How would you describe your prayer life? How would others describe it? I’ve always been surprised by how Paul describes Epaphras’ prayer in Colossians 4. He tells the believers in Colossae that Epaphras is “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers” (4:12). Struggling. That’s not a word we usually think of when we talk of prayer. When I read passages like that, it seems like prayer is something that is more exercise than piety! That seems about right considering that when I dug a little deeper, it turns out Paul is using word which often comes up in the context of sports or battle. It’s word that conveys physical agony. He uses it two others times in Colossians—once to describe his ministry disciple-making (1:29) and again in chapter 2 for his own prayers for the believers he’s never met in Colossae and Laodecia (2:1).
What are we to make of this “struggle” language? Were these guys just really into prayer? Actually, I think Paul may have had Genesis 32 in mind when he went about prayer. There, Jacob physically and spiritually wrestles with God, refusing to let him go until he is blessed. And since, Epaphras likely came to faith through the ministry of Paul, it’s not unreasonable to think Paul taught him how to pray. Even how to struggle in prayer.
Beyond, Epaphras, Paul, and Jacob, we see others many others wrestling or struggling in prayer in the Bible, especially in the Psalms. We even see that Jesus himself prayed in agonizing ways, most famously in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46).
I see these examples and can’t help but wonder why we don’t seem to struggle in prayer? Of course I really do mean we. I don’t struggle much, but I don’t think that’s unique to me. Maybe all the believers I know are too humble to talk about it, but I’ve rarely heard anyone describe the way they pray in such physical terms. Prayer is usually described in much more simple, scheduled, even safe ways. Maybe it’s time we struggle a little more?
Before the objections fly, let me be clear. I’m certainly not advocating a new standard that says if you aren’t tired from weeping and struggling in prayer than you haven’t really prayed. Nevertheless, I am advocating we stop and consider the biblical pattern of struggling in prayer. My guess is that most of take prayer too lightly. Yes, there is a place for the kind of on-going “arrow” prayers that we launch throughout the day (1 Thess 5:17; Neh 2:4). There’s also a place for regular, sweet routines of communion with the Lord, where we pray from the overflow of reading his word and have all kinds of lists, reminders, and calendars with requests to pray over for other believers.
But do we ever struggle in prayer? Do we ever fall into bed exhausted from the energy expended by intercession? If you’re like me, the answer is “Not enough.” But why is that our answer? Maybe we don’t take God seriously enough. Do we affirm his sovereignty but fail to connect it to our praying, leaving us doubtful that he will answer in dramatic ways? Maybe we don’t love others deeply enough. That’s probably hard for some of us to believe. But if God’s work in their life is the best thing for them, why don’t we devote more energy to lifting them up before our Father’s throne? Wouldn’t our burdens for them demand it? Maybe we’re more interested in other things. As one friend recently point out to me, it’s possible to overstate the case; nevertheless, there is still much truth to the fact that we are very distracted by media and entertainment. Maybe we simply don’t give ourselves enough time to pray?
Still yet, maybe we’ve just never thought about it enough. Maybe the best thing we can do is simply think. Perhaps we should pause and ponder these examples from Scripture. Consider the testimony of those who struggled in prayer. Maybe it will lead us to think about prayer differently. Maybe we’ll even begin feeling more tired in the coming days.