Praying in the Spirit: Tongues in Spiritual Warfare

Praying in the Spirit: Tongues in Spiritual Warfare

In a previous post, I had discussed the definition of spiritual warfare as a Christian struggle. The next question is then how we should engage in spiritual warfare. This will definitely include the whole armor of God that Paul talks about. However, Paul also included in same passage (Ephesians 6:10-20) praying in the Spirit.

Nature of Prayer in the Christian Life

While it is debatable whether Paul meant for praying in the Spirit to be part of the full armor of God, we can be sure that prayer is closely tied to the whole process of putting on the full armor of God. This means it is also closely related to the Christian daily struggles. This is theologically understandable as prayer is an integral part of Christian spirituality. Simon Chan has argued that it is in a broad sense the disciple’s “fundamental attitude toward and relationship with God.” Prayer hence reflects our intimacy and by extension, our reliance on God in our daily lives.

Nature of Praying in the Spirit

However, the question that we will need to address is the nature of praying in the Spirit. Scholars have agreed that this generally entails prayer that is directed and led by the presence of the Holy Spirit. However, the manner by which the Holy Spirit leads and directs the prayer needs to be further explored. In examining Ephesians 6:18, we can noted that praying in the Spirit in the passage is likely the same kind of prayer that Paul talks about in Romans 8:26-27. This is by nature what we will call “praying in tongues.”

Prior to Romans 8:26-27, Paul has discussed how the future glorification and liberation of God’s children will also liberate creation from corruption and death and in the midst of awaiting God’s final liberation. This is demonstrating that the church and its disciples are actually undergoing a struggle with their present situation (Romans 8:18-25, NIV). This is the tension that we have discussed earlier. In such situation, the disciples find themselves not knowing what they ought to pray for. It is at this point when Paul explained that the Spirit intercedes for the disciples in their weaknesses.

The issue with “wordless groans”

The means by which the Spirit intercedes point to glossolalia or tongues. Many scholars have taken the phrase “wordless groan” to mean an inexpressible silent prayer that is too deep for words. However, there are reasons to suggest otherwise.

Firstly, the majority of people pray silently in private in our modern context. However, this is unlikely the case in the ancient world where people mouthed and articulated their prayer aloud.

Secondly, Paul had already differentiated two kinds of prayers in 1 Corinthians 14:14-15: praying with his mind and praying with his spirit. The context suggests that he could understand the prayer he  generated from his mind while the other kind alludes to a prayer which is inarticulate with regard to his mind.

Thirdly, it seems that while Paul expected the Spirit to intercede, he also expected the participations of the disciples.

Fourthly, there are other commonly used Greek adjectives if Paul had intended the adjective to mean silent or inexpressible.

Fifthly, Paul seemed to be reassuring that God knows what the Spirit is saying even though they did not understand. This would be unnecessary if he had meant an articulated prayer.

Lastly, Paul seemed to be describing a common, everyday experience of prayer for himself and others. And he interpreted this experience as the Spirit’s intercession on their behalf.

Praying in the Spirit and the Spirit’s Intercession

Pulling all these factors together, one has to ask what was Paul describing. The likely answer points towards glossolalia. This means that praying in the Spirit is indeed glossolalia, which in turn is the intercession of the Spirit on the disciple’s behalf to God in a language understood by God.

If this understanding is correct, glossolalia is indeed then an important primary means in spiritual warfare. Moreover, Paul commanded the disciples to engage in praying in the Spirit and glossolalia on “all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18, NIV). This is especially so in weakness and uncertainty of what to pray for.

In short, the two passages highlight our responsibility to pray in tongues. The limitations of our finite minds mean that glossolalia comes in and supplement our prayer. This is mainly because the Holy Spirit, whose mind is infinite and is known by God, knows what to pray for, for whom to pray for and how to reach out to the world. Glossolalia, in the context of spiritual warfare, is hence God’s empowerment to His people for serving as His army in this spiritual warfare.

What does it mean then for us to pray in the Spirit

This means that as Christians, we cannot afford to be afraid of tongues. We may not understand what we are praying when we pray in the Spirit. But this is where faith comes in. We need to have faith that God knows what we are praying because the Spirit is the one doing the praying, not our human mind. In fact, when we pray in the Spirit, it is a good opportunity for us to let go and let God.

This also means that we cannot treat tongues as demonic. Because tongues is not demonic but spiritual. Engaging in spiritual warfare requires us to pick up the full armor. And I am of the view that this full armor includes the prayers in tongues.

So what do you think? You can read more in Gordon Fee’s book. Share your thoughts with me in the comments below. 


I graduated from the National University of Singapore where I came to know Christ during his undergraduate days after studying the historicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. My personal mission is to lead adult Christ disciples to engage the world with sound and biblical reasoning. And I am married to my pretty wife Angelina.

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