interpersonal connections, his speech takes on potentially detrimental passive aggressive subtexts.

    For myself, I’m always most aware of the pressure to communicate passive aggressively in small prayer groups. Like with the congregational prayer, the power of passive aggressive communication lies in the fact that we suddenly are given the opportunity to speak freely, with a captive audience, and with a feeling of moral immunity. It’s so easy in a small group to use language that establishes ourselves as ideological rivals or role models to the others in our group. For me, that usually rears its head in the form of a well-placed quotation which I hope will establish the words that follow as somehow more important to those around me, and myself as an expert on the subject. In this case, the danger is less of exerting social pressure on others – though that still lurks – and more of using prayer to quietly manipulate our standing in the ranks of Christian friends.

    I wonder what we can do in our communities to minimize the temptation to resort to these communicative patterns during prayer. It seems that as long as we are unable to openly discuss the destructive things people say while praying for fear of disrespecting the act of prayer itself, we won’t truly root passive aggression out.

    1. timgombis

      Jordan, you nailed it. Praying indeed offers that moral immunity, so that things said to God in prayer are ‘off-limits’ to question. That gives me license to say all sorts of things about how THAT PERSON LISTENING TO ME needs to work on this or that, or OUR COMMUNITY that is always offending me in THIS WAY needs to gets its act together–“know what I mean, God?”

      Oh, were the rest of you listening as I interceded for your sorry souls? Oops, oh well, I guess you heard God and me talking about how you need to shape up! Well, if it helps, I guess you can get to work on meeting our standards.

      Seems to me that Moses took a similar tack, and that it didn’t turn out too well for him…

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  4. Michael

    When I go to a prayer meeting I say within a few minutes of it starting “O God, send the cavalry to such-and-such a person in need, Amen” which frankly is what it’s about because He’s the one to go to when there are needs and what happens every time is a lot of people muttering “relationship with God” because it’s considered lower-class not to call Him “Father” and also “Don’t quench the Spirit” because I interrupted the so-called “worship” (i.e waffle) time

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