In the 4th chapter of Colossians, Epaphras, a colleague of Paul, is described as “always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf.” Epaphras was from Colossae and had actually founded the church there. Some years later the church begins to experience some struggles as various members are teaching various doctrines. It seems they have forgotten some of the basic principles of the faith. Now they are divided into camps, bickering with one another, and exhibiting an impatience with the wisdom of God as they participate in life’s events.
Wrestling seems a fitting description of much that we experience in prayer. Occasionally we might be moved to pray, or will ourselves to pray, when things are going just fine. But generally we come to prayer out of a sense of discomfort or desire for something other than what life appears to be providing. We are troubled, agitated, frustrated, broken or sorrowful, and we come to God in need.
Especially when we are praying for others we may feel like we are wrestling. At least in our own lives, in addition to praying, we can take some action. With others, however, prayer is really all we can offer. If we feel like others are making a big mistake, we can tell them what we think, but often we’re in the least effective position to offer advice. It’s usually much easier to see what someone else should be doing than actually to affect some change in their behavior. Depending on how close or enmeshed we are with the other, our attempts to change them may even entrench them in their behavior even more. People, we find, have to come to their own truth in their own time. And how frustrating that can be to watch when we care about the people involved.
So we bring those we love and care about, and their situations, to the Lord in prayer. Prayer is not just what we ask God to do about the situation. It is the care we have for the other and their welfare. It is our compassion for them. It even involves our anxiety about the situation which eventually brings us to a place of increased trust. Worry, we discover, can only take us so far and we come to the place where we just have to put the matter in God’s hands. Maybe only at that point can true prayer be formed, when we begin to put aside all our strivings and invite God’s presence above our own.
Wrestling with others and their situations continues even as our prayers gain more integrity. We give things to God in prayer yet still we ponder outcomes and our potential supportive actions. Our compassion for others, which sometimes comes out as attempts to control things, keeps us involved. Our goal perhaps should not be to stop wrestling but to find better ways of wrestling in our prayers.
In my own life, I think I wrestle too much with winning or losing on my mind. I’d much rather be the one doing the pinning than the one with my face ground into the mat. But the spiritual life seems to invite wrestling with a different perspective. Simply to engage the struggle is to win. To ignore or seek to control, are means of not engaging the matter. Wrestling can be part of faithfulness if we will allow it.
Epaphras wrestles in prayer for those he cares about, for a new church he loves, for a gospel to which he has committed his life. He wants better things for his people and his church. Like Jacob who wrestles physically with an angel and comes to be named Israel, like Jesus who wrestles spiritually with Satan and comes to embrace his own calling to be the messiah, Epaphras wrestles with a community young in its faith. But he wrestles in prayer, not just in conflict with them.
Wrestling with something in prayer is a matter different from simply trying to beat back uncomfortable circumstances. Maybe God isn’t so much the judge awaiting the chance to declare the winner, more the mat upon which our struggles are engaged. Life isn’t always easy and there is so much beyond our ability to solve. Wrestling in prayer helps us see that all the things beyond our control are being transformed by God’s grace. Our inability to control reveals God’s limitless ability to save and make whole.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.