How Does Prayer Form Character?
From 40 Questions About Prayer
By Joseph C. Harrod
Those whose lives Christ has transformed through the gospel and calls on the path of discipleship recognize the distance between whom they are called to become and who they actually are. That is, Christians remain aware of the continuing presence of sin in their lives, and they desire to grow more like Christ in their actual lives, to grow nearer to the Father, and to grow through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. One aspect of becoming more like Christ involves moral change: living consistently with our calling. Scripture portrays Jesus as consistently obeying God’s law as it was revealed in Scripture. Unlike every other man or woman, Jesus walked with impeccable integrity. In an earlier chapter we considered how Jesus’s active obedience is accounted to Christians, but it is also clear that Christians are to actually strive to live obediently in light of Christ’s righteousness. Another way of saying this is that Christians’ lives are to come to look increasingly like that of our Lord. One aspect of our salvation is the freedom to pursue moral change as a response to the gospel. How does prayer relate to this moral transformation? What role does prayer play in long-term moral change? How might prayer help us wrestle with aspects of right and wrong that we find difficult? In this chapter, we want to consider how our prayers intersect with the ways we think about right and wrong (ethics) and affect the way we actually live (morality) on a consistent basis (character).
Ethics, Morality, Character, and Prayer
Nearly everyone has heard the terms “ethics” and “morality,” and often these words seem interchangeable, but they are different. Ethics is the reflection on or study of what makes a certain choice right and an alternative choice wrong. Morality refers to the actual practice of living out our ethic, making real choices that are right or wrong, good or evil, consistent or inconsistent. When we speak of someone’s “character,” we are often talking about the consistency of their moral choices. Prayer affects our character, morals, and ethics.
At the highest level of our reflection, prayer should govern our ethics, because without it we may fail to trust the goodness and rightness of God’s commands. This failure is hardly new; it has followed us from Eden forward. Adam and Eve’s moral failure (eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) grew from an ethical failure, namely doubting God’s motives for proscribing this fruit. The biblical narrative is filled with bad choices (morals) flowing from bad principles (ethics).
Prayer also directs our moral choices. In Colossians 3:5–10, Paul identifies a pattern of living that characterizes a mind that is set on the things of the earth:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
The strong imperative “put to death” (nekrōsate) calls believers to enact decisive moral change in relationship to others. Believers must “put away” (apothesthe) these immoral behaviors because they are “putting away” (apekdysamenoi) their old way of life. The Colossians, and we, are a new sort of people who must practice a new sort of morality, one guided by the ethic of love toward others (3:14) and manifesting itself in the moral behaviors that marked Christ’s com- passion and must now mark that of his disciples: “kindness, humility, meek- ness, patience” and forgiveness (3:12–13). In the opening verses of chapter 3, Paul links moral change with spiritual knowledge and practice:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3:1–4)
Christians are to “seek” (zēteite) and “set their minds” (phroneite) on a way of living shaped by Christ’s present heavenly reign and their own new identity of being “hidden with Christ in God.” Prayer is a key way that we seek and set our minds on Christ and our identity in him.
If character is formed in consistency of moral choices that align with our Christ-focused ethics, then the sort of prayer Paul insists upon in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “unceasing prayer,” is urgently important. We continually face innumerable moral choices that are working to form our character in ways consistent or incompatible with our ethics, and we need continual strength and direction to seek and set our minds on the new life that is ours in Christ and to choose the good for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.
Prayer and Gospel Character Integrated
As we draw the elements of this chapter together, we see that prayer integrates our ethics, morality, and character into a united whole. Perhaps the best way to see this integration is through a case study that shows why prayer is so valuable at each level of our character and how prayer integrates these three together through the gospel.
One case study on the integrating role of prayer involves Jesus’s command to love our enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:43–45). Jesus’s intention is straightforward: Christians show the reality of our adoption by loving and praying for our enemies. How might prayer integrate ethics, morals, and character here?
At the ethical level, we might pray that God would help us trust that this way of responding to those who seek our harm is part of his good plan for those whom he has saved. Praying for and loving our enemies does not make us Christian, but being Christian means loving and praying for our enemies, and these actions cut against the grain of our natural inclinations. How can these moral actions of loving and praying be in our best interest if they seem so alien to us? Even more challenging, how can these actions be the best ways of responding when the world seems to value and reward the opposite actions of hating and cursing our enemies? Prayer governs our ethics when we ask God to help us trust that this principle of love and prayer is good, right, and most consistent with what it means to be women and men who follow him in discipleship.
Then, prayer relates to morality in this example when we are faced with a real enemy whom we are to love and for whom we are to pray. There are no shortage of situations in our actual lives: complete strangers driving aggressively during our evening commute; faceless government bureaucrats who delay visa applications or adoption travel because of their antimony toward Christian faith or seemingly merely because they have the power to do so; local political leaders who take heavy-handed approaches to communities of faith while promoting secular virtues; national leaders who abuse human rights on inconceivable scales; and the list goes on. Prayer directs our morality in these instances as we are faced with the choice to live consistently with our ethic of loving and praying for these enemies or to set our ethic aside and respond as the world, the flesh, and the devil (cf. Eph. 2) would have us do. It may seem odd to pray about prayer, but in this instance it is fitting that we confess our hesitance to return good for evil and seek spiritual empowerment to respond in a way that honors God’s claims over our lives and shows the truthfulness of the gospel’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Finally, prayer relates to our character when we ask God to help us live in ongoing awareness of our enemies and to consistently love them and pray for them, not only once but in repeated ways. Character involves a pattern of moral obedience. God forms character in us through our habitual practice, and prayer sustains habitual practice as we repeatedly “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16) and may draw upon the “riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7) to address our spiritual poverty.
Ethics involves our reflection on what is right and wrong, and Christians set their ethics using the norm of Christ. Morality involves the actual choices to live consistently or inconsistently with our ethics. Character is the habitual practice of morality that forms us into the people God calls us to be through the gospel. Prayer integrates these three elements into our actual lives. On the formative side, prayer is a proactive way to seek Christ and set our minds on Christ and the new life to which he frees us through the gospel. Through prayer, we yield our struggles and doubts to God and seek the leadership of the Spirit. And when we make immoral choices that are contrary to our ethics (as we inevitably will), we confess our sin through prayer and seek forgiveness and restoration.
This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Prayer by Joseph C. Harrod, which is scheduled to release on August 16, 2022. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
Relevant questions about prayer answered from the whole witness of Scripture
Praying is often the most common yet least understood practice of Christian spirituality. In 40 Questions about Prayer, scholar and teacher Joseph C. Harrod shares biblical insight on the nature and practice of Christian prayer. Harrod’s emphasis on searching the Scriptures results in a trustworthy, practical guide to a vital aspect of Christian belief and behavior, equally appropriate for seminary courses, Bible studies, and personal understanding.
The accessible question-and-answer format of 40 Questions about Prayer allows readers to explore the issues they care most about, such as these:
- Does prayer change God’s mind?
- Does God hear the prayers of unbelievers?
- What does it mean to pray in Jesus’s name?
- How does prayer affect evangelism, spiritual awakening, and revival?
- What does it mean to pray “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)?
- Do physical postures affect prayer?
Want to learn more about the 40 Questions Series? Visit the new website 40Questions.net!