PRAYING IN THE SPIRIT
The idea of praying “in the Spirit” used to conjure up for me visions of groups of people standing up and gyrating, groaning, chanting, clapping, almost howling, and speaking different words at the same time in what was advertised as a revival in our town. As a lad I attended one evening and came away wondering at the wide divergence between “their” ideas and “ours” about praying. And some time afterward, in our neighborhood a young man, several years older than I but still unmarried and living with his mother and siblings, became very prayerful one summer. All of us neighbors knew about it because on many a summer evening at dusk he went to an uninhabited pasture in the area, maybe 100 yards from the nearest house and prayed – aloud. I could see his need to get out of a crowded house for solitude and prayer, but when he unleashed that stentorian voice his privacy was gone. I think most of us who heard him gave him credit for sincerity but questioned his judgment, and we hoped the Lord was listening. Was he praying in the Spirit? I never heard anybody’s opinion on that.
Twice in the New Testament prayer “in the Spirit” is mentioned – Jude 20 and Ephesians 6:18. Jude links such prayer to building up Christians, and Paul admonishes the Ephesians to pray “at all times” in the Spirit. So it seems evident that the Spirit is to be part of any prayer the Christian utters. In fact, the Spirit not only helps us to pray; he also prays with us (see Romans 8:26). To pray “in the Spirit” is to pray, as best we can, according to what we’ve been taught by the Bible, which was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Thus we pray in faith and fervency, hoping to please God.
When we contemplate the benefits of prayer, we are struck first by the sheer awe and wonder of the process. The thought of speaking directly to the Creator, the ruler of the universe, can be almost overwhelming when we consider our own shortcomings, failures and blunders as his servants. But we are emboldened by the assurance that the Spirit helps us pray. And earnest, sincere prayer goes a long way toward pleasing our Father. As Jude indicates, it is a part of building us up, a process often called “edification.”
To avoid giving non-Christians the mistaken idea that prayer is all it takes to become a Christian, we may have sometimes discouraged them from praying at all. Years ago it sometimes seemed that the words of the healed blind man in John 9:31, “God does not hear sinners,” were mentioned almost as often from pulpits as the wonderful experience of Cornelius in Acts 10. But the newly healed blind man was responding to some Pharisees who had accused Jesus of being a sinner because he healed on the Sabbath. The man was simply saying in effect that God would not empower Jesus if Jesus were a sinner.
Cornelius was a devout, prayerful man, but was a sinner still searching for the Lord. And the Lord heard him and responded, for an angel told him, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God” (Acts 10:30, NAS). In a similar way, God observed an Ethiopian official’s search for Him and sent Philip to tell him about Jesus, as described in Acts 8. So let us never discourage anyone from praying; the Lord knows so much better than we do about how to respond to any prayers.
Christians’ influence can be diminished if we adopt a proprietorial attitude about the blessings of our faith. It is refreshing and energizing to remember that those blessings are conferred by the Lord, not by us individuals who are only His instruments in whatever good we may do. God forbid that we unwittingly give a searcher for the truth the idea that he or she just can’t ever live up to His requirements. We should instead encourage all to pray and persevere in their quest for salvation.
When should we pray? The Bible teaches that prayer is an ongoing part of the Christian life. Early Christians seemed to pray before every major event, such as sending men on a missionary journey or selecting elders and deacons; in times of seeming disaster, being put in jail or seeing brothers in Christ jailed; and in ordinary everyday life. Indeed, Paul admonished them to pray continually (“without ceasing,” per 1 Thessalonians 5:17). It’s good to greet the new day with prayer, and to place oneself prayerfully in the Father’s hands on retiring for the night, and in various situations during the day. A constant prayer life is described beautifully in a song we someties sing, entitled “I Will Pray,” by A. Cummings, whose chorus concluded with these words: “Morning, noon and evening, / Unto Thee I’ll pray.”
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians covered the frequency of prayer with these informative words: “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints”(Ephesians 6:18, NAS).
Many of the subjects that may be covered by our prayers are those that come naturally to our minds: for recovery from illness, comfort in bereavement, improvement in our daily welfare, strength against temptation, and you can easily add to the list. And we can be sure that God always welcomes prayers of thanksgiving.
One area that perhaps needs more attention in many congregations is our handling of public prayers. Years ago it was the custom in many places for the men, including the leader, to “kneel” (actually squat) for prayer, so that the leader was perhaps in a crowded pew with his face near the floor, making it almost impossible for many to hear him distinctly. To remedy this handicap, some began to have the leader stand during prayer, and eventually microphones, facing the audience, were provided. Even so, the leader should raise his voice since he is in effect leading not just one but many prayers as the listeners follow his words and make them their own.
Is public prayer as important to a congregation as sermons? If so, then the leader deserves to be informed in advance so he can prepare for it and avoid possible pitfalls. If it’s a prayer of supplication and individual names are involved, he should settle on their pronunciation ahead of time to avoid embarrassment. If the prayer will mention a very recent calamity, that should be explained beforehand to avoid including a news report in the prayer. These suggestions are offered humbly by one who has made so many mistakes in leading prayers and learned from some of them.
May we all grow in the constancy and depth of our prayers in the Spirit, and in the joy of assurance that our gracious Father hears and answers these outpourings of our hearts.