In Ephesians 6:18, what does Paul mean when he says “pray in the Spirit”? Is he referring to speaking in tongues or something else?
I was once of the opinion that when Paul spoke of “praying in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18) he meant the same thing as when he spoke in First Corinthians about “praying in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:14), that is, praying in a language which the Holy Spirit has supernaturally enabled a person to speak. However, I have since come to think that this interpretation is much too narrow an understanding of the phrase “praying in the Spirit.”
The Bible frequently mentions people doing things (or exhorts people to do things) “in the Spirit.” For example, Jesus says that David was “in the Spirit” when he called one of his descendants “Lord” (Matt. 24:43). Jesus himself is said to have “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Lk. 10:21). In Luke 2:27 we are told that Simeon, a righteous and devout man who waited for the consolation of Israel, “came in the Spirit into the temple” at just the moment Joseph and Mary were presenting Jesus according to the custom of the Law. In Acts 19:21 Paul “resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem.” In Romans 8:9 he says that if the Spirit of God dwells in us we are “not in the flesh but in the Spirit.” In First Corinthians 12:3 he says that no one “speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” In Colossians 1:8 he says that Epaphras “has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” In a similar way he also exhorts us to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16) even as we “live by the Spirit” (5:25).
To do things “in (or by) the Spirit” is to do them under the Spirit’s influence. The Holy Spirit enables us to live for God, which would not otherwise be possible because of the pervasive and corrupting power of original sin in our fallen human nature. We grow into greater Christ-likeness when the Holy Spirit is allowed a greater place in our lives. This is why Paul warned us not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30), and why he told the Thessalonians, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19).
The Holy Spirit is constantly at work in the lives of believers to help us to grow us in grace and to lead us into greater and greater Christ-likeness.
The smallest inclinations to read the Bible or to pray should not be ignored. The least desire, the weakest aspiration for godliness should be encouraged and acted upon. It is the Holy Spirit who stirs up these desires in us. If we ignore them or suppress them, then we quench the Spirit. But as we cultivate them, we grow in grace and so live, walk, love, and even pray in the Spirit.