ARPraying in the SpiritThe simplicity of prayer has been compared to that of breathing. Such an effortless and imperative activity, but why do we find it so arduous to practice?We often feel satisfied with our prayers after we pour out our feelings to God. But a truly effective prayer also requires that we are able to accept God’s reply with thanksgiving. Even if His answer does not meet our expectation, we must rejoice because we know His grace is always sufficient. This joy and confidence in the Lord is the greatest blessing of praying in the Spirit.
Is Praying As Easy As Breathing?
The simplicity of prayer has been compared to that of breathing. Yet over
the history of thousands of years, how many biblical figures maintained a
life of prayer? The elect did not understand that God regarded their
obedience more highly than their sacrifices (1 Sam 15:22). They substituted
the essence of prayer, which combines speaking and acting in the truth, with
material sacrifices. Prayer may appear to be simple, but it is one of the
most difficult aspects of our spiritual life.
The Flawed Sacrifice God Loathes
Cain's works were evil (1 Jn 3:12), yet he offered a sacrifice to God.
Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, offered profane fire to God. The
Israelites in the wilderness cried out to the Lord for meat; later, in
Samuel's time, they demanded a king. That king, Saul, overstepped his
authority and offered a sacrifice only the priesthood could perform.
It was not for lack of sincerity that these people incurred God's wrath.
On the contrary, they offered their prayers and sacrifices with such
earnestness and importunity that God granted them their wishes in His anger
(cf. Hos 13:11). It is a pity that the fool who follows his own emotions
rather than the teachings of God never realizes that his prayers and
sacrifices are evil in God's sight (Ecc 5:1). Nadab and Abihu, though
zealous, were immediately consumed by God’s fire (Lev 10:1-4) because they
overlooked the importance of offerings made in line with God’s truth.
Following their own sensibilities rather than His instruction, they offered
what was an abomination to God (Prov 15:8).
Prayers Do Not Need to Be Long
While it is commendable that we encourage each other to pray longer, it
is possible that over time, we pray with length in mind and make long
prayers a symbol of spiritualism. It is wonderful to offer long prayers, but
a frivolous definition of prayer we may cloud our spiritual judgment.
Many effective long prayers are recorded in the Bible, but many more
prayers that were short and simple found God’s favor. An example would be
Abraham’s prayer for the city of Sodom, when he negotiated with God for
the lives of the righteous. Each time he asked God to reduce the conditions,
God granted him his wish (Gen 18:22-33). Other examples include Moses and
Aaron praying to God for the atonement of the Israelites’ sins (Num
16:41-50); Elijah calling for fire from heaven (1 Kgs 18:36-38, 2 Kgs 9-12);
King Hezekiah pleading with God to extend his life (2 Kgs 20:3-5); Jesus
reviving Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5:41); the Lord summoning Lazarus to come
out of the tomb (Jn 11:43); and Peter presenting the resurrected Dorcas to
the believers (Acts 9:40). These were all short but effective prayers.
Whether a prayer is long or short, its power comes from the same source.
Setting a specific time to fix your eyes on the Lord or fasting forty days
and nights cannot guarantee your prayers will be answered. "One look of
your eyes" or "one link of your necklace"—the short prayer
of a believer—can capture God's heart, because you have shown a love
toward Him in your daily life that is wonderful in His eyes (Songs 4:9-10).
We should not just mirror the image of Christ during prayer—crying out and
shedding tears—but live in His likeness every day of our lives. Indeed,
the power of prayer comes from the culmination of a dedicated life following
Prayer Depends on the Truth and Everyday Living
We need to learn how to pray, and we need to pray aided by the truth.
Praying is not just calling out to God but communing with Him in the Spirit.
Through prayer we can come to understand God’s words and proclaim His
wonderful mystery. Through prayer we gain the source of strength to build
Experience tells us, however, that just because a person opens his mouth
to speak doesn't mean anyone will listen to him. A person who speaks
nonsense or makes empty boasts will turn off even those who know him best.
Such is the case with our prayers to God. The Pharisees acted charitably,
fasted, and made long prayers. Their appearance as model servants of God
deceived men but not God. The Lord, who knows the hearts of men, condemned
their hypocrisy: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For
you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier
matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith" (Mt 23:23).
An effective prayer is one that stems from knowledge and practice of the
truth (Jas 4:3, 5:6). God will not listen to prayers with ulterior motives,
no matter how spiritual your requests may be. You may pray for power to
edify the church, yet only be asking to excel among fellow workers. We do
not know how God will respond, but we can be certain that God knows our
hearts, and may respond reluctantly, out of His displeasure. You may have
your prayers granted yet still lose everything obtained.
Why It Is Absurd to Deduce the Reason from the Outcome
We often determine whether or not our prayers were "according to
God's will" on the basis of the outcome. We rejoice and give thanks if
things turn out the way we planned, but become dispirited, repentant, and
even divided when things do not go our way. This kind of understanding only
directs our prayers toward the will of men instead of the will of God. We
make choices that suit our own inclinations or the general trends; we give
them a little "spiritual flavor," ignore any opposing views, and
believe that we need only to pray hard for God to fulfill everything.
Naturally, things turn out the way we had planned—they "fall into
place," given the overall direction of things—but we ascribe this to
God's will. Deluded by the "success" of the outcome, we continue
to pray in this pattern. With a thankful heart, we think we are walking with
the Lord, when really we are drifting farther away from Him.
Asking Forcefully: Prayers Granted in God’s Anger
Many examples of prayers in the Bible indicate they were not according to
God’s will. They were granted, however, because they "forced"
God to answer. If we focus on the fulfillment of our prayers, then praying
out of forceful human desire will always be quicker than waiting patiently
in the Spirit. If the Third Wave Pentecostal movement becomes mainstream,
then under the slogan "Ask in Faith," many people will pray with
this "forceful" approach, and many requests will be
"fulfilled." They will shake the mindset of the spiritual who pray
that "even if God does not deliver us, we will not forsake God"
God promised the Israelites a king, one who would rule over them with the
Book of Law after they had acquired the land of Canaan. They became
impatient, however, demanding God’s promise to be fulfilled before the
right time, in spite of God’s warnings and Samuel’s repeated
discouragement. Ultimately, God granted them their desire in His anger,
setting off a chain of events that would lead the Israelites through 400
years of political turmoil and end in their exile (Hos 13:11).
The Israelites cried out for meat in the desert. Their wailing and
weeping aroused the anger of the Lord (Num 11). He instructed Moses to have
the people sanctify themselves in preparation for the meat they were to
receive. They thought their prayers had been answered and even Moses
wrongfully thought that their cries had touched God, not knowing the wrath
behind their "blessing." God indeed sent them quails the next day,
but inflicted a plague on them as they ate (Num 11:31-35).
Elisha swore to God that he would accept nothing from Namaan. Gehazi, in
faith, swore that he would not return without some kind of gift from the
Syrian commander. God "accomplished" his faith and he returned
joyfully with gifts, thinking how foolish his master was. But before Gehazi
could stop rejoicing, God struck him with leprosy so severe he was to laugh
no more for the rest of his life (2 Kings 5).
These are just some of the nightmares that befell those who wanted their
prayers answered quickly; they sharply illustrate the false belief that the
fulfillment of our wishes signifies the harkening of God. We ought to beware
of what may be awaiting us after our prayer is "answered" if we
pray in rashness, driven by human desire.
Discerning Between "A Prayer That Is Answered"
and "A Prayer That Is Heard"
We often construe that if a prayer is not answered then it was carnal and
displeased God. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane and did
not have His prayers answered. Paul failed to have the thorn removed from
his side even though he asked three times. On the other hand, can we say
that the carnal prayers of the stiff-necked, complaining Israelites were
aligned with God’s will? How else would their prayers have been answered
Since the time of Abraham, the prayers of many saints appear not to have
been answered. It was as if God had forgotten them or could not hear them.
The psalmist explicitly expressed this pain of being forsaken. When Joseph
was sold, it was as if God did not hear his pleas, which after twenty years
still left an indelible memory on his brothers’ minds (Gen 42:21).
So what do all these examples mean? That God abandons his loyal servants?
That He turns a deaf ear to their prayers? No. He did not grant their
requests because He had better plans for them. We must learn to distinguish
between prayers being answered and prayers being heard. When Moses pleaded
with God to take his life, God did not comply, but He did hear Moses’
distress and appointed seventy elders to assist him (Num 11:14-17). God did
not remove the metaphorical thorn from Paul, but imparted to him the most
profound truth, "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Cor 12:8-9).
Though He did not permit Joseph to return home, the Lord never left him,
even when Joseph felt most lonesome and forsaken (Gen 39:23).
While God did not answer their prayers, He heard them and
bestowed on these saints even greater blessings, giving them peace beyond
their expectations. On the contrary, His "answer" to the
Israelites’ prayers was plague and other punishment. Unfortunately, we
often direct our faith toward how we want our prayers to be answered. The
notion that prayers are answered by faith has pushed some to the verge of
demanding by force.
Faith and Tests
There is a longstanding debate regarding one of Satan’s tests for Jesus
in the wilderness. The devil set Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple and
said, "If you are the Son of God, throw Yourself down, for it is
written, ‘He shall give His angels charge concerning you; in their hands
they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone’" (Mt
The interpretations of the phrases "they shall bear you up" and
"throw yourself down" are entirely different between the devil and
Jesus. The devil was attempting to trick Jesus into thinking that unless He
jumped, He would show no faith in what the Scripture said. However, Jesus
knew it was wrong to force God’s hand by jumping. Men misuse
"faith" in this manner to force God to take prompt action toward
our requests, as if God were a servant. This kind of "faith" tests
A genuine faith involves wholehearted trust: knowing that a prayer may
not be answered in the time desired, but accepting the decision of God
whatever it may be. Regardless whether it is answered today, tomorrow, or
never, true faith knows that He will arrange the best in the end.
"What I Wish" vs. Unreasonable Carnal Demands
We repeatedly assume that only prayer in a spiritual tongue is praying
completely according to God's will, while praying with the understanding
inevitably carries our selfish desires. The former enables us to pray
"with groanings which cannot be uttered," but inhibits heartfelt
reflection; the latter comes from a sincere and fervent heart, but cannot
express as the Spirit can when "we do not know what we should pray for
as we ought." How then we should pray?
Does praying in the Spirit disallow any presence of "I"? Would
the presence of "I" in a prayer mean it is fulfilling carnal
requests? The Lord taught us how we should pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven. (Mt 6:8ff)
Did He exclude any presence of "self" in prayer? Even the Lord
Himself, in His agony, prayed to God three times on the basis of His own
needs: "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me;
nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will" (Mt 26:39). The Son
profoundly hoped that the Father, for whom all things are possible, would
first consider the Son's wishes; but if this could not be, then He wished
the Father's will be done. Of course, the Lord knew the magnitude of the
Father's love would not allow Him to die if it were not necessary. Even
still, He carried this thread of hope and was not ashamed to plead three
times to the Father, weeping in the sight of His disciples, to be spared of
"What I wish" is not the same as a carnal demand. If I pray
without any of my "self," then it is not my prayer. When Paul
said, "For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the
Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be
uttered" (Rom 8:26), he did not mean that prayer in the Spirit consists
only of "groanings which cannot be uttered," without any shred of
"what I wish." Paul, like Christ, followed his own feelings and
pleaded with God three times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed. It is
through that groaning in the spirit that our requests are made known to God.
Thus, capriciously equating one's "self" with the carnal
impulse and stripping prayer of "self" removes that most precious,
intimate affection between God and man. Rejecting that connection leaves but
a spiritual tongue that only God comprehends. Regrettably, over time,
prayers are spoken but no longer heartfelt. While Jesus and Paul prayed in
the Holy Spirit, they persisted in telling God "what I wish" and
received a "peace which surpasses [my] understanding." Baring our
souls to God is the best way to understand what "praying in the
Spirit" really means.
A Heart Full of Thanksgiving
To "let your requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:6) without
being mired in carnal demands, keep Paul's full exhortation in mind:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication,
with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
Even before you know what lies ahead, entrust everything to God in prayer
with earnest supplication and thanksgiving, and with the full assurance that
God will arrange what is best. Even when you grieve "though God
forsakes me," hold fast in "praising the Lord my Creator."
Thus the earnest supplication made from a heart of thanksgiving will
transform "what I wish" into the surging power of submission.
The consummate prayer is not merely pouring out your feelings. The
consummation of prayer occurs when, after you have told God your wishes, you
are able to receive a response that is not what you wished with a heart of
thanksgiving—giving thanks that He has heard your prayer, and rejoicing
that His grace is sufficient for you. This is the greatest blessing and
spiritual grace that comes from praying in the Spirit. Amen.