Prayer "in the Spirit"
What does it mean to "pray in the Spirit"? Christians are called to do various things "in" the Spirit. The Greek preposition en usually means either "in" or "by" and it’s only by looking closely at the context we can determine which rendering is best. But our grasp of the context doesn’t always help us sufficiently so serious students of scripture remind us that a given text could equally be translated "in the Spirit" or "by the Spirit". While the meaning of these two prepositions can overlap they can and sometimes do send us in two distinct directions. Then, again, there are times when there is no preposition, just a simple dative case (as in pneumati) but the question remains whether we should render it "in" or "by".
Occasionally there is a dispute whether the Greek word pneuma in such a context is the human spirit or the Holy Spirit but most of the time there’s agreement that the Holy Spirit is in view. Certainly it appears to be the Holy Spirit that Paul has in mind in Ephesians 6:18. Paul speaks of people "beginning" their life with God in Christ in/by the Spirit (Galatians 3:3) "walking" (living, says NIV) in/by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) and "living" in/by the Spirit in 5:25. Christians, Jews and Gentiles in context, access the Father in/by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:18) are made into God’s dwelling place in/by the Spirit (2:22). The Colossians "love" in/by the Spirit (1:8) and so forth.
When Paul says we live or love or walk (behave or conduct ourselves) in/by the Spirit what does he mean? Would it be the same if he said we live or love or walk in/by the Father? Would it be the same if he said we live or love or walk in/by the Lord Jesus Christ? Well, yes and no. We’re certainly told that it’s in/by Christ that we live and have access to God; but while the same work is accomplished by the triune God working in concert it’s clear that there are specific roles maintained by the Father, Son and Spirit (the "economic" Trinity as it’s sometimes called).
Yes, but what does it mean to do something "in/by" the Spirit? For us the word "by" is clear enough. We’d immediately think of the Spirit enabling or empowering us so that if Paul says, "we live by the Spirit" we can easily understand him to mean that the Spirit empowers us; that it’s because of what the Spirit does that we are able to live. We could just as easily understand him to mean we live by (the teaching, guidance or in accordance with) the Spirit. We might think of God's statement to Israel that humans live "by every word that comes from God". If Paul says we live "in" the Spirit we find that a little harder to grasp but the dative of sphere is common enough to us. There are people who live "in" fear and there are those who live "in" faith. This locates them in a particular realm or setting. Obviously they aren’t physically located "in" faith or fear the way people sleep "in" a room; faith or fear is the boundary within which they live. So it is with those who live or walk or pray "in (the) Spirit". The Spirit, so to speak, is the realm in which they move, the atmosphere in which they breathe, the parameter within which they think or shape their prayers or behaviour.
So what does it mean to "pray in the Spirit"? It means to allow the Spirit to be the shaper of our prayers, the guide and teacher on the things for which we should pray and the purifier of our motives in praying such prayers. It means we won't pray for something that is contrary to what the Holy Spirit aims for or nurtures.
But what does that mean? Does he mean we are to say nothing until the Spirit puts the specific words and subjects into our minds; as if he literally whispered into or minds something like, "Here’s what you are to pray for, here is how you will word the prayer and here is the motive from which you should pray it"?
I’m sure that’s not what Paul has in mind. He seems to think the Christians have more personal input into the matter than that. He isn’t asking the Holy Spirit to do the praying he calls on the Christians to do the praying. Yes, but if the Spirit shapes and enables us to pray what do we have to do with it? Look, we need to work with scripture and life and stop thinking as if lives were like already played chess games and that we’re mindless pawns or a limp rag flopping in the wind. This section in Ephesians is a call to war! Certainly it is God that enables, protects and sustains us but we are up to our necks in the battle, we are supposed to exert ourselves, we are to engage the enemy. Paul says "pray!" He tells them to pray not in terms of "the flesh" (in selfishness, self-reliance or with personal agendas) but in terms of the Spirit. We are to think of who and what he is, who and what he stands for, what his agenda and ultimate purposes are and within those parameters—pray!
He calls them to pray for him and he calls them to pray all the time for all the saints. And how, by the grace of the Spirit, are we to get to know the Spirit? Well, whatever else we are to do we must in community with the saints wield the Spirit’s sword, wear the gospel on our feet and carry the shield of faith and pay attention to the armor he speaks of. Experience of the Spirit as we know him in and through Jesus Christ (for he is the Spirit of Christ!) will purify our conceptions of him and more and more we’ll pray "in the Spirit". This section is martial and prayer is part of the equipment of our warfare!