Christian character is the result of thousands of hours spent practicing the presence of God. It’s the cumulative effect of a million small decisions—
not responding out of anger,
not speaking harshly,
forgiving your enemies,
blessing those who curse you.
Over time, those little moral victories add up and serve as the building blocks for our second nature. We cultivate virtue. We develop character. Through the process of our cultivation and development, God receives glory as we become the people he has designed and destined us to be.
N.T. Wright refers to these virtues as habits of the heart. They are largely invisible.
They are mysteriously unquantifiable. You do not become more virtuous simply because you spend more time performing virtuous tasks. What happens in your mind and in your spirit is equally, if not more significant as the amount of time allotted to virtue.
Contrary to popular belief, spending more time in prayer does not automatically make you more godly. It’s not that prayer is ineffective or inadequate; simply that the condition of your heart during prayer—your attentiveness to God, your focus on God, your ardor for God, your openness to God’s spirit—works like fuel for the fire of prayer.
Consequently, two hours of absentminded prayer a day will likely produce little transformation. But twenty minutes of focused, honest, vulnerable prayer before God will always draw you closer to him regardless of how often you “perform” it.
Thisaltruismdoesn’t hold simply for prayer, but for all manner of spiritual disciplines. The quality of our availability to God always works in tandem with the quantity of that availability. Even reading the Bible can be one of the most useless, frustrating, and stupid exercises if you don’t invite the spirit of God in to change you or pay attention to what the words mean as you read them.
Again, this is why Wright refers to these as habits of the heart. They don’t just concern our activity; they concern our interiority in the midst of activity.
This is not to suggest that we should wait until we “really mean it” before we spend time in prayer. If that were the case, none of us would ever pray. The point is that we must discipline ourselves to regularly go to God in prayer and equally discipline ourselves during prayer to be open, available, conscientious, and engaged with God’s spirit. The point is not to only pray when we’re focused. The point is to always focus when we pray.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com