How do we pray in the Spirit? And can we accidentally pray out of the Spirit? It’s a good question from a listener to the podcast named Mary. “Pastor John,” she writes, “thank you for your LAB study through Ephesians. It has been wonderfully fruitful in my life. Keep up the great work. My question is: Can you teach me to ‘pray in the Spirit’? Paul and Jude call us to this. So what does that look like? Can you distinguish what it looks like to pray in the Spirit from what it would mean to pray out of the Spirit?”
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that prayer is not the only thing that Christians are called upon to do “in the Spirit” or “by the Spirit.” And by the way, the Greek phrase en pneumati is sometimes translated “by the Spirit” and sometimes “in the Spirit.” I don’t think Paul, in his mind, would make that distinction. For example:
- Galatians 5:16: Walk in the Spirit.
- Romans 8:13: Put to death the deeds of the body in the Spirit.
- 1 Corinthians 12:3: Confess Jesus as Lord in the Spirit.
- Philippians 3:3: Worship in the Spirit.
- 1 Corinthians 14:16: Give thanks in the Spirit.
- Galatians 6:1: Restore a wayward brother in the Spirit.
So, the two commands to pray in the Spirit in Jude 20 (“praying in the Holy Spirit”) and Ephesians 6:17–18 (“Take . . . the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit”) are not unique. They’re part of the whole Christian life, which is to be lived in the Spirit. Everything we do is to be done in or by the Spirit.
“Praying in the Spirit means that our prayers are moved and guided by the Holy Spirit.”
I don’t think “praying in the Spirit” refers, by the way, to praying in tongues, in heavenly language. That’s what some people think, which is why I mention it here. The reason I don’t think that is because Ephesians 6:18 says, “praying at all times in the Spirit.” And it doesn’t mean that you should be praying in tongues all the time. This is all of our praying. All of our praying is to be in the Spirit, not just one part of our praying — like praying in tongues.
Here’s my suggestion for what “praying in the Spirit” means: it means that our prayers are moved and guided by the Holy Spirit. That is, we are being prompted to pray by the Spirit; he’s awakening it and moving it. And the things that we pray for are being shaped and determined by the Spirit. So, it’s his power that carries the prayer, and it’s his leading that guides the prayer.
Now, let me point to some passages where I get that idea. In Romans 8:26, Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
I take that to mean that, in some cases, our burdens are so great that we can’t find words, appropriate words, but we groan toward God. Our groanings are toward God, and that groaning of our Spirit-filled heart is the very groaning of the Spirit, which God himself understands. So, we are being helped by the Spirit to pray. And I think we can generalize from that statement and say that’s what the Spirit does regularly — not just when we are at a loss for words. He is the great helper of our prayers. He prompts, he enables, he empowers us in prayer.
And then I think of Romans 8:15–16, where Paul says, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry [that is, we pray], ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
In other words, the Spirit works in our heart to awaken this authentic cry, this authentic prayer, “Father! Father!” Then everything that we say in that Spirit, in faith that he’s our Father, follows as a work of the Spirit. I love that text. My cry to God as my Father is a work of the Spirit. I wouldn’t be crying as a dependent, helpless child toward God as my Father if the Spirit weren’t working in my life. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s what the witness of the Holy Spirit is.
And then I add to the prompting — and the awakening and sustaining and empowering — of all those words for our prayers the guiding us to pray as we ought. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly [with wrong motives], to spend it on your passions.”
Now, that would be an example of failing to pray in the Spirit, because the Spirit would never guide you to pray with wrong motives. That’s not what he does; he’s a Holy Spirit. One of the great functions of the Spirit in prayer is to guard us from praying with bad motives and for wrong things. Jesus taught us to put “hallowed be your name” at the front, as the priority, of our prayers (Matthew 6:9). That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing repeatedly. He is shaping our prayers with right motives, right priorities, with a passion for God’s supremacy.
So, my understanding of “praying in the Spirit” is that our prayers are moved and guided by the Spirit. That we are praying and what we are praying are owing to the Holy Spirit.
Act the Miracle
The question is, How do you do that? Which is really part of the larger question of, How do you do anything in the Christian life so that it can be said, “Not I, but the grace of God that is with me”? (1 Corinthians 15:10), or “Not I, but the power of the Holy Spirit enabling me”? Or Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ [by the Spirit] who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
“One of the great functions of the Spirit in prayer is to guard us from praying with bad motives and for wrong things.”
So, the whole Christian life, including prayer, is a great miracle and mystery. We act the miracle, but the Spirit creates and sustains and guides the miracle. And I think that verse, Galatians 2:20, contains the secret of how it’s done. On the one hand, it says, “I don’t live — Christ lives in me,” or “The Spirit is alive and moving in me.” Then he turns right around and says, “The life I do live, I live by faith in Christ.” Or I would say, “I live by faith in the working of the Holy Spirit, through the work of Christ.” My conclusion from that is this: the way the Spirit of Christ lives through Paul’s life is faith in Christ to do just that.
Stand on the Promises
And here’s a confirmation that we’re on the right track there when we interpret Galatians 2:20 that way: in Galatians 3:5, Paul says, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you . . .” So, think of God supplying the Spirit for your prayers. “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law [no], or by hearing with faith [yes]?”
In other words, the Spirit of God is supplied to us so we can pray in the Spirit. And Paul says that that supply of the Spirit comes by hearing with faith. We hear a promise: “I’ll help you. I’ll strengthen you. I’ll hold you up in prayer with my Holy Spirit.” And we believe it. We believe it. And by that faith, the Spirit moves to create and sustain and guide our praying.
So, my answer to the question is that praying in the flesh would be praying without faith in the promise that the Holy Spirit will prompt and guide our prayers. And praying in the Spirit means we trust the promise of God’s help, by the Spirit, so that through this faith, the Holy Spirit is supplied and our prayers are moved and guided by the Spirit. What a gift.