[this lightly revised essay first appeared at www.pleaseconsider.info, circa 2003]
Praying in the Spirit
Frequently one will hear in Revivalist circles a statement that is curiously suffixed with the words, "...in the Spirit." The impression that the speaker wishes to convey, more or less, is that a spiritual state exists where it is possible for certain people (the so-called 'Spirit-Filled') to move beyond the carnal to the strictly spiritual level. Or to put this another way, for such people to be involved in something that is truly spiritual, and is only possible for the truly spiritual.
Support for the Revivalist position that 'speaking in tongues' equals 'prayer in the Spirit', is drawn, principally, from two passages: 1 Corinthians 14:13-16 (explicitly), and Jude 19-20 (implicitly). Of the two, the first is the most frequently presented:
Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? 1 Corinthians 14:13-16 (KJV)
For the sake of comparison the same passage is rendered in the New International Version (NIV) as:
For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 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. If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying?
It is noteworthy that both translations make it quite plain that it is the person's spirit who is doing the praying when the 'unknown tongue' is being used, and not the Holy Spirit as is believed by Revivalists. However, the King James Version obscures this subsequent to the interrogative clause, by translating proseuchomai to pneumati as, "...I will pray with the spirit," where the New International Version supplies: "...I will pray with my spirit." The outcome that frequently results amongst Revivalists who universally use the King James Bible over modern versions, is the belief that the passage is a direct reference to the Spirit of God praying through the individual in a 'heavenly' language. The question that few people seem to grapple with; however, is this: can such a position be viewed as a valid interpretation in light of what the underlying Greek text actually states? The position that this short essay proposes, would answer the question with an unapologetic 'no'.
Allusions to Pentecost?
I would suggest the principle reason this misunderstanding occurs has to do with the appearance of the two English words 'tongues' and 'spirit' in such close proximity. Consequently, the Revivalist immediately recalls the miraculous account recorded in the second chapter to the book of Acts, which also presents the same two English words in relatively close proximity. An instant mental/psychological association is made, due to a constantly reinforced Revivalist pre-understanding concerning 'tongues', and the die is cast. To the Revivalist, First Corinthians 14 and Acts 2 discusses precisely the same theme!
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 2:4 (NIV)
It is when the two passages are compared that the points of contact which, at first glance, seemed so obviously apparent, are found to be less so. We discover that the languages spoken by the Apostles at Pentecost were heterais, that is, "...of a different nature, form or kind"1 to that which the men ordinarily spoke. We learn a little later in the chapter that these were also known, and comprehensible, human languages. It is then ascertained that the Apostles were not in control of the 'tongues' that they spoke, given that it was the Holy Spirit, and not their individual spirits, which enabled their speech. The Greek verb translated 'enabled' is edidou, which means both: "...to cause to happen, especially in reference to physical phenomena...(and) to bestow something."2 The Holy Spirit was the direct cause, as well as the agent, of the manifestation of languages that were evidenced on that day. None of this was the case with the Corinthian believers. Paul states without reservation that it is the human spirit (pneuma mou, 'my spirit'), which causes and controls the (gift of) tongues to be uttered, and not the Holy Spirit. Paul also clearly states that such 'tongues' are completely unintelligible (vs. 9). Briefly:
1. Pentecost demonstrated the divinely ordered, divinely controlled, manifestation of miraculously imparted human languages, which were understood by others. At Corinth we find the utterance of divinely ordered, humanly controlled, non-human languages that were not understood by others3.
2. The 'manifestation of languages' at Pentecost was accompanied by several rather notable, and unavoidable, audio-visual signs. This is not the case with regards to the 'gift of tongues' at Corinth.
3. The 'manifestation of languages' at Pentecost was thoroughly corporate, whilst the 'gift of tongues' at Corinth was thoroughly individual.
Having established from chapter fourteen of First Corinthians, that prayer in tongues is prayer in/with the human spirit, how should we understand the reference in Jude?
How that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts. These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit. But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost... Jude 18-20 (KJV)
Or, as the New International Version proposes:
They said to you, "In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires." These are the men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.
We initially discover that both the content of the passage, as well as the context, is significantly different to that which appears in the paragraph in the Corinthian account. Importantly, we also note that the New International Version adds an 'and' where the King James Version is lacking, thereby creating a disjunction between the person "... building him/herself up in his/her most holy faith", and he or she "... praying in the Holy Spirit." This is significant. The reason this occurs is due to the NIV translators understanding 'pray' (which is a participle in Greek, yet a transitive verb in English), and 'building up' (which is also a participle) as being attendant circumstance4 to the imperative 'keep' in verse 21: "... build yourselves up ... pray."
The KJV translators, by contrast, understood the participles as being instrumental5, that is, as the means by which the readers were to maintain themselves within the love of God. I personally believe the KJV best represents the facts on this point6.
We read that believers are specifically instructed to "... increase themselves in their holy faith" (in this instance 'faith' is a reference to the body of objective and established beliefs, and not a reference to one's subjective personal assurance), by "... praying in the Holy Spirit." The conceptual link between sound doctrinal understanding and prayer in the Holy Spirit simply can't be avoided. This being the case, just what does it mean to pray in the Holy Spirit?
As I alluded to previously, the Greek preposition en ('in') serves to qualify the nouns Pneumati ('Spirit') and Hagio ('Holy'), as well as the participles proseuchomenoi ('to pray') and epoikodoumontes ('to build up'). Consequently expressing a distinctively Christian concept. It has been established that no non-Christian Greek writer in history had ever referred to someone as being 'in' another person, yet this is precisely how the early Greek Christians understood their spiritual condition. The uniquely Christian sense should be recognized as being figurative, denoting the sphere within which an action occurs, or the element or reality in which something is contained or consists. Put simply, just as one can be "...raised in the Lord," so too can one, "...pray in the Holy Spirit," or have one's conscience confirmed "...in the Holy Spirit,"7 or describe the Kingdom of God as being, "...in the Holy Spirit,"8 or even go so far as commending oneself, "...in purity, patience and kindness, in the Holy Spirit."9 Given that the grammatical constructions are precisely the same in all these examples, and given that no Revivalist would ever go so far as to state that the above examples somehow refers to 'tongues', why do Revivalists insist that Jude 20 should be taken as the one exception that proves the rule? They do so because their presuppositions, their biases and their pre-understandings won't allow them to understand the passage in any other light.
To pray in the Holy Spirit is to pray in communion and relationship with the Holy Spirit. It is to put on the mind of Christ, aligning one's prayer with, and opening oneself to, the will and leading of the Spirit of God. As such, this remains the one form of prayer that is only possible for those who are in close fellowship with the Spirit through the person of Jesus Christ.
When a Spirit-gifted person exercises his or her spiritual endowment, and prays in tongues, then according to the Apostle Paul it is the person's human spirit that is praying. The circumstances as they existed at Corinth also very clearly demonstrates that such prayer needn't be in accordance with the will of God, the Holy Spirit at all, or even be functioning by people who've put on the mind of Christ. Paul's stinging rebuke to the wayward believers soundly demonstrated that, in the case of certain of the Corinthians at least, such prayer was completely carnal! This is a factor that every Revivalist needs to prayerfully consider, especially given the undue focus and attention that 'tongues' receives in Revivalist fellowships.
According to Scripture prayer in the (Holy) Spirit is not the same as prayer in tongues, and, further, not all prayer in tongues is truly spiritual.
1. J.H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, HUP, 1886, s.v. heteron.
2. F.W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., UCP, 2000, s.v. didomi.
3. The reference to the "...tongues of men and angels" in 13:1 should not be assumed to be Paul's position concerning the nature of the gift of tongues. The passage uses the Greek rehtorical device of irony, and simply presents Paul's understanding regarding what the Corinthians were claiming for themselves.
4. A function of participles, it refers to an action that is somewhat independent of the main action of a sentence.
5. Denotes agency, means or cause.
6. Instances such as this one reinforces the need for Christian teachers to be competent in the use of the biblical languages, if for no other reason than to make responsible exegetical decisions.
7. See Romans 9:1
8. See Romans 14:7
9. See 2 Corinthians 6:6