The Deep Sigh of Homesickness
But there is yet one more weapon in the armory of the Christian. There is nothing that the Roman was wearing with which Paul could draw this comparison, but it is every bit as important as the Word of God. Of course, the Word of God is critical. It is with God’s written word to us that he will most commonly speak to us. But if we are to be successful in our spiritual warfare, there must be a two-way communication. We must also be able to speak to God.
Thus Paul continues: “Pray in the Spirit at all times, with every kind of prayer and petition. To this end, stay alert with all perseverance in your prayers for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18 BSB).
The first phrase introducing the weapon of prayer to us are the words, “Pray in the Spirit at all times.”
Nice words, but what do they mean? What does it mean to pray in the Spirit?
Wisdom with an Expiration Date
Paul explains no more about praying in the Spirit in this passage of scripture, but he actually writes quite a lot about it in other places—most notably to the church at Corinth. The broad subject that he was explaining to the people of that church was the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He is speaking here about spiritual maturity and spiritual wisdom. He begins:
Among the mature we speak a message of wisdom—not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age. These are coming to nothing. No, we speak of the mysterious and hidden wisdom of God, which He destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it. For if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
(1 Corinthians 2:6-8)
What men and women of the world consider “wise” varies and evolves from age to age. What in the past was a wise act or a wise thought is not necessarily wise today, and what is considered wise today, may not be so tomorrow. What is even more significant, not only does worldly wisdom evolve and change with the passing of time, but as Paul says, it will all eventually come to nothing.
But the people of the world have a problem when it comes to understanding a greater wisdom. They do not see the eternal wisdom of God. They are not able to discern any type of wisdom other than that which applies to their own very specific situation. They are bound in their understanding by the perspective of the world and of the particular time and culture in which they are living. Their vision is limited.
Paul also wrote to the Roman church about this.
Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh; but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind of the flesh is hostile to God: It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8 BSB)
The Ancient Wisdom that Transcends Time
Paul introduced another wisdom to the Corinthians that was not a new wisdom, but which even at that time was an ancient wisdom. It was ancient, but Paul explained to the people that it was a wisdom that remained true and which surpassed any current wisdom that they may be following. It remains true even to this day. It is a wisdom that is timeless and eternal. It transcends the passing of the ages.
To introduce this wisdom, Paul quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (from Isaiah 64:4).
Since we are not able to learn this wisdom from this world or by any experience that can be found in this world, God has revealed it to us by the Spirit. It is the Spirit, Paul says, who “searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). It is only the Spirit of God who can reveal this to us, since we cannot discern it by our own senses.
Of course, neither can we pray in the Spirit, as Paul tells us to do, without taking this wisdom of God into consideration. We must know the teachings of the wisdom of God in order to pray in the Spirit. It is for this reason that it is important for us to learn something of the eternal wisdom of God, even if we cannot see the entire plan of God.
Scoffers and Persecutors
Not everyone is willing to accept these teachings from the Spirit of God. In fact to the people of the world, these teachings are foolish. Those who do follow the teachings of God know about this attitude of others. For those of us who have had to live long in this world, it is not surprising to us that those people of the world would consider the wisdom of God as something that goes contrary to present popular opinion. If we hold to these teachings of God despite what the world thinks, we are often criticized for doing so—and not only criticized, but denounced and even attacked for going against current wisdom.
This is what Paul says was at the heart of the reason that Jesus was condemned to death when he came to earth. Jesus came teaching “the mysterious and hidden wisdom of God.” This is a wisdom that God “destined for glory before time began.”
What Paul means by this last phrase is that this hidden wisdom of God may go against current perspectives, but that it is because it is destined not for these present ages which change and come and go. Its destiny is for eternity, and it is only in eternity that the extent of this true wisdom will be revealed. According to Paul, none of the rulers in the time of Jesus understood this, because if they had “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8).
We are actually told that we should expect no more. The New Testament writer Jude writes in his short letter:
Remember what was foretold by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ when they said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow after their own ungodly desires.”
These are the ones who cause divisions, who are worldly and devoid of the Spirit.
But you, beloved, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God as you await the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you eternal life. (Jude 17-21 BSB)
The writer of the book of Hebrews says much the same thing in his letter to a group of people who actually had gone through times of sufferings because of their refusal to deny the ancient wisdom of the Spirit of God. He encourages his readers by telling them that their reward and possession is yet to come:
Remember the early days that you were in the light, when you endured a great conflict in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to ridicule and persecution; at other times you were partners with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, knowing that you yourselves had a better and permanent possession. (Hebrews 10:32-34 BSB)
A Wisdom Indiscernible to the World
I give these examples of the difficulties and persecutions against the teachings of the Spirit of God in order to demonstrate that the wisdom of God is so foreign to the understanding for the people of the world, that they will simply and flatly reject it.
It almost does no good to try and explain anything about the wisdom of God to the people of the world before they come to know Christ, because these are not teachings that can be accepted or understood by any wisdom that the world can offer. The people of the world will not nor can they accept the teachings of God, because it is a wisdom that can only be “spiritually discerned,” as Paul put it to the Corinthians.
Paul told the church at Corinth that the teachings that he was bringing to them was not “In words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” (1 Corinthians 2:13 BSB).
Looking Beyond the Present
Again, he writes much the same thing to the church at Rome. He is also encouraging them to look beyond present circumstances and even beyond this present life. Paul understands that this is a challenging request, for it is difficult for us to imagine an existence beyond what we can now experience. In fact, it is impossible.
But that is just the point.
Because it is impossible for us, we need the help of the Spirit of God. Here is what Paul writes:
We who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved; but hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he can already see? But if we hope for what we do not yet see, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:23-27 BSB)
In these words to the Romans, we come to another concept that is important to understand if we are to pray in the Spirit. Paul says that we groan inwardly as we wait for our redemption, and that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. This is an interesting word and one that he used again when he wrote to the Corinthians.
With the use of that word, we may picture a person lying in a hospital bed in severe pain, with a groan the only sound he is able to utter. But that is not the meaning here. Paul instead uses the word to describe the fact that while we are still living on this earth, there is a sense in which we will always live with a longing for something better—a better destiny that is waiting for us but that we cannot yet see.
To groan in this sense is not to utter moans, but it is to yearn or to pine for a better time that we know is our destiny. Read the following words carefully, because in seeing the sense of what Paul is saying about this groaning will also help us to see what it means to “pray in the Spirit.”
The words of Paul:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, yet our inner self is being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that is far beyond comparison. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is dismantled, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. So while we are in this tent, we groan under our burdens, because we do not wish to be unclothed but clothed, so that our mortality may be swallowed up by life. And God has prepared us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a pledge of what is to come. (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:5 BSB)
The groaning that Paul is writing about here is not in the sense that we usually understand this word today. It here instead speaks of a longing that the Christian has for his or her eternal destiny. In some ways, it is much like living in a foreign land and experiencing homesickness.
I have felt this sense of groaning often when living in a foreign land and confronting a difficulty that I would not be experiencing if I were in the land of my birth. It is for this reason that I call this groaning a homesickness, because even though we are living here on this earth, for the believer in Jesus, this is not our true home.
I am certain that Jesus felt this homesickness often while he was on earth. On one occasion, a man was brought to him who was deaf and spoke only with great difficulty. They implored Jesus to heal the man.
Jesus took the man aside privately, away from the crowd, and we are told that he looked up to heaven, and while doing so, he “sighed deeply.” Interestingly, the word that is translated as the deep sigh of Jesus is the same word that Paul uses when he describes our own groanings for our eternal home. It describes a longing for our final destiny. It describes a homesickness.
Jesus, after looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, said to the man in Aramaic, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”). With that deep sigh and with that word, the ears of the man were opened and his tongue was released. He began to speak plainly (Mark 7:31-37).
To Pray in the Spirit
Now, after seeing that God’s wisdom transcends all time and after exploring the word “groaning” or if you prefer, “a deep sigh,” and the sentiment that is attached to it, we are ready to return to our original statement by Paul that we are to “pray in the Spirit.”
When Paul is telling us to pray in the Spirit, he means it in the sense that we are to pray with the expectation that we are waiting for the day when all of these conflicts and difficulties will be no more. No matter what we do now, this world will never be a perfect place. We are only trying to make it the best that we possibly can while we wait for the perfect to appear. That will only come when God brings all things to completion and when the wisdom of God will bring all things to perfection.
Thus, when we pray in the Spirit, it does not mean that if we can only manage to pray in the right way, all of our prayers will be answered in the way that we want them to be. Praying in the Spirit only means that we are looking for God’s assistance in these circumstances. Not all will be healed in the way that we ask, not all will be relieved of their persecutions and distresses. Certainly this did not happen for Paul.
The Spirit Intercedes
Quite often in fact, we do not know how to pray. We do not know the total and eternal plan of God. Even though we seek to follow the wisdom of God, we do not yet see the fulfillment of this wisdom in order to know the end. The wisdom of God is as stated by Paul, not words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” (2 Corinthians 2:13).
When we “pray in the Spirit,” it is also something that must go beyond a mere uttering human words and human phrases. It is also expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. It is to pray with God’s eternal purposes in mind.
How are we to do this if we do not know God’s eternal purpose in every circumstance?
“The Spirit also helps our weakness,” Paul writes to the Romans, “for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27 NAS).
We may sigh because of our present circumstances, and we may not know the totality of God’s eternal purpose, but the Spirit of God does. Thus, even if our prayers may be misplaced in some ways, the Holy Spirit interprets our prayers in accordance with the perfect will and wisdom of God.
“Pray in the Spirit at all times,” Paul writes to the Ephesians.
When we pray in the Spirit, we pray with the wisdom of God’s eternal plan, and with the Holy Spirit interceding for us in a manner that supersedes our own understanding.
Looking to heaven with a deep sigh, and knowing that God will one day allow us to be free of all the trials and tribulations of this present existence, we say as Jesus taught us, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:12).
No matter what our request, we pray as did Jesus, “Not my will, but let Your will be done” (Luke 22:42)