Bible · Theological Reflection

What does it mean to ‘pray in the Spirit’?

My church recently finished off our Ephesians series, and in our concluding sermon we came across the exhortation from Paul for us to ‘pray in the Spirit’. But what does that mean? Is it some special kind of prayer? If so, certainly it must be some kind of extra-spiritual prayer… but how do we know if we are praying ‘in the Spirit’ or not?

This phrase seems to be subject to much misunderstanding, so I thought it worth taking a look at what it does (and doesn’t) mean. Behind the confusing language there is a simple and beautiful truth, but first, we’ll address one widespread misconception that surrounds this strange phrase.

Not Praying in Tongues

There, I said it. ‘Praying in the Spirit’ does not mean ‘praying in tongues’. There are many people who interpret this verse as referring to ‘praying in tongues’, meaning that we pray unintelligibly as the Spirit prays through us and on our behalf. Such an interpretation stems largely from 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul says, “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind” (1 Corinthians 14:14-15).

As you can see, this verse suggests a strong connection between praying in a tongue and praying with one’s spirit. But we should note that there is a very serious difference between a person’s spirit and the Holy Spirit. My spirit is not the same as God’s Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is describing what it is when he prays with his own spirit, but Ephesians is talking about God’s Spirit (cf. Jude 20, “pray in the Holy Spirit”). These are two very different things!

There are some other significant reasons why Ephesians 6 cannot be talking about praying in tongues, but this reason alone is certainly sufficient. The Bible does talk about praying with one’s spirit and praying in tongues elsewhere, but it would be inappropriate for us to assume that Paul was talking about this when he wrote Ephesians 6:18 (as many do). No, when Paul encourages us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests,” he has something else in mind.

Praying by the Spirit’s Help

When Paul exhorts us to pray ‘in the Spirit’ (ἐν πνεύματι), he is encouraging us to pray by the Spirit’s help.

Ephesians 6:18 could just as well be translated, “pray by the Spirit,” rather than “pray in the Spirit.” Either translation gets the idea across that we are praying by the help of the Spirit. It doesn’t mean that we somehow lose ourselves ‘in the Spirit’, but rather means that we pray by His help. You can see this exact same idea in Romans 8:15, which says that it is by the Spirit that we cry out to God and call Him ‘Father’ (using the same phrase in Greek as Ephesians 6:18).

The Christian life is in all things to be done “in the Spirit” (or “by the Spirit”). We live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), confess the Lordship of Jesus over our lives by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3), and worship by the Spirit (Philippians 3:3), so it should be no surprise to us that we also pray by the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18).

We walk in the Spirit, worship in the Spirit, and pray in the Spirit. The whole Christian life is enabled by the Holy Spirit empowering us and working through us.

Praying in the Spirit does not mean praying in tongues. Praying in the Spirit does not mean that our prayers are unintelligible. No, praying in the Spirit means that we pray by the Spirit’s help, empowered and enabled by Him, and having true access to God. We “have access to the Father by one Spirit (Ephesians 2:18).

Many people pray. Muslims pray, Jews pray, and even atheists pray in difficult circumstances. But only Christians pray in the Spirit, helped by the Spirit of God and given access to God as children. This isn’t because we are better than anyone else, or more righteous, or anything like that. It is simply because God has reconciled us through the death of Christ and adopted us as His children.

“For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15).

A Great Privilege

Praying in the Spirit is a great privilege that God has given us through Christ, that we can come before God as children before their Father, knowing that we are loved, that we have access to Him, and knowing that He hears our prayers and answers us as He knows best for our own good.

Praying in the Spirit is nothing fancy or outwardly impressive, but it most certainly is a supernatural and marvelous gift. Because God’s Spirit dwells in us, we can pray with confidence that God hears us as His children. The Holy Spirit encourages us and empowers us to pray, and He also guides us in how we pray through Scripture, which the Holy Spirit inspired.

And so as we pray in the Spirit – at any time, with any kind of prayer and request – we can be confident that God hears us.

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3 thoughts on “What does it mean to ‘pray in the Spirit’?

  1. Thanks for this Ben, I have often wondered about this phrase, your unpacking is helpful, but doesn’t completely explain the concept to me. Your post implies that all Christian prayer is therefore “by the Spirit”? Surely this would make the phrase redundant? Why does Paul sometimes mention it, and sometimes not?

    1. Yeah that’s a good point. The phrase is indeed unnecessary, only in the sense that the exhortation would still stand and make sense if Paul hadn’t written those three words. But I don’t think it’s really redundant, because it adds a deeper level of meaning and fits in with the section that Paul is writing.

      If I had to take a stab at why Paul writes ‘in the Spirit’ here, I’d say it likely comes from the fact that this exhortation is tied up in a larger section where Paul is telling Christians to be strong in the Lord and put on His armour. Reliance on God and doing things in and by Him are the focus of what is going on.
      The inclusion of the phrase perhaps makes more sense when we put it like this:

      “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying in the Spirit on all occasions…”

      v18 is not the start of a new sentence (although some translations have it that way), so there is a very real and close connection between v17 (sword of the Spirit) and v18 (praying in the Spirit). I’d say it is likely that this is the reason Paul added this phrase, since as you rightly pointed out, it isn’t a phrase Paul uses elsewhere.
      I don’t know if that’s helpful or not :\

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