How Do I ‘Wrestle’ in Prayer?
We are going to start the week talking about prayer. Sometimes we say that we are “wrestling in prayer” for something. We hear others use that phrase as well. And that phrase — “wrestling in prayer” — is a biblical one, used by Paul in the book of Colossians. But it only appears one time. So what does it mean, biblically speaking, to wrestle in prayer?
That’s the question from a listener to the podcast named Jason. “Pastor John, hello! I listen to your podcast daily through my iPhone. Thank you for helping me think through questions, even questions I didn’t even know should be asked. Here’s mine: In Colossians 4:12, Paul affirms Epaphras because he is always ‘wrestling’ or ‘struggling’ in prayer for the church of Colossae. What does it mean to wrestle in prayer? Who is the wrestling against? And how do I — and all of us — learn to wrestle in prayer ourselves?”
Well, the first thing I’d say is, that kind of question is so good, so important. And it’s so simple. You’re reading along, and you tend to just breeze by something, and he’s stopping and saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa — wait a minute. What’s that really like? He says he’s wrestling in prayer. What would that feel like? What would I be doing differently than I’m doing?” It’s just a great question, and good for me to think about.
And I think — this is the best I know how to proceed — the best way forward in answering a question like that is not first to look into my experience and say, “Okay, where have I done that? What’s wrestling like for me?” Because I might just read in my experience into the text.
So, I think the best thing to do is to take the word “wrestle” or “struggle” (or whatever the word happens to be you’re working on) and look up, with a concordance, how Paul (or whoever you’re reading) used it in other settings. So in this case, the Greek agonizomai — and you can hear the word “agonize” in the Greek: agonizomai. Where has he used that word? (Or you could just use the English with “wrestle” or “struggle.”) And what light might that shed on the way you pray?
So, let’s start with Colossians 4:12, because that’s the text he is asking about. Here’s what it says: “Epaphras, who is one of you” — so, Epaphras was from Colossae, but he was with Paul, and that’s why Paul knew how he was praying. “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling [or wrestling] on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” So, the answer that Epaphras is after in his prayers for the Colossian believers would be that they stand, and that they stand mature and be fully assured of God’s favor and God’s will as they live their Christian life.
But what Jason is asking about is not what Epaphras is praying for, but about the way Epaphras is praying. And he’s wrestling; it says he’s wrestling. And he wants to know, and I want to know, well, what’s that like? Should I be doing more of that? And if I did, what would it look like?
So, let’s go to those other uses of the word “wrestle” or “struggle” or “fight” (or however that agonizomai is translated).
Toiling in Another’s Strength
Probably the most important one is right here in Colossians, back in Colossians 1:28–29. Paul says, “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” That’s the same goal as Epaphras’s prayer, by the way. “For this I toil” — now, that’s not the word, but the modifying participle that comes after is the word. “For this I toil, struggling [or wrestling] with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” He works within me. Now, two things stand out there concerning this wrestling.
“There are hardships and obstacles in this work that have to be wrestled out of the way.”
One is the word toil. This form of wrestling is work — it’s work. So, Paul is saying that his teaching, his warning, his ministry efforts to present the Colossians mature in Christ is toil. It’s work. It’s the kind of work that involves wrestling — which sounds like, in other words, there are hardships and obstacles in this work that have to be wrestled out of the way. It requires exertion and effort as if there were this big boulder on the path and you’ve got to wrestle, put your shoulder into it and push it out of the way so you can get on with your work of teaching and working and praying for these people.
So it’s a rigorous kind of work. So, I think it would be right for us to say that in Paul’s understanding, Epaphras in praying was doing something similar. The kind of prayer that he undertook for the Colossians involved toil — the kind of toil that included wrestling with hindrances or barriers that have got to be pushed out of the way in order to be able to keep praying.
Now, the other thing that stands out is almost the opposite — or at least it’s a relief from the pressure of putting your shoulder against a boulder. The other thing that stands out in Colossians 1:29 is this: “[wrestling] with all [the] energy that [Christ] powerfully works within me.” So, Paul does not think of his ministry wrestling as something he does in his own strength, even though there’s enormous effort and toil. It’s not being done in his own strength to try to get Christ to be active for him. It’s just the other way around.
He says Christ is super active prior to his effort and in his effort, enabling his effort to toil with wrestling. And I think that’s the idea with prayer. You don’t pray — even though it may be hard; there may be work in it — in your own strength.
Fighting All Battles by Faith
And I think in 1 Timothy 6:12 Paul is saying, in effect, that the fight of faith is exactly that. That word “fight” there is agonizomai. He says, “Fight the good fight of faith, Timothy,” and the word “fight” is the same word as “wrestle” and “struggle.”
“Even though the word ‘wrestle’ sounds demanding, what it demands above all is faith.”
The point is that the very nature of the Christian life is that we are to live by faith and fight all our battles by faith — that is, seeking to rely on the strength of another and do everything we do, easy or hard, by faith, by relying on the one who is at work in me enabling me to do what I’m striving to do. So, even though the word “wrestle” sounds demanding, what it demands above all is faith that God is the one who wrestles in us and through us and for us.
Practicing Athletic Self-Control
Another implication of wrestling comes from the way he uses it in 1 Corinthians 9:25–26, where he says, “Every athlete” — now that word “athlete” is one who wrestles, one who struggles.
Every athlete [every wrestler] exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air, but I discipline my body and keep it under control.
I think this implies that Epaphras, in his praying for the Colossians, used self-control, and he disciplined himself in his prayer.
Maybe that means, in order to find the time in his busy life, he had to get up earlier. So he denied himself half an hour’s sleep, and he pummeled his body, as it were, to say, “Body, get up! This bed feels really good right now.” And he says to his body, like an athlete who gets up to train at five o’clock in the morning, “Get up, body!” And he devoted himself to focused time in prayer for his loved ones back in Colossae. That took control of his own inner impulses, which might have preferred to stay in bed.
Taking a Shield and Sword
Maybe one more example. This time it comes from the way the Gospel of John uses agonizomai, or “wrestle” or “struggle.” In John 18:36, Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” — now that’s the word. And you know that in this context, that means, “They’d be pulling out their swords and sticking your soldiers in the throat to keep me from being handed over to you.”
So, agonizomai here isn’t “wrestle a boulder out of the way.” It’s “kill somebody to keep them from making your Jesus ineffective” (at least as they understood it). So that means literally fighting against the Roman soldiers with swords and clubs. So I think, when Paul says that Epaphras is wrestling, struggling, or fighting, there really is warfare going on. So, I’m drawing in the warfare imagery now, not just the athletic imagery. You’ve got athletes who need discipline, now you’ve got war, and you need to defeat an enemy.
And we all know from Ephesians 6:12 that Paul says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood.” Now that’s a different word for “wrestle” in the Greek, but the idea is the same. We don’t wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. So when Paul says that Epaphras is fighting, not just wrestling, but fighting in prayer, he probably includes the reality that Satan does not like what Epaphras is doing at all and is trying to stop him, and he must take the sword of the Spirit and the shield of faith and quench the prayer-destroying fiery darts with that shield of faith and with the sword of a good promise from God.
Prayer Is Not Always Easy
So those are a few of the ways that prayer is like a wrestling match. It’s like wrestling in hard work with obstacles to be removed. It’s like wrestling with athletic efforts, with the need for self-control and discipline. It’s like wrestling in a fight with swords when the devil has to be driven off. Anyone who has ever tried to pray in any focused or sustained way for some spiritual breakthrough knows something of this kind of struggle.
So, don’t think of prayer always as an easy conversation. You hear so many people talk about prayer as just wonderful — “have a little conversation with Jesus.” Well, it is sweet, and it is easy sometimes, but often, it is a walkie-talkie during war: the bombs are dropping; the enemy fire is heavy all around. Prayer is embattled, and we are called to get on the frequency of the heavenly headquarters and send in for fire cover here. “I’ve got to have the air force quick, Father, because I’m in trouble.” But never forget that even our call for help is an act of help from the Lord who is for us.