05 Wrestling in prayer, Part 2

Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me; 

That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judaea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints; (Romans 15:30-31)

These words of the apostle afford us a glimpse into another aspect of the struggle involved in praying. He speaks in this passage of intercessory prayer taking the form of a struggle. He has given expression to the same thought in slightly different words in Colossians 4:12-13. “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bear him record, that he hath a great zeal for you, and them that are in Laodicea, and them in Hierapolis.

This kind of wrestling in prayer has often been misunderstood. It has been conceived of as a struggle in prayer against God, the thought being that God withholds His gift as long as possible. They must be wrung from Him in one way or another. Prayer is looked upon as a means by which God can be made to relent, and be moved to give us an answer to our prayers. If our prayers do succeed in accomplishing this, it is because we have fought with God, stormed Him with supplications, convinced Him by our crying needs, and, on the whole, persevered until He has yielded.

It is not necessary to be very familiar with the Bible in order to know that this view of wrestling in prayer is pagan, and not Christian. God is Himself good. It is not necessary for us to pray or wrestle in prayer in order to make God kind or generous. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5) He is not only good; He is omniscient, knowing at all times what is best for us. It is not necessary for us to try to teach Him what is best for us by argument, persuasion, or much talking.

The idea that to wrestle in prayer is t wrestle against God is usually based upon certain passages of Scripture. Jacob’s wrestling with God recorded in Genesis 32:24-32 is one of those passages. Here we are told how Jacob struggled with God. He refused to give up, saying “I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me.” And God did bless him. However, he strained the hollow of his thigh as a result.

The New Testament passage usually cited is the one about the struggle which the Canaanite woman had with Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28. Here we are told of a woman of Gentile ancestry who met with Jesus near Tyre. She asked Him to heal her daughter who was grievously vexed with a demon. But Jesus did not answer her a word. The disciples, however, interceded for her, saying “Send her away; for she crieth after us.” The Jesus replied “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman was in great distress and would not give up. She came and worshiped Him , saying “Lord, help me,” Still, Jesus did not relent, answering her in such hard words as these, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs.” Still the woman refused to yield. Quickly but humbly she seized upon Jesus’ own metaphor about the dogs, saying: “It is not necessary to take the bread away from the children and give it to the dogs; they will be perfectly satisfied with he crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus yielded and granted her supplication.

Why did not Jesus answer the woman when she asked Him so meekly for help? Because He did not care for her? No, and again no! When the  disciples interceded for her, why did Jesus make a reference to the idea that He had been sent only to the chosen people? He had made exceptions to this rule before in Matthew 7:5 for instance. That Jesus did not do this because He wanted to be contrary is clear to everyone who has learned to know Jesus. When He, nevertheless, followed the strange procedure which He did, it was because He had a special purpose in so doing. Everyone who has walked with Jesus for some little time and has had some experience in prayer-fellowship with Him, knows that this is not a unique instance but one which recurs from time to time in the lives of every believers. Jesus answers not a word. We cry, again and again, each time more loudly and more vehemently than the time before. But not a word from Jesus. After some time has elapsed, He speaks. But the words we hear are sharp, stern words from Scripture, piercing to the dividing of our very joints and marrow, in the same way as His words about the dogs fell upon the ears of the Canaanite woman. Or as He said to His own mother at the wedding in Cana: “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” Or as He answered the nobleman of Capernaum: “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe” (John 4:48).

Every time Jesus sees that there is a possibility of giving us more than we know how to ask, He does so. And in order to do so He often has to deal with us in ways which are past our understanding. He answers not a word to our many supplications. Will He then not hear us? Yes, He will; He began to hear us from the very moment that we began to pray. But if He had given us the things we prayed for immediately, He would not have succeeded in giving us what He had appointed for us. We find a typical illustration in of this in  John 11. Lazarus had become ill, and the sisters had sent Jesus this beautiful message concerning their brother: “Lord, he whom Thou lovest is sick.” And the sisters rejoiced to think that Jesus would hurry and come and heal their dear brother. But Jesus did not come. Lazarus became worse and worse; he died and they had to bury him.

Now, why did Jesus deal with them in this way? Jesus had from the beginning decided to help them. He had also decided to give them more then they asked of Him. That is why He delayed His coming until Lazarus was dead and buried. He wahted to raise him from the dead. Why did He want to do this? In the first place, more of God’s power was made manifest to “the glory of God” as Jesus calls it in verse 40. Secondly, He could teach them a lesson in true humility. He could  point out how impatient they had been, and how they had murmured against Him.

After this inquiry, let us return to the striving which the apostle exhorts us to engage in when we pray for others. After what we have seen, it has become clear to us that we cannot interpret this to mean that we can compel God to give an answer to our prayers which He is reluctant to give. Much to the contrary; our struggling must be in line with the wrestling we have just described. The only difference is that in the wrestling which we have discussed the prayers concerned ourselves, while, in the striving mentioned by the apostle, our prayers are for others.

Our intercessory prayer involve much striving on out part for exactly the same reasons as we have mentioned in the preceding pages (Part 1). There is something about God’s attitude towards our prayers for others which is hard and often impossible to understand. And that is what precipitates the struggle. Our striving is a struggle, not with God, but with ourselves. First there is selfishness, then there is our love of ease. That is why Jesus admonishes us to watch and pray.

In Mark 9:29, Jesus says: “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.” Here Jesus introduces us to the greatest struggle with prayer. While Jesus and three of the apostles were on the Mount of Transfiguration,  a man had brought his son, possessed of a dumb spirit, to the other apostles. The latter had tried to cast out the evil spirit,  but they had not succeeded. When  Jesus came down, the father brought his son to Him and and Jesus healed the boy. As soon as the apostles had come into the house and they were alone with Jesus, they asked Him why they could not cast out the evil spirit, to which Jesus replied: “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.” Fasting is entirely in line with what we have said above about the necessity of having quiet and secluded seasons of prayer, and is in reality only a prolongation of the latter.. It has not been ordained for God’s sake, but for our sakes. It is we who need to fast.

Let us now consider briefly those circumstances in life in which Christians should feel the need of fasting. First on the list come times of special temptation. Secondly, it is wise to do so when facing a great or important choice. Thirdly we can mention occasions where we are planning or carrying out difficult tasks. It can also be applied before great and mighty acts. Of course, fasting is voluntary, and can not be forced on anyone. Fasting is an agreement between one specific individual and God, and is not to be done as  a public display.

Fasting helps to give that inner sense of spiritual penetration by means of which we can discern clearly that for which the spirit of prayer would have us pray in exceptionally difficult circumstances. At the same time, it helps to cleanse our souls of any impure motives which might be present when we pray for mighty acts.

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