Fire and Form: All Kinds of Prayer

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The New Language of New Covenant Prayer

Without a prayer language of the Spirit, the cognitive mind becomes the governor of prayer.  The believer can only pray what he or she knows about, can conceive of, or can express verbally.  One’s native language functions as the limiter and definer of prayer.

But the praise of God goes far beyond any human language!

Our love for God is deeper than any of our words can express.  There are needs we know little of beyond a name or the barest of circumstances.  Under the New Covenant, the Lord Jesus enabled the Apostles and those who followed to give perfect praise, to express perfect and spirit-satisfying adoration of God and to pray specifically when the mind is lacking details.  This is prayer in/by the Spirit.  And, as Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, this promise is for all generations, as many as the Lord shall call

Prayer in/by the Holy Spirit

Paul provides details on this particular form of prayer, prayer in unknown tongues, (in Gordon Fee’s language, “praying in/by the Holy Spirit”), that expressed the radical transformation in his prayer life.  Fee elaborates,

“There is every good reason to think that Paul intends this phrase precisely as he has used it elsewhere. . . to refer specifically to that form of prayer in which the Spirit assumes a special role in the praying, especially, though probably not exclusively, praying in tongues.” [1]

There are many controversial issues related to this form of prayer.  I want to limit this discussion to the use of prayer in unknown tongues in the secret place.  My conviction is that although there are other uses of unknown tongues, all New Testament references to speaking in tongues can be read to include the concept of praying in an unknown tongue.  In Gordon Fee’s words,

“The tongues speaker is addressing. . . God.  This means that Paul understands the phenomenon basically to be prayer and praise.”[2]

Thus, equating “speaking in tongues” with “praying in tongues,” Paul’s words are simple and his meaning clear.  He speaks/prays in unknown tongues more than anyone at Corinth!  He prefers this type of prayer to be done in private.

“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Cor. 14:18-19).

Paul’s qualifying phrase, “but in the church” is significant.  If we examine the instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 concerning public worship, we find insights into the value of his new covenant praying in private worship:

  1. “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.” (1 Cor. 14: 2). When we pray in tongues we speak to God and speak mysteries.
  2. “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” (1 Cor. 14:4). The believer who prays in the Spirit, is being built up by the process.
  3. “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” (1 Cor. 14:14). Prayer in the Spirit extends beyond the limits of the human mind and is therefore unhindered in its content by our understanding.
  4. “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.” (1 Cor. 14:14-15). Prayer in/by the Spirit is a proper companion of prayer informed by the mind.
  5. “For you indeed give thanks well” (1 Cor. 14:17, NKJV). The one who prays in/by the Spirit, unhindered by his human vocabulary, offers a perfect praise to the Lord.  The word used here is the same word as eucharist, literally, an excellent grace. Dictionaries assist us in understanding this thanksgiving: eucharisteo means “to be grateful, i.e. (actively) to express gratitude (towards); specially, to say grace at a meal.” [3]

This perfect praise is the privilege of the believer who has a prayer language.  His spirit bears witness with God’s Spirit in sweet communion.

There are close ties between private worship and the gathering of the community to worship. Paul indicates that the Corinthian worshipers came to the gathering loaded with good things to share.

“What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” (1 Cor. 14:26).

This would indicate a connection between private and public worship.  When good order was kept, the insights and revelations gained in daily Spirit-led and empowered worship of the Corinthians contributed to their communal Lord’s Day worship.

In Romans, the apostle gives us another intriguing glance at the role praying in unknown tongues plays in private worship.  Repeatedly, Paul encourages intercession, yet all Christians encounter times when they know very little about the need before them.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. (Rom. 8:26-27)

Because Paul believed prayer in tongues to be the language of the Spirit, he taught that by praying in tongues the believer can intercede with specific details when those details are unknown to the intercessor.  This is possible because the Spirit of God knows those details.  Fee elaborates:

Rather than seeing praying in the Spirit (‘tongues speak’ if you will) as some sort of mindless activity, Paul sees it as a highly significant expression of prayer.  In it  the believer can take special encouragement even in the midst of present exigencies (weaknesses, suffering, endurance), for the Spirit is praying in keeping with God’s will and with ‘inarticulate groanings’ that God himself well  understands, since he knows the mind of the Spirit.[4]

Deeper than the mystery of praying things unknown to the one praying and known to the Spirit of God is the concept of the Spirit praying through the believer.  This is central to the whole idea of praying under the grace of the promises of the new covenant.   When the new covenant believer prays in/by the Spirit, he or she joins the Holy Spirit in the prayer, praise, and worship that is constantly underway in the God-head.  Like the living creatures seen in the Revelation,

“Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.’” (Rev. 4:8).

While debates may swirl concerning prayer in tongues as the initial evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit or its use in public worship, it is clear from Paul’s writings that this type of prayer was beneficial to Paul and a part of his discipleship plan for his churches.  Therefore I believe prayer in/by the Spirit should be included in his list of “all kinds of prayer” (Eph. 6:18).

The Importance of the Secret Place

Paul calls us to powerful prayer in the secret place and to powerful lives of prayerful work and deeds of mercy in the public place.  The power to live the life Jesus commanded us to live in the Sermon on the Mount can only be found in the Secret Place.  Father is there, Jesus said.  He will reward openly what we do secretly, privately with no possibility of the acclaim of men.  The character of Christ imparted to us in the Secret Place.

  • Here the Refiner’s Fire burns hottest.
  • Here the Launderer’s Soap cleanses deepest.
  • Here the call of the Father can be heard clearest.
  • Here the compassion of Christ is imparted best.
  • Here the Word of God dwells in us the richest.
  • Here the power of the anointing of the Holy Spirit is gained.
  • Here the world gets changed, starting with us.

We need to rediscover the Secret Place and private prayer language of the Spirit.  As we do, the proper use of the manifestations of the Spirit in the public place will return in power, godly character will return to the board room and the anointing will flow again through His church.

Semper Reformanda!

Stephen Phifer

[1] Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 730-731.

[2] Ibid., 218.

[3] New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance [CD-ROM]; available from Biblesoft, Inc. and International Bible Translators, Inc., 2003.  NT:2168.

[4] Gordon F. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996),, 586.


Fire and Form: All Kinds of Prayer

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