Maybe you’ve puzzled over Paul’s phrase, “Praying . . . in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18)? Many have. “Praying in the Spirit” sounds effort-free, spontaneous, exciting, and liberating. What a disconnect (or, a deliverance!) from the life of intentional and disciplined praying, with its reminders, routines, and effort. Isn’t the Spirit the wings to lift us above the labor of prayer, the battle to concentrate and to believe?
No. When we are praying in the Spirit, we are being obedient to what the Spirit desires, and bringing those desires to God in prayer. To be obedient to what the Spirit desires involves discovering a struggle between the Spirit and what we in our sluggish and sinful natures still desire—to prioritize ourselves and rely on our own resources. When the Spirit is at work, he is driving us to Jesus, to his kingdom priorities, and to care about and pray for what he wants. The Spirit drives us out of ourselves, into a deepening love for Jesus, and into a world of worship and intercession.
Spirit-disciplined prayer is what I (Lewis) saw in Ellen’s life. Ellen wanted to be married, to have a job that was rewarding without being all-consuming, to be happily involved in church, and to keep up with friends and family. The Spirit, though, didn’t want to make her dreams come true without also working to change her deep within. He wanted to take her already sensitive and kind heart and really fill it with a fuller love for Christ that would drive her to prayer.
How did he do that? For Ellen, although she got the job and the husband, life began to stutter. Work brought more tears than smiles. Yes, marriage was a gift, but a far more demanding one than she ever thought it would be. Friends couldn’t carry her burdens, the church didn’t always understand her pressures, and well-meaning family sometimes got things wrong too. Life wasn’t going according to her plan.
Her life was, though, going absolutely to God’s plan. It seems that heaven was wanting her to discover the Spirit’s power, which was leading her to give herself to prayer in a new way. She was starting to pray as a believer who really needed God’s grace. As she looked for God’s help, she started to see how many signs of his love there were all around her, asked-for signs as well as there-all-the-time signs. Also, the Spirit was opening her eyes to how she could support others and really serve them in practical ways. Her pain, in other words, was opening her to the Lord and to others, to rely on him, and to give herself for him. It was hard, but Ellen’s faith was being steadily deepened, and she was putting it to work in a ministry of prayer and service for others.
When we pray in the Spirit, we’re deliberately seeking to live under the lordship of Christ. We submit to his reign in our hearts. When we do that, we discover that God is at work, weaning us off our worldly desires and fixing us on what he wants. It is a struggle, just as we all know how hard it is to leave behind habits of thinking and behavior. The struggle, though, is one the Spirit is invested in. Prayer isn’t the final piece in an otherwise full and rewarding life, when we spare an afterthought for the Lord and his kingdom. Equally, it’s more than the agonized cry when life goes wrong and we’re finally “cornered” and need to talk to God. It’s the centerpiece of life as God is leading and arranging it. A praying life isn’t a charmed, pain-free life, but it is a life where Jesus is making himself known in the pain and working out the glories of his love through his Spirit.
One of the Roman poets of Paul’s day famously said, “Every lover is a fighter.”1 Love has enemies, obstacles, and opposition as it strives to express itself. Jesus fought sin, Satan, death, and hell for his bride, the church. As those who love Jesus, believers find that our enemies are real and daunting. Satan is powerful, and the world is a tough place. Living by faith can be very, very hard. We’re all in a spiritual war, and sometimes the biggest battle is in our own hearts, when we are tempted and discouraged. What are we going to do?
“Be alert” is the apostle’s command, in Eph 6:18 (NIV). In other words, strive to do the opposite of what we naturally want to do when life is difficult, which is to tune out of spiritual promises and encouragements and to seek the gratification of physical things (screens, food, spending, and so on). Resist and be alert. Fight back, alert to God’s promises, and fight back through prayer. Take your needs, and the needs of a broken world, to your heavenly Father as his Spirit prompts you to do so. Watch and pray as Jesus said to his disciples in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36–46).
Four-Square Prayer . . .
Paul longs that Christians really give themselves to prayer. That’s what being alert means, and it’s crucial that we understand this. Being alert doesn’t mean living hyper-aware of any possible danger in life or situation or constantly fearing something terrible will happen. Live like that and we’ll just grind ourselves down and certainly lose sight of God’s loving kindness. There are times when I (Lewis) have made that mistake, being so aware of problems in my life, family, and church that I’ve been a bundle of nervous energy, which has exhausted me—and everyone around me! Instead, it’s better if we stay alert as we continually speak to our Father in heaven. Four times in Ephesians 6:18, Paul uses the word “all”: we pray on all occasions, with all sorts of prayer, with all perseverance, for all the saints. We immerse ourselves in prayer, continually bringing people and pressures to God. That is the way to live by faith, as conscious, Spirit-powered effort keeps us looking to Jesus.
When we pray in the Spirit, we’re deliberately seeking to live under the lordship of Christ.
Let’s get practical and specific now. What might that sort of praying look like in our lives? Let’s trace Paul’s four prayer priorities:
All occasions: That’s going to mean moment by moment, as we pray short, focused, and believing prayers. It could be in the car, in the kitchen, as we walk, even in the shower. We pray as we walk the dog, go for a run, take the train or bus to work or college, or do as the last thing at night or first thing in the day.
All sorts of prayer: Our prayers can be short ones and long ones, arrow-like prayers in a crisis, slower and more deliberate prayers when we have time to reflect. We intercede for pressing situations, but we also pray strategically into the future for those we love. We pray on the go, but we also make time for focused prayer (more of this in a moment).
All perseverance: To get going in prayer can be hard and to keep going can be hard too. But we must! The Spirit fights against our inner unbelief and is always urging us to live by faith not by sight. To persevere in prayer means trusting God. It means we pray again and again and again: sometimes asking for the same things, and at other times adjusting our prayers, as we feel led. But it means to keep on praying. Literally, don’t ever stop.
All the saints: A Christian loves other Christians, recognizing them all as blood-bought saints and sinners who share the Spirit and call on the same heavenly Father. So we must pray for each other. God’s local and worldwide family are calling for our prayers, and desperately need them. Family, friends, church family, struggling saints, the persecuted saints, key ministries bringing grace to others—all need us to get praying and keep on praying. If we’re only interceding for people we know, or feel an affinity with, then many are missing out on the grace that the Lord wants to work in response to our prayers. Let’s catch that bigger vision of serious “all the saints” prayer.
The example of the apostle Paul is a wonderful challenge. Read the closing chapter of Romans, or the lists of names at the end of 1 Corinthians or Colossians, and it’s striking how many people are on Paul’s heart. Surely he prayed for them too. In his letters Paul also mentions those he hasn’t even met and won’t meet till glory; and yet, he still prays for them. Could God so open your heart in love that you learn to care about and intercede for many more than you currently do? Yes, he can. And just imagine the person you could be, set free to serve others with radical love as you intercede for them.