Pray in the Spirit
And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints—and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. (Ephesians 6:17-20)
Ephesians 6:18 tells us to “pray in the Spirit.” It’s right there in the text. But what does that mean? It’s a command, so we better figure out!
What Does It Means to Pray in the Spirit?
Let’s answer that question by examining the context. Is there another place in the book of Ephesians where Paul emphasizes the work of the Spirit? The answer is “yes”! The first passage that comes to mind is Ephesians 5:18-21.
And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God. (Ephesians 5:18-21)
This passage teaches what it means to be filled with the Spirit. It means to be controlled by Him. We know that’s the case because Paul compares filling with drunkenness. “Don’t be drunk with wine… but… be filled with the Spirit.”
So here’s the first part of our answer: Praying in the Spirit means praying while filled with the Spirit. It means that the Spirit is controlling you while you pray.
The question is, what does that look like? How can you tell if a person is being controlled by the Spirit while he prays? First, you can tell by what he says.
1. Spirit-filled People Praise and Thank God.
According to Ephesians 5:19-20, one result of the being filled with the Spirit is that you praise and thank God. Do you prioritize praise in your prayers?
2. Spirit-filled People Ask for Biblical Things.
To say that a person is Spirit-filled (or controlled) and to say that he is Word-filled (or controlled) is basically to say the same thing. That’s why the Bible is called “the sword of the Spirit” in Ephesians 6:17. And that’s why, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom” (in Colossians 3:16), and “Be filled the Spirit” (in Ephesians 5:18) are basically parallel commands. You know you’re being led by the Spirit when you apply the Bible to your decisions. And you know that you’re praying in the Spirit when your requests are controlled by Scripture.
So what kinds of things should we ask for, according to the Bible? Take some time to read the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-14 and to examine those requests. If you’re spending most of your time in prayer on things that are not on that list, you may not be praying in the Spirit.
3. Spirit-filled People Intercede for Others.
In Ephesians 6:18, Paul immediately follows up the command, “Pray in the Spirit,” with the commands, “Pray for others” and “Pray for me.” So if the Spirit is controlling you while you pray, then you will intercede for others. Godly men and women intercede.
So that’s what Spirit-filled people pray. But we also want to ask, how do they pray?
4. Spirit-filled People Pray in the Light of Illumination.
Ephesians 1:3-14 are all about the blessings that we have in Christ as a result of our salvation. And then in v. 15, Paul begins to pray for the Ephesians. He asks that they would appreciate all that is theirs in Christ. He’s praying for illumination.
Illumination is when the Holy Spirit helps you to understand God’s Word. It’s when He takes the Word of God and applies it to your life. It’s when you grasp not only the meaning of a text, but also its significance. It’s not that we need illumination because the Word is unclear, but sin has affected our minds and our wills. We need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and give us faith.
When you consistently pray in the light of illumination, your prayers become soaked with Scripture. I recently got the opportunity to pray with a friend of mine and was challenged by how often he quoted Scripture in his prayers! Have you ever prayed with someone who prays like that?
Another result of illumination is that you pray in faith. When you really believe what God says in His Word, it makes your prayers come alive. Spirit-filled people pray in the light of unseen realities. They pray like it actually matters. They plead God’s promises in faith.
5. Spirit-filled People Pray in the Warmth of Assurance.
Paul prays again in Ephesians 3:14-19. This time, he’s asking for God to strengthen the Ephesians from the inside out. He wants them to grasp what they have in Christ. He wants them to experience the presence of God and specifically of Christ as they trust and obey Him. Who will do this for the Ephesians? It’s the Spirit. Verse 16–the Spirit is the one who strengthens you in your inner being. As one hymn writer puts it, He brings “the presence of the risen Christ to renew my heart and make me whole.”
This work of the Spirit is called “assurance.” Romans 8 says that the Spirit causes us to cry out “Abba, Father.” He witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God.
You say, “What does assurance have to do with prayer?” Everything! Because when I approach God, I do so as a child to his father. When you knock on God’s door, you ought to do so with a deep conviction that you belong there. You say, “I don’t belong there.” Yes, you do!! You’ve been adopted! You’re God’s child now! You’re seated with Christ in the heavenlies–accepted in the Beloved! That’s what Ephesians 1 is all about! That’s what Paul is so adamant that you understand!
Have you ever heard someone pray with a sense of belonging? Have you ever heard the opposite? Sometimes we come to God almost like, “Uh, hey Lord. It’s me, Joe again. I know you’re really busy and all… and I don’t mean to intrude… but I just have one small favor to ask of you.”
That’s not how the writer of Hebrews envisioned prayer! He said, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace.” Have you heard someone pray boldly? Not only was he clearly conscious of being in God’s presence, but he actually took you along with him!
Theologians have noted that the Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of life. The Spirit gives “life to all that God has made.” He does that in a very literal sense as it relates to creation and especially the new birth. And He does that in a figurative sense as it relates to my prayers. The Spirit gives life to my prayers.
All of this does not mean that your prayer life will always be 100% on or 100% off, nor does it mean that you can never grow in prayer. Prayer is a discipline that must be developed over time. There is no magical formula. It takes effort and discipline. But the Spirit is your guide on that path.
It’s interesting to note that you can’t even pray right without God’s help. We are so needy, but we like to think that we are strong. I mean, what prayer anyways? Largely, it’s asking for God’s help. “I can at least ask for help on my own, right?” Nope. You need God for that, too. It just goes to show how much we need Him.