Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Are you a spiriual wrestler?

Epaphras... is always wrestling in prayer for you... Colossians 4:12

When I was young 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 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.
Of course, 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 is a different matter altogether: two people pitting their raw strength against one another, no doubt using all sorts of skills and tricks to bring their opponent to the bitter point of submission. It was a popular sport in the ancient world.
I don't imagine that Paul often went to watch wrestling bouts, but he obviously knew something about them. And one thing they reminded him of was - would you believe it? - prayer. Yes, Paul saw prayer as a kind of spiritual wrestling match.
And he commends his friend Epaphras for being a keen wrestler. He tells the Christians of Colosse that Epaphras is "always wrestling in prayer for you". (Epaphras is one of those minor Bible characters it would be wonderful to have known. Why not take a few minute to read all the New Testament references to him? - there are only three.)
Which leads to a very obvious question. I assume that all of us 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 gentle. But I find I can't avoid that little word "always" that Paul uses here - apparently this kind of praying was by no means unusual to Epaphras. So even if our praying isn’t necessarily literally “always” of the wrestling kind, you can't help wondering if this is something we should take seriously.
Two other Bible passages come to my mind.
First, there is the story of Jacob and the angel in Genesis 32.
Jacob - scared and aware of his bad behaviour in the past - 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 (what magnificent words these are!), "I will not let you go until you bless me." And the angel, somehow representing God himself, does just that. Jacob "struggled with God and overcame". Quite a story.
The other passage is about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his crucifixion (Luke 22:41-44).
Luke tells us that "being in anguish, Jesus prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground". The word Luke uses for "anguish" is the same as Paul uses for Epaphras "wrestling" in prayer - and 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. And I know that “agonising” isn’t something we can or should turn on like a tap, or work up by sheer will-power.
But I know too that these passages are there for our good, to stir us up and make us think. So I wonder - do we perhaps need to get down to the business of prayer with a new determination, a new seriousness, and a new intensity?

Father God, please forgive the shallowness of my praying. Take me to a new level - even to a new depth - so that I might experience the kind of victory you gave to Jacob, and for which Epaphras longed. Teach me to pray like Jesus himself. Amen.

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