Ephesians 6.18a: “Through every prayer and petition, pray in every occasion in the Spirit.”
What is it about prayer that is important? Why is prayer central to the Christian life? Some answers may include (1) seeking help in time of need, (2) finding a place of intimacy with God, and (3) recognizing our dependence upon God. Each of these answers may have some place in understanding prayer, but I want to put forward from my own experience and understanding of the Scriptures that there is another, more overarching reason for prayer. Prayer is how we bring our hearts into unison with the leading and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.
In Ephesians 6.18, Paul instructs the churches to prayer in the Spirit. Most translations do not do a good job bringing the centrality of the Spirit to prayer. Paul’s focus is on prayers that are offered in the Spirit. The point isn’t so much to say when to prayer or how much to pray (though Paul certainly endorses continuous prayer), but the very manner in which people prayer in all their various circumstances. Prayers are to be offered in the Spirit.
What exactly praying in the Spirit mean? At the core of Paul’s understanding of the Spirit is that Spirit leads people into holy desires that they may not themselves fully yet understand. In Galatians 5.16-26, the Spirit provides desires that comes into contrast with the desires of the flesh. In Romans 8.26-27, Paul expresses His hope in the Spirit who offers prayers that we can not possibly understand but that God who sees the heart can see, which Paul then connects to the good that God accomplishes for those who love God.
Prayer in the Spirit can be understood as bringing our own spirits with God’s Spirit, owning the hopes and dreams that the Spirit plants within us as our own hopes and dreams also. Our confidence that God answers our prayers is that God searches the hearts of those who love Him, but bringing our own life in accordance to God’s purposes is accomplish through our perception of and learning what it is the Spirit prays for within us.
Perhaps this explain’s Jesus instruction about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.5-15). Jesus’ language about praying in private most likely doesn’t literally refer to one’s social location in the presence of other people, as Jesus would pray in front of others. Rather, Jesus is probably referring to the inner chambers of the heart that no person can go into, rather than focusing on the public praise. In the inner chambers of the heart one will find the Father who is in secret, whereas focus on the public prayers would distract from seeing and hearing from the Father in secret. Likewise, focusing on heaping up words is needless, as prayer is about coming to the Father in secret. Just like Elijah discovered God is found not in the powerful displays of the natural world, but in the calm, quiet voice, so too Jesus calls people to prayer to God in the secret place of their heart.
It is through the Holy Spirit that the Father communes with us. Our act of prayer, then, is to give attention to the will of God through the Spirit leading us rather than give attention to all the other motivations and displays in the world. To pray in the Spirit is to acknowledge and own what God is already doing in our midst, both personally and corporately. It starts with the basic acknowledgement of our own relationship to God the Father, where the Holy Spirit brings the cry of “Abba! Father!” into our hearts (Rom. 8.15-16; Gal 4.6), but as we grow, so too our prayers in the Spirit grow as we can give expression to what was previously inchoate.
I speak this from the perspective of a person who has gone through serious trauma many years ago to the point that my memories and emotions were frayed and scattered. While I had a basic cry in my heart for God, for many years I didn’t know what to really pray for myself. I did pray for others when I saw the immediate need, but my heart was so frayed that personal prayer was not something I really even had the mind to engage in. Nevertheless, there were inchoate cries within my heart, cries for justice, cries for healing, cries for a new life that I couldn’t express and verbalize except occasionally in the throes of pain. In the course of healing these past few years and rediscovering the passion for the Lord that I had previously, I can say that my prayer life has become more tuned to this leading of the Holy Spirit, to seek for the good desires for the world that the Spirit brings forth in us.
We don’t pray so as to get from what is good from God, as God already sees and knows, but we pray so as to bring ourselves into union with God’s good purposes being planted within us by the Holy Spirit. We don’t pray so as to experience intimacy with God, but rather it is in intimacy with God that we focus on the groanings of the Spirit within us. We don’t pray so as to acknowledge our dependence, so much as we pray because we discover as God’s People that we are ultimately dependent on God’s Spirit.