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Praying in The Spirit, Praying Without Ceasing and Persistent Praying

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"When we become too glib in prayer we are most surely talking to ourselves." [A.W. Tozer]



What Is Praying In The Spirit?
What Does It Mean To Pray Without Ceasing?
Many Words vs. Persistent Praying


"What Is Praying In The Spirit?"
Praying in the Spirit is mentioned three times in Scripture. First Corinthians 14:15 says, “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.” Ephesians 6:18 says, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” Jude 20 says, “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.” So, what exactly does it mean to pray in the Spirit?

The Greek word translated “pray in” can have several different meanings. It can mean “by means of,” “with the help of,” “in the sphere of,” and “in connection to.” Praying in the Spirit does not refer to the words we are saying. Rather, it refers to how we are praying. Praying in the Spirit is praying according to the Spirit’s leading. It is praying for things the Spirit leads us to pray for. Romans 8:26 tells us, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

Some, based on 1 Corinthians 14:15, equate praying in the Spirit with praying in tongues. Discussing the gift of tongues, Paul mentions “pray with my spirit.” First Corinthians 14:14 states that when a person prays in tongues, he does not know what he is saying, since it is spoken in a language he does not know. Further, no one else can understand what is being said, unless there is an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:27-28).

In Ephesians 6:18, Paul instructs us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” How are we to pray with all kinds of prayers and requests and pray for the saints, if no one, including the person praying, understands what is being said? Therefore, praying in the Spirit should be understood as praying in the power of the Spirit, by the leading of the Spirit, and according to His will, not as praying in tongues. [1]

For more information see Tongues.. and The Second Blessing€ť
"An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign" (Matthew 12:39)


"What Does It Mean To Pray Without Ceasing?"
Paul’s command in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing,” can be confusing. Obviously, it cannot mean we are to be in a head-bowed, eyes-closed posture all day long. Paul is not referring to non-stop talking, but rather an attitude of God-consciousness and God-surrender that we carry with us all the time. Every waking moment is to be lived in an awareness that God is with us and that He is actively involved and engaged in our thoughts and actions.

When our thoughts turn to worry, fear, discouragement, and anger, we are to consciously and quickly turn every thought into prayer and every prayer into thanksgiving. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul commands us to stop being anxious and instead, “in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). He taught the believers at Colossae to devote themselves “to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2). Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers to see prayer as a weapon to use in fighting spiritual battles (Ephesians 6:18). As we go through the day, prayer should be our first response to every fearful situation, every anxious thought, and every undesired task that God commands. A lack of prayer will cause us to depend on ourselves instead of depending on God's grace. Unceasing prayer is, in essence, continual dependence upon and communion with the Father.

For Christians, prayer should be like breathing. You do not have to think to breathe because the atmosphere exerts pressure on your lungs and essentially forces you to breathe. That is why it is more difficult to hold your breath than it is to breathe. Similarly, when we are born into the family of God, we enter into a spiritual atmosphere where God's presence and grace exert pressure, or influence, on our lives. Prayer is the normal response to that pressure. As believers, we have all entered the divine atmosphere to breathe the air of prayer.

Unfortunately, many believers hold their “spiritual breath” for long periods, thinking brief moments with God are sufficient to allow them to survive. But such restricting of their spiritual intake is caused by sinful desires. The fact is that every believer must be continually in the presence of God, constantly breathing in His truths, to be fully functional.

It is easier for Christians to feel secure by presuming on - instead of depending on - God's grace. Too many believers become satisfied with physical blessings and have little desire for spiritual ones. When programs, methods, and money produce impressive results, there is an inclination to confuse human success with divine blessing. When that happens, passionate longing for God and yearning for His help will be missing. Continual, persistent, incessant prayer is an essential part of Christian living and flows out of humility and dependence on God. [2]


Many Words vs. Persistent Praying
Two of Jesus’ parables provide the foundation for the idea of praying with persistence.

    The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8) in which a widow pleads with an unjust judge, who finally gave in to her request, worn down by her determination.

    The Parable of the Persistent Friend (Luke 11:5-13), tells the story of a man who was woken up in the middle of the night to give his friend some bread, which he would not have done except for the friends persistence. 

While the situations are different (the Persistent Friend's persevering prayer is for necessities, while the Persistent Widow's is for protection) both teach the necessity of persistent, and persevering prayer. Certainly the context of the story of the Persistent Friend is very telling positioned as it is, immediately after the disciples request of Jesus to teach them how to pray and Jesus giving them the ideal prayer pattern… the Lord’s prayer. The application to prayer follows immediately: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Luke then ends the parable with the words.. “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”, which draws a sharp contrast between the reluctant neighbor and God the Father. If a cranky neighbor who has turned in for the night, who wishes more than anything you would go away, who does his best to ignore you - if such a neighbor eventually rouses to give what you want, how much more will God respond to your bold persistence in prayer!

On the other hand there are passages in the New Testament that speak against repetitious prayer or “many words”. For example, in Matthew 6 Jesus tells His disciples …

    "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. "So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. [Vs 7-8]

Which certainly echoes the sentiment expressed in Ecclesiastes 5

    Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words.. [Vs. 2-3]

So how do we reconcile the both sets of instructions.. we should not use "many words" in prayer and that we should be persistent in prayer?

The key is to understand that there is no magic in repetition or in the words themselves. The following is excerpted from The Payoff of Persistent Prayer by Philip Yancey

    The Lord’s Prayer, often reduced to a mumbled ritual, an incantation, takes on new light in this story abutting it. We should pray like a salesman with his foot wedged in the door opening, like a wrestler who has his opponent in a headlock and won’t let go.

    The God “who watches over you will not slumber,” promises a psalm of comfort. Even so, sometimes when we pray it feels as if God has indeed nodded off. Raise your voice, Jesus’ story implies. Strive on, like the shameless neighbor in the middle of the night. Keep pounding the door.

    Author Jerry Sittser sees persistence through the eyes of a parent. “My kids have asked me for many things over the years - a CD player, bicycle, boat, car, house, exotic vacations ... You name it, they have asked it. I ignore them most of the time. I am as hard-hearted as they come, a parent made of granite. My ears perk up, however, when they persist, because persistence usually means they are serious about something.”

    Unlike a human parent, God knows my true motive, whether pure or impure, noble or selfish, from the moment of the original request. As I ponder Jesus’ stories, I cannot help wondering why God places such a premium on persistence. If I find it tedious to repeat the same requests over and over, surely God tires of hearing them. Why must I pound on the door or elbow my way into the courtroom? Why won’t a single sincere request suffice?

    In search of clues, I turn first to the account of Jesus’ life, and in several scenes I can see the value of persistence. After Lazarus died, his two sisters, the industrious Martha and meditative Mary, both accused Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They vented their accumulated grief and frustration, so much so that Jesus, too, sank into sorrow - before granting their deepest wish in one of his greatest miracles.

    In another scene, a Canaanite woman pestered Jesus about her afflicted daughter. “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us,” urged the disciples, reminiscent of the hard-hearted villains in Jesus’ parables. Even Jesus brushed her off, first ignoring her request and then challenging her right to make it. The foreign woman persisted and Jesus, impressed, granted her wish and then held her up as a model of faith.

    Beside a well in Samaria, Jesus parried with a woman about her lifestyle and her religious beliefs. On the way to Jerusalem, he engaged a rich young man in a discussion on the dangers of wealth. The woman persisted and found her life transformed; the rich man gave up and turned away sad.

    From these scenes I learn about God’s interest in the process I go through. Always respectful of human freedom, God does not twist arms. God views my persistence as a sign of genuine desire for change, the one prerequisite for spiritual growth. When I really want something, I strive and persist. Whether it’s climbing Colorado’s mountains, chasing the woodpeckers away from my roof, or getting a high-speed Internet connection for my home, I’ll do whatever it takes. Do I show the same spirit in prayer?

    God wants us to bring our requests boldly and without reservation. By failing to do so I will likely miss out on some delightful surprises. What if the ten with leprosy by the side of the road had not shouted out to Jesus for healing or if the Canaanite woman had shyly abandoned the request for her daughter?

    Persistent prayer keeps bringing God and me together, with several important benefits. As I pour out my soul to God, I get it off my chest, so to speak, unloading some of my burden to One who can handle it better. Little by little, as I get to know God I learn that God has nothing in common with an unjust judge or a stingy neighbor, though at times it may seem so. What I learn from spending time with God then better equips me to discern what God wants to do on earth, as well as my role in that plan.

    Cicero gave a blunt assessment of the purpose of pagan prayer: “We do not pray to Jupiter to make us good, but to give us material benefits.” For the Christian, something like the reverse applies. We may approach God with some material benefit in mind, and sometimes, blessedly, we receive it. But in the very act of praying we also open up a channel that God can use in transforming us, in making us good. Persistent prayer changes me by helping me see the world, and my life, through God’s eyes. As the relationship progresses I realize that God has a clearer picture of what I need than I do.

    When I persistently pursue another person, I am usually trying to persuade that person to adopt my point of view. I want the car salesman to match my price, the neighbor to vote for my candidate. I may, especially in the early stages of prayer, approach God the same way, but inevitably I find that God is the wise and senior partner in the relationship. I find, in fact, that God has been asking, seeking, knocking too, in the subtle ways I so easily ignore.

      “A God that should fail to hear, receive, attend to one single prayer, the feeblest or worst, I cannot believe in; but a God that would grant every request of every man or every company of men, would be an evil God -  that is no God, but a demon,”

    said George MacDonald. Prayer is not a monologue but a true dialogue in which both parties accommodate to the other.

    Although I bring my honest concerns to God, over time I may come away with an entirely different set of concerns. When Peter went on a roof to pray (Acts 10), he was mainly thinking about food. Little did he know that he would descend from the roof convicted of racism and legalism. In persistent prayer, my own desires and plans gradually harmonize with God’s.

    A person prays, said Augustine, “that he himself may be constructed, not that God may be instructed.” I examine my own erratic prayer life and see it as a time when God has indeed worked to lop off the protuberances and smooth the rough edges. I see defeats and victories both. Like a child who quits badgering a parent, I have sometimes found that I get an answer to my persistent request after I have learned to do without it. The answer then comes as a surprise, an unexpected gift of grace. I seek the gift, find instead the Giver, and eventually come away with the gift I no longer seek.

    Luke’s version of the parable of the crotchety neighbor ends with these words: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Matthew repeats the same saying, with one change: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

    In prayer we present requests, sometimes repeatedly, and then put ourselves in a state to receive the result. We pray for what God wants to give us, which may turn out to be good gifts or it may be the Holy Spirit. (From God’s viewpoint there is no better response to persistent prayer than the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s own self.) Like Peter, we may pray for food and get a lesson in racism; like Paul we may pray for healing and get humility. We may ask for relief from trials and instead get patience to bear them. We may pray for release from prison and instead get strength to redeem the time while there. Asking, seeking, and knocking does have an effect on God, as Jesus insists, but it also has a lasting effect on the asker-seeker-knocker.

    “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works,” Paul wrote the Ephesians. Workmanship conveys rather clumsily the meaning of the Greek word poiema, origin of the English word poem. We are God’s work of art, Paul is saying. Of all people, Paul with his history of beatings, prison, shipwreck, and riots, knew the travail involved in the fashioning of that art - and the role that prayer played. Prayer offers an opportunity for God to remodel us, to chisel marble like a sculptor, touch up colors like an artist, edit words like a writer. The work continues until death, never perfected in this life. [3]

End Notes

[1] http://www.gotquestions.org/praying-Spirit.html

[2] http://www.gotquestions.org/pray-without-ceasing.html

[3] http://www.zondervan.com/Cultures/en-US/Product/Book/Articles/The+Payoff+of+Persistent+Prayer.htm?QueryStringSite=Zondervan


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Photograph by Ian Britton