The most important relationship we can engage in is our relationship with God. It is the most essential element of who we are, and it creates within us not only a desire to know Him better but also a longing to commune with Him, to speak with Him, pouring ourselves out to Him. In this sense, what we come to recognize is something significant. This is, namely, that prayer is vital to our spiritual growth and development, to who we are and who we are becoming in Christ.
This is incredibly important because, as we are fully aware, we live in a fallen world, one that is prone to idolatry. It is a world where so many things are grasping at us, pulling at us as they seek to draw us away from God and from our relationship with Him. The world has no sense of the fear of God, or what that should ultimately look like, and it tries to cloud our own sense of it, turning our focus from Him. It has a profound effect on our character, and our virtue if we leave it unguarded.
As we come to view and understand this world, what we come to recognize is then is that it cannot be overcome without some form of struggle against the corruption that has engulfed it. One of the most crucial weapons and refuges that we have in this struggle is our prayers. Prayer is fundamentally important in the life of the Christian because it is one of the primary ways we align our will to God’s will, as His Spirit is made manifest in our lives, drawing us nearer to Him. Having sought us first, it is how we then actively seek after Him, and it has a direct, and profound impact on our character in a lost and fallen world.
Better than most the sentiment of the fourth-century theologian Ephrem the Syrian captures this idea. It was he who reflected that “Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit and raises man to Heaven.”
Ephrem’s thoughts here teach us something incredibly important about the nature of prayer, and why prayer must be properly approached. A reflection of the nature of our relationship with God, prayer then becomes a way by which we reflect God in the world around us.
Virtues are Formed by Prayer
We cannot underscore enough the significance of how we treat prayer and how it is that we do pray. We have a glimpse of this in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. (Lk. 18:9-14) In this story offered by Christ, we are taught a valuable lesson about pride versus humility and the spiritual condition they cultivate within the individual. Here, what we come to realize is something incredibly important. This is, namely, prayer, in a very real sense, offers a glimpse into the soul of the individual. How we pray, from those more public moments to the private moments hidden away from the world, reflects something of our character.
When Ephrem tells us that virtues are formed by prayer what he is telling us is that prayer must remind us of a simple fact. Though we are in this world we are not of this world. We are not to be conformed to this world, but, rather, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. (Rom. 12:2) Prayer should remind us that we are adopted sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father through the precious blood of Christ, and this has a direct impact on who we are and how it is that we are to live, our attitude, our mindset, and our actions. It should restrain our sinful hearts and guide us to a better understanding of God as we align our will to His will, communing with Him in the most intimate and personal of ways.
In this sense, one of the intentions of prayer is to cultivate virtue… not the selfish, self-righteous virtue that we see in the life of Pharisees, a virtue that seeks to glorify the individual above others. Rather, it is a humble, contrite virtue, one that looks away from self and towards God, towards Christ, setting aside the temporal for the triumphant.
This means how we pray is something of the utmost importance. Why? Because prayer is a means by which we worship God, and commune with Him. It is there to strengthen our connection and bond with Him, building a sincere relationship with Him.
Here then, prayer can do one of two things, it can either transform God, re-creating Him in an image of our own making, or it can transform us as we seek His will above all else. The first creates a worldly idol whereby we pray to a God who is there only to serve our wants and desires. It is a God who approves of our active righteousness, counting it as righteousness before Him, and who applauds us in our pride and vanity. The second recognizes His sovereignty in our lives, realizing that we are nothing without Him, our righteousness reliant on Christ, and Christ alone, setting all our burdens before Him in trust, that we may take up our cross and follow our Savior.
Thus, it becomes virtue because it focuses an inward light, revealing to us those places inside of us where we have not trusted God with all of our heart, where we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves, where we have not given the full measure of our devotion and obedience to Christ. This, in turn, convicts us and calls us to live a virtuous life, purifying ourselves just as He is pure. (1 Jn. 3:3)
Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy.
By turning away from self, and turning our focus on God, we, in turn, focus then on setting aside those things that separate us from God.
Our natural inclination is to gratify the desires of the flesh. Even as we say we walk by the Spirit, we can feel these things pulling at us. These desires of the flesh manifest themselves in several ways, whether it is sexual immorality, idolatry, jealousy, envy, anger, or divisions, and they put a distance between God and us, separating us from God, as they oppose His Spirit. (Gal. 5:16-21) It is the fruits of the Spirit that are contrasted with the desires of the flesh. The two cannot peacefully coexist with one another in the same being; either we belong to this world and the desires of the flesh devour the fruits of the Spirit within us, or we belong to Christ, and the desires and the passions of the flesh are crucified within us. (Gal. 5:22-24) This is why it is so crucial that we keep step with the Spirit, living by that Spirit of God.
What is interesting here is the use of the term “emotions of pride and envy.” The reason why is because we note here that pride and envy are not what we might consider to be emotions.
When we, today, think of the idea of emotions, it conjures a certain image in our mind, but, in reality, our idea of emotions, as we think about them today, is a relatively new definition. To think of emotions, at least as Ephrem is referring to them here, is to consider the movement of the will. It is, ultimately, a force that draws us in the direction of our affection. Thus, it is the object of our affection that determined the moral condition and quality of said affection. In this sense, what we find is that pride and envy, as he speaks of them here, are the objects in which one’s spirit is drawn towards.
What we come to recognize then is it is not simply a question of our mood or our appetites, but rather a question of our affections, and those things that shape our moral and spiritual walk.
It is prayer then that stops this inclination, that prevents this draw towards these objects which we recognize as the desires of the flesh, rather than the fruits of the Spirit. The question here then becomes one of how? How does it do such a thing?
Simply put, the answer is by changing the object of our affection. Pride and envy occur when we center ourselves around ourselves. In a very real sense, it is a form of self-worship as we elevate ourselves and those things around us to a place above God. It is through prayer, rightly applied to our lives, coming before God with a right spirit, humble and contrite, that the object of our affection is changed, and the focus of our worship is turned from the inward to the upward, seeing God as our refugee and our firm foundation.
This means that prayer, including those intercessory prayers that we offer up, cause us to humble ourselves before God, internalizing His Word as it affects a true change in us, seeking for Him to cleanse us as He directs our hearts and our minds towards what should be its true affection, Him and Him alone. It is prayer that hungers after His heart, and that desires His will be done, yielding completely to His authority and His sovereignty. In short, it is prayer that cries out to Him, worshipping and glorifying Him, even in our weakness, or difficulties, even when we desire something different than that which we may have. It is prayer that is, by its very nature, submissive and obedient to Him.
Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit and raises man to Heaven
When prayer is rightly understood and lived in one’s life, centering them in God, cultivating within them the virtues of righteousness that have been imputed upon them by Christ through His righteousness, it draws us into a deeper communion with God. Through our prayer we repent, imploring God to cleanse us and create in us a right spirit and a clean heart. Through prayer we lay our weaknesses out in front of Him, that His strength may be made manifest in us. Through prayer we rightly see those vain, proud thoughts that take hold of us, and we ask that He grant us the humility and the piety that we, without Him are lacking. And to those who come to Him in sincerity, He grants through the power of His Spirit as we come to live in it. Prayer then, by and through the Spirit, allows for us to form that deeper relationship with God as our eyes focus on Him, seeking Him, recognizing that He first sought us, finding Him because He first found us. This, in turn, gives witness to our faith as we live by the Spirit’s guidance in our life.
This is why it has been rightly observed that prayer is as necessary to the spiritual life as breathing is to the physical. Prayer draws us nearer to God and manifests His will in our lives. This occurs not by secret words that He speaks to us, or by prophetic utterances that we may say He has given to us, but by the stirring of the Spirit, by the movement of the Spirit. It is, after all, the Spirit of God that not only provides for us the Word but also creates in us the desire to live according to it, opening our hearts to His truth in ways we had never previously imagined or thought possible. What’s more is that this connection is, ultimately, impossible without the Spirit. As this connection deepens and our bond grows stronger, so too does our obedience as those fruits of the Spirit are made manifest in us, recognizing that just as we cannot live without Christ’s sacrifice, so we cannot live without the indwelling of the Spirit, which reminds us to whom it is that we belong.
And so we pray, not that God relents to our will, but that we relent to His, not that God accepts our judgments, but that we accept His, not that God softens His heart to us but that we soften our hearts towards Him. We pray that our eyes will be open to His truth and that we will have the courage and the strength through Him to live it each day of our lives, reflecting the faith that has been given to us as a gift of grace, and salvation that comes only through Christ.
When this occurs the object of our affection changes from self to that which is, and always will be, greater than ourselves. This creates in us a desire to please Him as we live for Him, His Word taking the primary place in our life, instructing us in all righteousness. As it does, what we find is that new virtues grow within our souls as we magnify our Lord, our lives giving testimony to Him, reflecting the difference that exists between us and the world.
We must then focus ourselves on prayer rightfully offered, and rightfully given, focusing away from self and towards God and His Word, towards Christ and his salvation, as the object of our love. It is then that we grow in our faith and our walk, experiencing the newness of life through Him as we, again and again, come to His throne, seeking His renewal within our lives so that we may be set apart for His good works.
Lord, grant this unto us all.