What does it mean to pray “in the Spirit”?
One answer is to tie this text to 1 Corinthians 12 and speaking in tongues, but that was probably not Paul’s intention. Paul certainly did not speak in tongues “at all times” as he prayed. Instead of thinking of this as one way to pray among many, then, we should recognize that praying “in the Spirit” is the only way to pray.
Jesus’ exchange with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 is instructive for us on this point. During their dialogue, the woman raises the issue of Gerizim and Jerusalem as potential places of public worship, over which there was disagreement between Samaritans and Jews. In response, Jesus says, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).
People sometimes suggest that what Jesus is saying here is that anyone can worship anywhere, as long as they’re sincere. But He’s not actually saying that! Instead, He’s revealing that only those who receive the Holy Spirit can worship God at all. It is only in the Spirit, by the Spirit, and through the Spirit that worship—and, by extension, prayer—that is pleasing to God can even take place.
Paul also illuminates what he means for us in Romans 8:15-16: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” God has given us His Spirit, and it is by His Spirit in us that we cry out to Him, even—perhaps especially—in our weakness (v 26).
This is why “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Sure, someone might say the words “Jesus is Lord,” but no one can really mean them apart from the work of the Spirit in his or her life. So it is with prayer: our adoption into the family of God, including our receiving of the Holy Spirit, is the foundation of our prayer life.
When you come to God in prayer today, then—perhaps even as you finish this reading—and call God “Father,” you will be “praying in the Spirit.” Depend on the Spirit, who by faith lives in you. He will help you. He will prompt you. He will guide you. And He will remind you of what a wonderful, undeserved joy it is to be able to speak to the Creator and Sustainer of the universe and address Him as your Abba, Father.
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Devotional material is taken from the Truth For Life daily devotional by Alistair Begg, published by The Good Book Company, thegoodbook.com. Used by Truth For Life with permission. Copyright © 2021, The Good Book Company.