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Prayer: Wrestling in Prayer

Colossians 4:12-13

When one thinks of wrestling, often the image that comes to mind is someone such as Hulk Hogan. At one time, his 6'6", 290 pounds, blond hair, and friendly growl grossed millions annually from wrestling and the endorsement of everything from deodorant to children's vitamins.1

Colossians 4 pictures another kind of wrestling. "Epaphras ... is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured." Our word "wrestling" translates a word used for the place of Greek athletic events. Later the word described the struggle of the competitors. The translation has come into English as "agony." I felt the agony doing sit-ups on the weight-room incline! I considered having the machine inscribed agonia.
Have you ever linked prayer with agony? Do you experience any struggle when you pray? Epaphras' example suggests we approach prayer like a wrestler approaches the ring -- in shape, alert, and on our guard. Opposing forces seek to pin us to the mat and defeat us in prayer.
Prayer involves no agony when it slips into Pharisaical formality and tradition. Jesus said the Pharisees got what they wanted; people heard their vain repetitions. But they missed the agony of prayer.
Anne of Green Gables was encouraged by her foster mother to say her prayers. Anne responded, "Saying one's prayers isn't exactly the same thing as praying."2 She remembered Sunday School superintendent Bell. "He was talking to God, and he didn't seem to be very much interested in it, either. I think he thought God was too far off to make it worthwhile."3 That's prayer without any struggle.
Many of our churches don't pray enough at prayer meeting to discover any agony or struggle. Some could be charged with false advertising when they invite people to mid-week prayer meeting.

The Struggle to Pray
The agony of prayer naturally flows from the struggle we face in the spiritual life. Paul reminded us, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the power of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore ... pray in the Spirit on all occasions ... be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints" (Ephesians 6:12-18). Prayer is a struggle, and like an alert wrestler we must pin some opposing forces to gain the victory.
Prayer struggles with sin. We always enter this spiritual ring with selfishness, broken relationships, or some habit we can't seem to break. Unforgiven past sin or the continuing practice of sin defeats prayer. "If we hide iniquity in our heart, he will not hear us" (Psalms 66:18). We jump into the prayer ring with our requests while sin hangs on us like street clothes. Prayer must take us through the locker room of confession and repentance.
It is hard to pray for another when a broken relationship needs to be reconciled. Do you find it hard to pray for the church when your heart harbors a critical spirit toward some member or a church decision which you did not like? Some months ago I spoke to a colleague about an issue that I thought might not have been satisfactorily resolved. He agreed, and I said we would meet and talk it out. Frequently, when I bow to pray, that unkept promise disturbs my spirit like an intruder in the wrestling ring. Prayer always struggles with sin.
Prayer also struggles with the pressure of good work. We feel we have so much good work to do and the pressure to get it finished keeps us from prayer. Preachers are susceptible to this problem. After all, we have visits to make, sermons to prepare, all this spiritual work to do! It ought to count for something. Since everything I do is spiritual work, I surely don't need to pray as much as others. Epaphras probably faced the same struggle for Paul said he was "working hard" for others. Good spiritual work deceptively blocks the way to prayer.
Doesn't Jesus' ministry pattern demonstrate the first work of the church is prayer? Prayer preceded every significant moment of Jesus' life and work. Forty days of prayer launched His public ministry. He spent the night in prayer and then chose the twelve disciples. Before He spoke the liberating words to Lazarus, He lifted His eyes in prayer and thanked the Father. He agonized in Gethsemane and then went to the cross. All of Jesus' work was preceded, prompted, motivated, and empowered by prayer. In Him all the fullness of God dwelt, and yet He needed to pray. How much more must our work begin with prayer. Our best work is to pray. Lack of prayer endangers all our work for Christ. When work pressures you and you feel there is no time to pray, that may be the most needful time for prayer. Prayer struggles with sin and the pressure of good work.
Prayer struggles with invading thoughts. Have you been in prayer and some thought or scene came into your mind? "How could I have thought that?" Such thoughts invade our prayer time like another opponent jumping into the wrestling ring. 2 Corinthians 10:5 describes this struggle: "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."
How do we capture these invading thoughts? Prayer needs a mind guided by the knowledge of God. Could that be why Jesus taught us to begin prayer, "Our Father who art in heaven ..."? Face every invading thought with the powerful Lord of all creation. When prayer clearly views the Father's power, recalls how much He loves us, and remembers His past faithfulness, we can defeat invading thoughts.
Prayer also needs a mind whose thoughts are guided by Scripture. The Bible is our best prayer guide. Some like Oswald Chambers, others prefer Guideposts, some would never leave The Upper Room. These and other prayer guides are good, but the Bible is best. The Word of God defeats invading thoughts and keeps prayer focused on the Lord and His will for us. When we know not how to pray, God's own words intercede for us.
Sin, the pressure of good work, and invading thoughts must be pinned to gain victory in prayer.
Prayer also struggles with doubt. Epaphras prayed that his friends might be "fully assured." We face doubt when praying for a family member or friend who has often turned away from God. Doubt moves in and we think, "He's too hard to reach. She is very intellectual. I don't know if the simple Gospel will work," or other similar expressions of doubt. Jesus declared "Faith is the victory," and faith enables us to overcome our struggle with doubt. Faith declares nothing or no one is too difficult for the Lord. "Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Hebrews 10:6).
Our struggle with doubt finds expression in the response one man made to Jesus. He sought healing for his child. When asked by the Lord if he thought this was possible, the father said, "Lord I believe, help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24) -- faith and doubt struggled in his soul. Someone has proposed a new writing mark for this -- the interrobang -- which is an exclamation mark with a question mark superimposed on it. I am encouraged that Jesus accepted this man with his mixture of faith and doubt. He saw his faith -- faith always wins out over doubt. Trust Jesus with the doubts, and keep on praying until He gives you full assurance.
Consider one other opponent in the struggle to pray.
Prayer struggles with personal needs. What's wrong with that, you ask? Doesn't the Bible tell us to "cast all our cares on him for he cares for us" (1 Peter 5:7). Certainly, but beware, prayer can become very selfish. Some approach prayer like a spiritual vending machine into which are inserted coins of faith and personal petition and out comes exactly what they want. Epaphras exemplifies the better model of intercessory prayer. As "one of you" he prays "for you." Intercessory prayer ranks as one of our best spiritual tasks. We cast our cares on Jesus as we ask Jesus' friends to pray for us. We extend Jesus' care as we pray for others.
I no longer feel guilty about the struggle to pray. Prayer is a struggle. Each time we pray we must fight sin, the pressure of good work, invading thoughts, creeping doubt, and personal need. But the biggest struggle with prayer comes because of the end result.

The Victory is Worth the Struggle
Epaphras prayed that his friends might "stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured." Standing firm in all the will of God doesn't come easy. Jesus agonized with the will of God, as revealed in the Gethsemane experience. "And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44). Jesus defeated the opponents of good work, invading thoughts, doubt, and human self-interest to find the victory -- "Not my will, but thine be done." How much more shall we have to struggle in prayer to stand firm in all the will of God?
What sin keeps you from doing the will of God? Have you let some good work deprive you of the perfect will of God? Do invading thoughts sap your energy to do His will? Doesn't doubt make us wonder if we can do His will? Undue concern for personal needs blind us to the greater need. The ultimate prayer struggle centers in the will of God.
Individuals whom God has called to prepare for ministry come to our Bible college and think it will be a four-year revival. Some become disillusioned because it is a struggle. No place is immune from the struggle. We face the opponents of sin, doubt, work, and selfishiness wherever we go. But in every place we can also face God and stand firm in His will.
How can we stand firm in all the will of God and know the victory of dynamic prayer? Three clues are offered for help in the struggle. First, the struggle of prayer finds victory in the context of community. "Epaphras who is one of you," reminds us of the need of a strong fellowship with other Christians. Prayer partners and corporate prayer strengthen us for the struggle.
A second clue is "a servant of Christ Jesus." A life surrendered to Jesus has less trouble with prayer. Jesus is eagerly sought. Every prayer should begin with surrender to Jesus -- not my will but thine be done. Does Jesus rule your life? Jesus asks some things of us that our community of faith will never require. As a servant of Jesus every sin can have His forgiveness, every thought can be made captive to Christ, and each doubt overcome by faith.
The third clue is "always wrestling in prayer." Keep on praying! The pastor who baptized me said, "pray until you pray." When sin accuses you, turn it over to Christ. When work pressures you, keep praying. When thoughts invade, pray them into the captivity of Christ. When doubt creeps up, boldly and faithfully go again to the throne of grace. Pin the opponents again and again.
The gain is worth the pain. The result is worth the struggle. And what is that result? You will stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.

1. People Weekly, March 23, 1992.
2. L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (Pleasantville, NY: The Reader's Digest Association, 1992), p. 65.
3. Montgomery, p. 69.
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