“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:18
What does Paul mean when he says that we should pray “in the Spirit”?
First, we should not be surprised to see prayer connected with the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes spiritual conversation possible and effective. The Spirit empowered the prophets to speak God’s words. He speaks through the Bible. He testifies to us about Jesus’ identity as God’s Son (John 15:26). The Spirit empowered the disciples to preach the gospel at Pentecost. So, if prayer is conversation with God, then it makes sense for the Holy Spirit to be involved.
Yet, it’s still unclear what it means to pray in the Spirit. After all, God speaks to us through the Spirit, but if we think of prayer primarily as us speaking to God (which Paul seems to do in the rest of the context of Eph 6:18) then what role does the Spirit play?
The most extensive teaching on the connection between prayer and the Spirit is found in Romans 8:26-27.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
The entire chapter of Romans 8 is about the work of the Spirit. We have been set free because of the “law of the Spirit” (8:1). Those who are set free live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (8:4). They “have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (8:5). They are therefore “in the realm of the Spirit” and the Spirit lives in them, just as they belong to Christ (8:9).
This inner spiritual reality creates in us an obligation, to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (8:12).
The Spirit also brings about our adoption as children of God (8:14-15). The Spirit communicates this reality directly to our own spirit (8:16) so that by the Spirit we can come to God as our “Abba, Father” (8:15).
This glorious reality – our freedom, our adoption, our inner transformation – is set aside present suffering, and not only our own suffering, but the groaning of all of creation. Yet, since we know that we are God’s children, and therefore heirs of the promised glory, then we can continue to live with hope (8:18-25).
This is the context for the “weakness” Paul refers to in 8:26. In the midst of our present suffering, we do not even know what to pray for. Along with the rest of creation (8:22), we can only groan inwardly. Things aren’t right, and we’re stuck in the tension between suffering and hope. It’s here the Spirit steps in and enables our communication with God. We may not know what to say, but the Spirit is able to search our hearts and minds and intercede on our behalf (8:26-27).
This context of struggle and suffering in Romans 8 is not too far from the context of Ephesians 6. In Ephesians 6:10-17 Paul instructs his readers to prepare for spiritual battle in advance of a “day of evil” by putting on God’s armor. In Ephesians 6:19-20 he specifically asks the readers to pray for him in his own spiritual battle, that he will remain fearless even though he is in chains for the gospel.
And, when he asks them to pray, he asks them to pray “in the Spirit.” In light of Romans 8, what does he mean?
1. Pray with a recognition of the indwelling Spirit. Seeing that the personal presence of God is with you as you pray should change your outlook, from simply reciting a list of requests to communing with the living God.
2. Pray that the Spirit will search your heart and mind. You may not know what to pray. Ask God to bring the right things to mind and, when you can’t even do that, ask the Spirit to intercede on your behalf.
3. Pray, confessing your sins and asking for a renewed Spirit. By the Spirit we put to death our sin and we do that through confession. One evidence of praying in the Spirit, then, is a recognition and hatred of our sin.
4. Pray to your Abba. Through the Spirit we are adopted as God’s children. We approach our Abba with the same confidence and trust a young child approaches a good and generous parent.
5. Pray with hope. Are you in a time of present suffering? Are you in the midst of a spiritual battle? The Spirit helps you know that your suffering is incomparable to your future glory, that your temporary defeat will be swallowed up in Christ’s ultimate victory.