Praying in the Closet and in the Spirit

This is the first Sunday of our annual, year-beginning Prayer Week. The very fact that we have such a thing as a Prayer Week raises the question I want to deal with today. But the question is much bigger than Prayer Week. The question is the relationship between discipline and freedom and spontaneity in prayer.


By “discipline,” I mean planning to do certain things in regard to prayer, like

  • have a Prayer Week,
  • or pray for before meals,
  • or pray before an elders meeting,
  • or kneel and pray in your wedding right after your vows,
  • or at the beginning of a sermon,
  • or early in the morning before breakfast going down in the basement nook with the space heater running,
  • or with your spouse, just before you go to bed at night,
  • or over the lunch hour in your cubicle,
  • or on Tuesday and Friday mornings at church,
  • or three times a day on your knees like Daniel (Daniel 6:10),
  • or seven times a day like the psalmist (Psalm 119:164),
  • or in the watches of the night (Psalm 119:148),
  • or during and after you read your Bible in the morning.

I call these “disciplines” of prayer because they don’t just pop out of you. You think about them, and decide they are a good thing to do, and then you intentionally do them. There is a certain measure of intentionality. Some people are very intentional, and we call them “disciplined.” And others are somewhat intentional. And others are not very intentional at all. And there are hundreds of gradations in between. We are all different.


Alongside this, we think of “spontaneity.” Sometimes we use the word “freedom” to distinguish the difference from discipline. But I don’t want to put freedom alongside discipline because that would imply that there can’t be freedom in discipline. Which is not true.

You can plan to pray in your wedding, and work out all the details down to how you will help her with her wedding dress, and hold each others’ hands, and yet, in that moment, feel an overwhelming, joyful, unfettered freedom of spirit — which means, you are doing just what you want to be doing and you are loving doing it. That’s what I mean by “freedom” — doing a good thing and loving doing it as you do it. The same is true for every one of those disciplined acts I mentioned. In those acts of discipline, there can be wonderful freedom and joy.

But it is also true that, because something is planned and we do it with some intentionality, we might also wind up doing it whether we enjoy it or not. You might be so light-headed when you kneel to pray at your wedding that you would just like for his moment to be over, and the sooner the better. This is not what we usually call “freedom.” You are not enjoying this moment, and can hardly compute what the pastor is saying.

“The heart of the gospel is that Christ died for our sins.”

Or you might plan to pray with your roommates each night, and then have the joy go right out of the act because of tensions in the room. Or you might continue the tradition of praying before meals, and drift so far from God that the prayers become empty words, and they are done more like a machine than lover. Which would not be freedom.

So I don’t put freedom alongside discipline as distinct from it. It can be wonderfully and powerfully present in any act of discipline. That’s what we long for.


But alongside disciplined praying, like the ones I mentioned, I do put spontaneity. This is different from discipline. “Spontaneous” means that you didn’t plan it, but it rises up in your heart, and you do it without any specific earlier plan or intentionality. Something in the situation, or from the Holy Spirit, awakens the desire to pray. There is intention, but it happens in the moment spontaneously. You might

  • whisper a thank-you to God after a close call on the highway,
  • or ask God for help in the middle of an exam,
  • or confess to God your sin after saying something hurtful to a friend,
  • or pray out in church during one of our congregational prayer times,
  • or praise God for a beautiful sunset,
  • or silently ask him for wisdom in the middle of a difficult phone conversation,
  • or ask for strength when you are ready to drop and have another task to do,
  • or pray for a missionary when you open his email and realize he needs help right now,
  • or stop several times during an elder meeting to thank God and seek his guidance on some difficult matter facing the church.

None of this is specifically planned. It is spontaneous.

We tend to feel most free in our spontaneous praying, and often not as free in our disciplined, planned praying.

A Swing of the Pendulum?

So my question is: What does the Bible say about discipline and spontaneity and freedom in prayer? I was drawn to this topic this year because my sense is that, at least in the part of the evangelical church that I watch most closely, I think there is a swing of the pendulum from discipline to spontaneity in the name of gospel freedom.

In other words, there is a concern to be gospel-driven, not discipline-driven. And this is often put in terms of legalism versus freedom. Or law versus grace. Overall, I think this way of thinking is a very good sign. If we don’t live on the gospel — that is, on the work of Christ for us on the cross — all our praying will indeed become a bondage and a stench in God’s nose.

A Legalism of Resisting Discipline?

On the other hand, it is possible to be a half-biblical person, and get real excited about the freedom and spontaneity of the gospel, and lose touch with the place that God has assigned to discipline, or intentionality. Our experience with God may be so shallow that the only way we have of conceiving of discipline is in terms of legalism — as though any intentionality that drives you to do a thing when you don’t feel like it can only be a work of the law, or an act of merit, or a way of earning salvation, or a strategy to get God on your side.

And indeed, any act of discipline, no matter how good, may be just that. But what some fail to realize is that steadfast opposition to discipline may reflect a heart of legalism also. It is possible to turn any act or any resistance to an act into a legal performance that fails the gospel test.

Which means that whether you are a person who leans toward discipline or a person who leans toward spontaneity, you are just as liable to trust in your own righteousness — your righteousness of discipline, or your righteousness of spontaneity — rather than Christ’s righteousness.

The Heart of the Gospel

The heart of the gospel is that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3). That is shorthand for saying that the only way to be right with God is on the basis of who Christ is and what Christ has done, not who you are and what you have done. Or another way to say the gospel is this: God’s being one hundred percent for you is based on Christ alone, which we receive and enjoy by faith alone. You can’t get God any more on your side than he is on the basis of Christ alone received by faith alone.

“The Spirit is shaping our prayers and helping us pray.”

The biblical basis is 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” He takes our sin. We become his righteousness. And that happens not by our doing a few righteous works — like disciplined praying or like the anti-discipline of spontaneous prayer. It happens by faith in Christ alone. As Paul says in Philippians 3:9, I want to be “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

The Dangers of Discipline and Spontaneity

So when it comes to prayer and our standing with God, discipline counts for nothing, and resistance to discipline counts for nothing, but only faith working through love (Galatians 5:6). And that faith may be expressed in love through acts of discipline, or through warning against legalistic discipline. And that faith may be compromised by turning disciplined prayer into performance to get God on your side, or by turning the warning against legalist discipline into a performance to get God on your side.

The opposite of legalism is not spontaneity. And the opposite of faith is not discipline. Spontaneity may be legalistic. And discipline may be an act of faith.

Praying Both in the Closet and in the Spirit

So let’s let the Bible teach us about the discipline of prayer and the spontaneity and freedom of prayer.

I titled this message “Praying in the Closet and in the Spirit.” And the point of the title is to say that both are good and needed. The text from Matthew 6 refers to prayer in our closet, or our inner room. The texts that refer to praying “in the Spirit” are Ephesians 6:18 and Jude 20.

Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints. (Ephesians 6:18)

But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. (Jude 20)

Spontaneity in the Spirit

What does it mean to pray “in the Spirit”? There is a good clue in 1 Corinthians 12:3, where Paul says, “No one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”

It seems clear to me that speaking “in the Spirit” means speaking under the guidance of the Spirit, or energized and helped by the Spirit. That’s why no one can say “Jesus be accursed” when speaking “in the Spirit.” And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord” (and mean it) unless he is speaking “in the Spirit.”

So I take it that praying “in the Spirit” means praying under the guidance and with the help and energy of the Spirit. The Spirit is shaping our prayers and helping us pray.

This is the way we pray when we are living on the gospel. This is the prayer-counterpart to faith in the gospel. When we are trusting God to love us and accept us and help us for Christ’s sake alone, the Holy Spirit is at work. He moves in and through that faith.

How the Gospel Leads to Spontaneous Prayer

The key verse is Galatians 3:5: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” The answer is that God supplies the Spirit by hearing with faith. That is, the Spirit moves in our lives and helps us pray and do everything else God calls us to do, not by being coerced by works, but because we are trusting God on the basis of Christ alone for this help. We don’t work our way into the Spirit. We trust God that, because of Christ — because of the blood and righteousness of Christ — the Spirit comes to help us and guide us.

This is how the gospel relates to our praying in the Spirit. We don’t deserve this help from the Spirit. How do we get it? By works or by faith? Galatians 3:5 says by faith. We look to God, not as our enemy or as a frustrated father who can never be pleased, but as our Father who is one hundred percent for us because of Christ alone. Therefore, we trust him, that because of Christ (his death and righteousness), he will give us the Spirit — and everything else we need.

That is how we pray “in the Spirit.” That is what it means to be gospel-sustained. That is gospel-praying.

Discipline in the Closet

Now, what about praying in your closet — in your inner room? Jesus says in Matthew 6:5–6,

When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Jesus says in verse 6: “Go to your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” Now, to go to your room and shut the door requires some movement. You have to be intentional about it. To leave people and find a private place, where you won’t be heard by others, takes some effort. Jesus says this is good. Do this.

This simple command stands for a hundred ways you may plan to pray or be disciplined. This is just one: Be sure to make part of your praying the private prayer where it is just you and God. Take whatever steps necessary to secure this kind of praying in your life. And if this kind of intentionality can be a fruit of the gospel, so can the other kinds that the Bible talks about.

How the Gospel Leads Us to Disciplined Prayer

And my point is that this intentionality — this discipline of private prayer where no one else can hear you — is indeed a fruit of the gospel. It is a fruit of faith in God’s love for us on the basis of Christ alone.

You can see this in three simple ways.

1. Obeying Our Savior

Gospel-based faith trusts Christ, so that if he tells us that something is good for us, we believe him and do it. We have no reason to doubt his word. He died for us to prove that he and his Father are one hundred percent for us. So if he says go to your room and pray to the Father, we trust him — not to make him be on our side, but because he is on our side.

2. Desiring to Receive More

Gospel-based faith has tasted and seen that the Lord is good and is always eager to receive as much of Christ as we can. So when he bids us go to the closet to be rewarded by our Father, we go with great expectation that he has a gift for us — more of himself.

“It’s not what man can give that satisfies us, but the reward of God himself.”

In the gospel, we have seen that not only is Christ the basis of all we need, he is the sum of all we need. Because of what we have seen in the work of Christ, we have fallen out of love with the praise of men, and now crave the surpassing value of Christ. We come to the closet to have all that God is for us in Christ. He is our reward. That’s what faith does because of the gospel. It seeks more of Christ, more of God in private prayer. It’s not what man can give that satisfies us, but the reward of God himself. That’s blood-bought, gospel faith.

3. Knowing All Our Needs Are Met

Finally, because of the gospel — because Christ died for us — we know that everything we need has been purchased for us. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). “All the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

In other words, every answer to prayer that would be good for us, Christ purchased by his blood. We did not and cannot purchase them. So when we go to our closet, we are not going to make a purchase. We are not going to negotiate. We are going because God has ordained that what Christ obtained for us, we receive by asking.

Intentionality Rooted in the Gospel

If you were starving, and the food of life were in a locked container, and Christ died to open the container, you would not be a legalist if you walked five miles and stood all day stood in line to receive your food with tears of expectancy and gratitude. Knowing that he had absolutely secured your food at the cost of his life would make you confident and humble and grateful, but it would not make you say, “I don’t need to stand in line. I don’t believe in such discipline.”

“I’ll just wait till it spontaneously falls into my mouth.” No. There is simple discipline. Simple intentionality rooted in the gospel. Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7). “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5–6).

For More of Jesus

For the sake of your own soul. For the sake of your family. For the sake of his church. For the sake of your vocation. For the sake of the nations. Plan this in 2010. Be intentional about this. Because Christ died for you, and through prayer God will give you what you need — mainly more of himself.