Ephesians 6:18: Always Pray in the Spirit

Today as I was driving I noticed a church sign with a message that went something like this: “As a child of God, prayer is like phoning home every day.” Perhaps I’m being too tense about it, but it seems to me that prayer is very much unlike phoning home every day. In fact, to paraphrase the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “phoning home every day” is almost, but not quite totally unlike phoning home every day.

Phoning home every day, or even somewhat less, was quite adequate for my relationship with my parents when I went away to college. They were happy even with a weekly phone call. There weren’t so many flat rate long distance plans in those days, so they preferred a few letters, and something like a weekly phone call that we kept short.

But there was a big difference between my developing relationship with my parents when I was in my late teens, and my developing relationship with God today. I was establishing independence from my parents, as is appropriate. I am hoping to get closer and closer to God right up to the end of my race here on earth. My parents were not always present, always aware, and always available, nor did they have “the plan.” God, as I know him, does. “E.T. phone home” is not the formula for an active prayer life.

When I say the sign, I immediately thought of Ephesians 6:18. It covers quite a bit of ground, but the phrase we tend to remember is “always pray in the Spirit.” The TEV reads, “Pray on every occasion, as the Spirit leads.” My favorite, the REB reads, “. . . pray always in the power of the spirit.” If I could combine my favorite parts of those translations, I would suggest, “In every season {good and bad}, pray, and let your prayer be led by the Spirit.” Now that’s not a literal translation, but I think it’s an expansion that’s justified by the context.

This verse follows Paul’s exposition of the armor of God. Often we stop at the end of the armor passage, and ignore the rest. I’ve heard people repeatedly refer to “putting on the armor of God every morning.” I’m glad you’re putting it on in the morning, but I have to ask: “Why did you take it off last night?” I like to use the armor in my morning prayers, but I see it as a renewal. For Paul, this was a regular state of the Christian life (Galatians 3:27).

Now I may step on various people’s toes, but the key point here is to ask what it means to “pray in the Spirit.” My charismatic brothers and sisters believe this refers to praying in tongues, and it is tied to having a “prayer language.” This prayer language is given initially as the sign of baptism in the Spirit. Now I do pray in tongues, so what I’m about to say is not a criticism of those who pray in tongues. Nonetheless I see no scriptural warrant for the idea that “praying in the Spirit” is the equivalent of praying in tongues, or that any single gift is universal.

The gift of a prayer language is wonderful for my own spiritual life, but as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 14, it is not an edifying practice in the church congregation, for example (without interpretation). Thus if there are occasions on which one should not pray in tonuges, yet one should pray “on every occasion” or “in every season” in the Spirit, then we have a bit of a problem putting both passages into practice!

But the most clear reason not to view “praying in the Spirit” here as a reference to praying in a tongue is simply that there is no reference in the immediate context, or even in the entire book, to the gift of tongues or to prayer in tongues. It simply is not mentioned. Further, in the overall passage there are a number of specific elements commanded in this prayer, petitions are to be made, we are to keep watch and persevere, we are to pray for all the saints. If we are to pray without the mind engaged (1 Corinthians 14:14), why the specific instructions?

The reason here is that Paul is not talking about some particular practice or method of prayer. Paul is talking about our entire attitude and approach to life. The armor of God is not an adjunct to our other activities, it’s the fundamental content–our salvation, the truth, God’s word, God’s Spirit, God’s gift of faith. It’s something that’s turned on all the time. It’s not a phone call once a week, once a day, or even once an hour; it’s your spirit waiting to hear from God’s spirit all the time. It’s an open line where you know God’s presence.

But to be more precise, what does “in the Spirit” mean here? One of the responses I have gotten in discussions with those who believe this refers to praying in tongues is, “Then what is it?” Well, if we look at verse 10, which starts this section, we see that Paul admonishes us to “find [our] strength in the Lord” and then in verse 17 to take up the “sword of the Spirit, the word of God.” The REB again provides a translation I like, though you have to think of it in the context of the whole passage–“the sword which the Spirit gives you.” Now don’t limit the “word of God” here to the written word, though praying from scripture is an excellent approach. This is where “led by the Spirit” comes in.

Praying in the Spirit is, I believe, being so in touch with God that you are praying what God puts in your heart to pray. That’s why I say that prayer is not about getting things from God; it’s about alining yourself with God’s will. That doesn’t mean that prayer accomplishes nothing, or that you won’t see answers. But it does leave you open for God to change you.

Some time after I returned to the church following my “wilderness wandering” out of seminary, I experienced the presence of God in a powerful way in my own office. Now don’t confuse “powerful” with “pleasant.” In fact, I spent nearly a week, from early Tuesday during my prayer time to Friday afternoon, arguing with God. Now I don’t think arguing with God is a terribly profitable activity, but God can really work you over in such an experience. Many things in my life and ministry changed during that week. But there was one thing that was critical. My prayer life changed.

Before, as a trained Bible teacher, I was often called upon to pray in worship services or for particular people at the altar. When a missionary visited, I knew I would be called on to pray, because my parents were missionaries and I grew up overseas. So when there was a missionary there talking, I would be preparing my prayer for them, composing the right set of words to “bless them” and keep the congregation involved. I prayed some well-composed prayers, even though they were not written. But I must confess that those prayers were terribly routine.

Following my week with God I experienced something new, but I didn’t notice it until someone commented after I had again been called upon to pray for a visiting missionary. He told it was different. Before my prayers had been eloquent, but routine. Now, he told me, he could feel the power. I realized that I had not composed that prayer. I had not thought about it in advance. I hadn’t felt pressured to “produce” as soon as I was in front of the church. I just waiting for the Lord to lead and prayer from my heart as the Lord led.

Praying always in the Spirit, I believe, is simply letting God lead in our prayers at all times.

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  1. Diane R says:

    Thank you very much for this. I am Pentecostal in my orientation but whenever I heard people say praying in the Spirit was praying in tongues, something inside of me said “No.” Your exegesis was excellent and I espcially appreciated the fact that you didn’t slam tongues in itself, but just pointed out what praying in the Spirit truly is and I agree with your assessment. I will be sending your link to several friends who I think will really like it.

  2. Martin LaBar says:

    Good work! I found this through the Christian Carnival.

  3. Sue Corrance says:

    Thank you – I found this through Martin LaBar’s sunandshield blog, and am sharing it with my church in the UK.

  4. dear brother Henry please help me for i don’t know how to speak in tongues and i need god to hear my prayer for i need his mercy and his help in my life it’s all screwed up and i hate it for he know’s my heart and for the miracle that i need i’m so alone and i’m finding it hard to make it i’m trying to keep my marriage together and to regain the love of my family i’m not the only one that need’s him there’s zillons out there and we all fall short for my self i’m a sinner and be try to play christain and i’m sorry for all that i’ve done would you pray for me? i need a friend and help here for i can’t make it on my own for i give up and want to put all that i’m going thru in his hands thank you brother Henry and i hope to here from you soon 7831 ne 111th, st bronson fl 32621

    p.s please be my friend for i don’t have nobody to talk to and my heart is hurting and my soul is week

  5. Amanda says:

    Thank you for this! It was just what I was looking for & also encouraged me for when I am asked to pray in front of others as well. 🙂

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