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Paul opens chapter two of his epistle to the Colossians with this description of his prayers on their behalf: "For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."

Paul's "struggle" is surely a reference to his prayer life. On this, virtually all students of Colossians agree. Intercession, says Paul, is a battle, an agonizing war that demands concentration, effort, and sustained devotion.

Paul exhorted the Christians in Rome to join him in his "struggle" by praying to God on his behalf (Romans 15:30; cf. Col. 4:12). But with what or whom does one "struggle" and "wrestle" in prayer? Is it the distractions of the world against which we fight? Is it the temptations of the enemy? Is our struggle with the fear that perhaps prayer is a waste of time? Or perhaps we wrestle with the weakness and lethargy of our own flesh, struggling to overcome the natural tendency to give in too quickly. Could it possibly be God himself with whom we strive and struggle? More on this below.

But what makes Paul's statement even more stunning is that he had never even met the people for whom he prayed with such agonizing effort! They "have not seen me face to face," says Paul, yet I intercede on their behalf unceasingly. Never forget that it was Epaphras, not Paul, who brought the gospel to Colossae. But no amount of geographical distance or relational anonymity could hinder Paul's prayers for these saints. This ought forever to put to rest the excuse some use for not praying for others: "But I don't know them. They don't know me. I can't even mention them by name. Does God really hear such prayers?" Yes, he does!

I'm often encouraged in my own intercessory "struggle" by the example of others. Consider David Brainerd (1718-47), missionary to the American Indians, who for a season lived in the home of Jonathan Edwards. Brainerd frequently wrote in his Diary of "wrestling" with God in prayer. The entry for Monday, April 19, 1742, reads in part, "God enabled me so to agonize in prayer, that I was quite wet with sweat, though in the shade, and the wind cool. My soul was drawn out very much for the world; I grasped for multitudes of souls" (The Life of David Brainerd, Yale:162).

On the next day, Brainerd wrote: "I think my soul was never so drawn out in intercession for others as it has been this night. Had a most fervent wrestle with the Lord tonight for my enemies" (162). Again, "[I] was enabled to cry to God with a child-like spirit, and to continue instant in prayer for some time. Was much enlarged in the sweet duty of intercession. Was enabled to remember great numbers of dear friends and precious souls, as well as Christ's ministers. Continued in this frame, afraid of every idle thought, till I dropped asleep" (260).

Joseph Alleine's (1634-68) wife once wrote of him: "At the time of his health he did rise constantly at or before four of the clock, and would be much troubled if he heard smiths or other craftsmen at their trades before he was at communion with God; saying to me after, 'How this noise shames me. Does not my Master deserve more than theirs?'" (cited in Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to my Students, 48).

Martin Luther certainly knew how to "struggle" in prayer on behalf of other believers. Of his intercession on behalf of his friend and colleague Philip Melancthon he wrote, "This time I besought the Almighty with great vigor. I attacked him with his own weapons, quoting from Scripture all the promises I could remember, that prayers should be granted, and said that he must grant my prayer, if I was henceforth to put my faith in his promises" (cited in Donald Bloesch, The Struggle of Prayer, 79).

On this point James H. Thornwell once wrote: "We pray; but what is there of agony in our prayers? Who wrestles with God? Whose soul is burdened with the weight of a perishing world? Or who takes an hour from his sleep or foregoes a single meal in order that he may plead the cause of millions upon millions that know not God? And are such prayers sacrifices? Are they more than breath? And can there be any wonder that mere breath should not move the Lord of hosts?" (The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, II:442-43).

This sort of striving and struggling with God in prayer is proper so long as it does not degenerate into a conflict of wills. The function of prayer is not to bend God's will to ours, or to wrench from him what he is reluctant to give. We must never believe ourselves capable of overpowering the Creator or forcing his hand. C. E. B. Cranfield reminded his readers that "to entertain any notion of trying to exert pressure upon God to compel him to do that which he himself does not will to do or of mobilizing one's fellow-Christians with a view to constraining him by a combination of forces is to lapse into paganism" (Commentary on Romans, II:777).

That being said, when was the last time you had "a most fervent wrestle with the Lord" on behalf of those you know and love, not to mention those who have not seen you "face to face"? Would that God might energize us in the struggle, empower us to agonize in our intercession, and stir us to strive without ceasing in prayer for one another.

Struggling to struggle,