Thursday, 6 November 2014

Getting to grips with God

Epaphras... is always wrestling in prayer for you... Colossians 4:12
When I was a youngster we didn't have a television in our home - I used to feel quite envious of my friends. But sometimes on a Saturday afternoon my brother and I used to visit a friend's house, and we'd be able to make up a bit for what we didn't have at home.

And what were they showing on television? Often it was wrestling, and quite a grotesque spectacle it was: overweight, misshapen men in odd outfits grunting and sweating as they threw one another around the ring. Sometimes they would thump the floor in what seemed absolute agony - I really thought someone was going to end up dead.

I soon learned that a lot of it was fake. In fact, even the crowd didn't seem to take it too seriously - everyone seemed to accept that it was just a show.

Real wrestling, I suspect, is a different matter altogether: two people pitting their raw strength against one another, no doubt using all sorts of skills and techniques to reduce their opponent to the bitter point of submission. It was a well-known sport in the ancient world.

Well, I don't imagine that Paul often went to watch wrestling, but he obviously knew something about it. And one thing it reminded him of was - would you believe it? - prayer. Yes, Paul saw prayer as a kind of spiritual wrestling match. And he praises his friend Epaphras for being a keen wrestler. He tells the Christians of Colosse that Epaphras is "always wrestling in prayer for you".

Which leads to a very obvious question. I assume that all of us, especially if we are Christians, pray (how can you be a Christian and not pray?). But how many of us know anything about wrestling in prayer? What do we know of getting into a no-holds-barred clinch with God himself?

You might say, "But surely God doesn't need to be treated in this way!" Well, not always, of course: sometimes our praying might be quite calm and unemotional. In fact, if you turn back to verse 2 of this same chapter you find Paul using a much more gentle (but still challenging) expression: “Devote yourselves to prayer...”, implying perseverance rather than agonising.

But still, I find I can't avoid that little word "always" in verse 12 - apparently this kind of praying was by no means unusual to Epaphras. So even if our praying shouldn't necessarily be always of the wrestling kind, you can't help wondering if it is something we should take seriously.

Two other Bible passages spring to mind.

First, the story of Jacob and the angel in Genesis 32. Jacob is about to meet his brother Esau, whom he has treated appallingly in the past. Scared, and painfully aware of his bad behaviour, he is met by a mysterious stranger who engages him in a prolonged wrestling match. Somehow Jacob senses that his very life depends on it, and when the angel asks him to let him go he grits his teeth and says (wonderful words, these!) "I will not let you go until you bless me." And the angel does just that. Jacob "struggled with God and overcame". Quite a story!

The other passage is about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion (Luke 22:39-46). Luke tells us that "being in anguish, Jesus prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground". (Note, by the way, that Luke doesn't say that Jesus literally "sweated blood": that word "like" is important.) The word Luke uses for "anguish" is the same as Paul uses for Epaphras "wrestling" in prayer; it's the word we get our word "agony" from. Putting it another way, just as Jesus "agonised" in the garden, so Epaphras "agonised" in prayer.

I don't think there's any point in asking why a kind and fatherly God should want to bring us to such a pitch; no doubt there are various reasons. All I know is that these passages are there for our good. Of course, you can’t put on wrestling in prayer just to please God; what he wants is real pray-ers, not actors. But is it time, perhaps, that we - how shall I put it? - got to grips with God in a new way?
Father God, please forgive the shallowness of my praying. Take me to a new level - perhaps even to a new depth - so that I might experience the kind of victory you gave to Jacob, and for which Epaphras longed. Amen.

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