Prayer is one of the spiritual disciplines. Jesus practiced this discipline and instructed his disciples to do the same. He even gave them guidance on how and what to pray. (See Luke 11:1-13). In this passage, the disciples had asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Jesus ended this lesson on prayer by asking the disciples a rhetorical question: “How much more will the Heavenly Father give (the) Holy Spirit to those who ask Him” (v. 13b). The answer to the disciples’ original question involves the Holy Spirit. They asked, “Teach us how to pray”; Jesus answered, “Ask for the Holy Spirit!” Jesus implies that the Holy Spirit will teach one how to pray. What, then, is the role of the Holy Spirit in prayer? This article is presented in two parts. Part one seeks to offer a biblical answer to this question by giving attention to the language aspect of prayer and the conversational nature of prayer; part two explores the Holy Spirit’s promptings in prayer including, but not limited to, “praying in tongues.” In order to accomplish these tasks, the articles focus on three representative passages (Ephesians 6:18, Jude 20, and 1 Corinthians 14:13-15) where the authors use the phrase “praying in the Spirit.”
The phrase “praying in the Spirit” proves more difficult to interpret than one might presume, especially from Pentecostal or Charismatic perspectives. Some Pentecostals and most Charismatics presume this phrase means “praying in tongues.” But does it? In the three passages above, the Greek grammar helps us understand the correct meaning. Simply stated, this grammatical construction indicates “sphere.” Thus, to pray in the Spirit means to pray in the sphere of the Spirit or within the bounds of the Spirit or in the realm of the Spirit. W.R. Nicoll acknowledges “…the Holy Spirit being the sphere or element in which alone true prayer of all different kinds can proceed and from which it draws its inspiration” (pp. 388-389). The Greek highlights the person of the Holy Spirit rather than the person praying.
While this Greek construct does not exclude the element of praying in tongues, it emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit and His boundaries rather than the “language” of the person praying. Praying in the Spirit accentuates the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Ocumenius, Bishop of Tricca in Thessaly (d. circa 990 A.D.), writes in his commentary on Jude 20 that praying in the Spirit means “…forever reforming themselves, according to the Holy Spirit’s guidance….” (Commentary on Jude). John Wesley comments that this phrase means “…by the influence of the Holy Spirit” (Wesley’s Explanatory Notes, Ephesians 6:18). A practical way to incorporate this vital facet of prayer is praying the Scriptures or joining in the Lord’s Prayer. Noted Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel notes, “It is more inspiring to let the heart echo the music of the ages than to play upon the broken flutes of our own hearts” (p. 33) If we are praying Holy Scripture, then we are praying in the sphere of the Spirit! This kind of praying in the Spirit directs the Church and us to learn how to converse in prayer.
Praying in the Spirit not only involves the guidance or influence of the Spirit but also includes communication; however, this communication surpasses merely communicating with the Spirit, talking with God, the way we converse with humans. Heschel, contends, “It is incorrect to describe prayer by analogy with human conversation; we do not communicate with God. We only make ourselves communicable to Him” (p. 10). This assertion reminds us that the Spirit is the “Holy” Spirit; accordingly, humankind must acknowledge the transcendence of God before it demands or expects the immanence of God. We must first acknowledge the person and presence of Yahweh before we attempt speaking. One might refer to this as “top-down praying” or “praying from above” as opposed to “bottom-up praying” or “praying from below.” Heschel continues, “There is more promise in proceeding from above inward, from the spirit to the soul, than vice versa” (p. 33) This is truly praying in the Spirit. We may, indeed should, wait after greeting the Lord in prayer. This interlude is not to await the Lord’s attention; rather, it is to call ourselves to the awareness of the Spirit. Knowing that the Holy God, even before being summoned, is already attentive to us, initiates a moment of pause and awe.
Observe the opening of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: “Our Father, the One in the heavens” (Matthew 9b, author’s translation); this phrase addresses both immanence (“Our Father”) and transcendence (“the One in the heavens”). The work of Christ offers humans the immanence of God but not to the detriment of God’s transcendence. Praying in the Spirit includes both, but transcendence always precedes immanence. His posture of prayer entails waiting; simultaneously, it integrates listening. The conversational nature of prayer presumes that when we are finished speaking to the Lord, then we are not through praying; now, we listen to what the Lord has to say. Praying in the Spirit involves listening as much as, nay, more than speaking. Moreover, even silence is a wonderful way to pray in the Spirit! How many Psalms say, “Wait on the Lord?”
I hope you meditate on these thoughts, and I trust that the remarks will assist your prayer discipline. This first article explored the language aspect of prayer with its emphasis first and foremost on the person of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s guidance and influence in our praying. Practice praying Scripture out loud to gain a better understanding of what the biblical context and content of praying in the Spirit mean. I also suggest that you pause before you pray and at the beginning of your prayers to “relocate” yourself in the sphere of the Spirit and to acknowledge the awesomeness of our Lord. Lastly, I encourage you to wait and listen before, during, and after praying. When praying in the Spirit, “Be still and know God.”