Prayer #7: Praying in the Holy Spirit

Jesus made a big deal about the Holy Spirit. He promised he would send the Spirit after he returned to the Father. He said the Spirit would dwell in his disciples. Because of this they would be able to speak boldly as his witnesses. The Spirit would remind them of all that he taught. He said they would be better off if he left and sent the Spirit. And he said more as well.

But when we think about all of the things we believe as Christians, I’m guessing that a lot of us still aren’t sure what to make of the Holy Spirit. We don’t understand the role of the Spirit in our lives. On top of this, sometimes we look at how other Christians and churches talk about the Holy Spirit, and we find ourselves feeling very uncomfortable. I remember not knowing what to make of people talking about “being slain in the Spirit” or how Christians are so divided over the idea of speaking in tongues. Is it any wonder we tend to avoid the topic of the Holy Spirit altogether? But in his book The Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, Francis Chan writes: “When we forget about the Spirit, we really are forgetting God.” And he’s undoubtedly right. To neglect the Holy Spirit and his role in our Christian lives and in our churches is actually avoiding God himself, period. That we must not do.  

We’ve talked about praying to God the Father. And whatever else we think of calling God Father, it’s very much a relatable concept. We understand the word Father. We’ve also talked about praying in the name of Jesus the Son. Also very relatable. We have an implicit understanding of the word Son. Father and Son are both terms that describe relationships. But Holy Spirit? Not as immediately relatable.

Now, while we can’t say anywhere near everything about the Holy Spirit, we do need to say a few basic things. So, first, we need to start by saying this: the Holy Spirit is a person. The Spirit is not an impersonal force. The Holy Spirit is not an “it.” The Spirit is a “Who” and not a “what.” The Spirit has personhood and will.

Second, the Spirit is not just any person; the Spirit is one of the three persons of the Trinity, the divine Godhead. And I know the doctrine of the Trinity is itself difficult to wrap our minds around. But at the very least it means that the Holy Spirit is a divine person. The Holy Spirit is God. He is no less God than the Father and the Son. He is equal to them in divinity. The Holy Spirit works in absolute unity with God the Father and God the Son.

To be sure, there have been and are ways in which the person and work of the Spirit is misunderstood and misapplied. But rather than allowing this to be a reason to avoid the subject, we ought to dig deeper in our Scriptures for better understanding. Praying to our Father and praying in the name of Jesus and praying in the Holy Spirit all fit together as a comprehensive vision of communion with the triune God as he has revealed himself in Scripture. So, to ignore or downplay the Spirit is to deprive us of a crucial aspect of what it means to be a Christian. And that’s also true when it comes to prayer. To put it another way, praying in the Spirit means being brought into the fellowship that exists between the Father and the Son.

Look at what Paul says in Romans 8:14—17 Paul: For all those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs—heirs of God and coheirs with Christ—if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

It is by the power of the Spirit that we are brought into relationship with God. And it is by the presence of the Spirit in us that we are able to cry out to God as our heavenly Father. It is the person of the Spirit who gives us that inner-assurance that we belong to God thanks to the work of Christ. We are made children of God thanks to the work of the Spirit.

What have you heard or been taught about the Holy Spirit? Do you think it’s important to understand the Holy Spirit? Why or why not?

I have always loved what Puritan Richard Sibbes once wrote: “God can pick sense out of a confused prayer.” I think what he says reflects what we are taught in Scripture, especially when it comes to what the Holy Spirit does while we’re praying. In Romans 8:26—27 Paul writes: In the same way the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for uswith unspoken groanings. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because he intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

This passage does not refer to speaking in tongues, as some might argue. Whatever you make of speaking in tongues, it’s a gift of the Spirit and not for every believer. Praying in the Spirit is something all believers are told to do.

But what is this passage talking about? Maybe think of it this way. We can struggle with praying. And sometimes we specifically struggle with words. We stumble. We’re not eloquent. We find it hard to express our feelings. Sometimes words fail us completely. Sometimes all we can do is sit, cry, and sigh. And even when we have words, they’re always weak and imperfect.

But we can direct these words—or even our scattered and confused thoughts and feelings—towards God. And when we trust we come to a loving heavenly Father, and do so in the name of our Lord Jesus, we can trust that the Spirit of God can make sense of our prayers. Jason Meyer says this: “Praying in the Spirit means that the Spirit empowers the prayer and carries it to the Father in the name of Jesus.” Let’s put it this way: Praying in the Spirit means trusting that the real power of our prayers comes from God and not from us.

Our prayers aren’t powerful because of our vocabulary or eloquence. Our prayers aren’t powerful because we work ourselves up emotionally or feel especially passionate or enthusiastic. Prayers are powerful because of the one to whom we pray. And the more we pray in the name of Jesus, trusting in our heavenly Father, the more we are praying in the Spirit.

I’m sure each of us can think of someone or a situation that needs to change, where we want to see God do something. But we don’t always know what God’s will might be in a given situation. Yet we do know something has to happen, that the situation requires divine intervention, and that it’s a situation where God’s will is not being done. But God always knows.

So praying in the Spirit is praying means we pray with that in mind. We pray for transformation, for heart-change, for people to come to faith in Christ, for healing and new life to take root. We pray that God would do what he needs and wants to do. We pray knowing he can. Again: Praying in the Spirit means trusting that the real power of our prayers comes from God and not from us.

Listen to these words from Ephesians 6:18: Pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request, and stay alert with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints. Notice the last part of this verse. Praying in the Spirit also means that we are to stay alert with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints. Keep on praying and keep praying for other Christians, your brothers and sisters in Christ.

If I’m honest, I’ve not always obeyed this. I’ve not consistently prayed for all the saints. Sometimes I’m even jealous of or frustrated with other saints, other pastors, other churches. I can look at how others are doing and what others are doing and be guilty of envy. But a part of praying in the Spirit is to pray earnestly for our fellow Christians—and not to limit these prayers to ourselves, to our congregation, to our denomination, to our part of the world. Because it’s about God’s kingdom, not my kingdom. It’s not about my church, but Christ’s church. It means wanting and praying for God’s will to be done in the lives of all believers and all churches. Otherwise, it’s impossible to pray in the Spirit and in the name of Jesus. Our hearts are closed to God’s will.

This means part of praying in the Spirit always includes confession and repentance. If we are living with unconfessed sin, then we cannot pray in the Spirit, according to God’s will. Sometimes there is sin that we’re not even aware of, and we can ask God to bring to our minds anything we need to confess. But even if nothing is brought to our attention in this way, we’re always in need of cleansing. There is unintentional sin, sin we’re not necessarily aware of, because we’re simply sinful creatures who are always in need of grace. Sinfulness is deeper and wider than we often realize.

We are also to persevere in prayer. This is also what it means to pray in the Spirit. To continue in prayer and not grow weary. Sometimes we want to give up. We wonder if it’s any use to pray again. And only the Spirit can enable us to persevere—to keep praying even when we are spiritually dry or weary.

We’re called to pray with every prayer and request. There’s nothing we can’t pray about. God is interested in the whole of our lives. Details matter. But of course God also wants us to see our lives within the context of his will and purposes for us. All this to say that praying in the Spirit isn’t for some special class of Christian or for followers of Jesus who are more spiritual. It is for every single believer, for everyone who confesses that Jesus is Lord, and for everyone who calls upon God as Father. And part of what this means is that many Christians pray in the Spirit already even if they wouldn’t describe their prayers this way. But becoming more aware of the person of the Holy Spirit and his role in our lives as Christians, including in our praying, is also a way of becoming more and more confident in our faith and, more importantly, more confident and trusting of the one in whom we place our faith.

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