From the Letter to the Colossians:
Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Colossians 4:12 (NRSV) –May 12, 2014)
“Wrestling in his prayers” seems such an odd turn of phrase! Aren’t prayers supposed to be peaceful? The image of prayer as athletic competition (and vigorous, muscular, and very personal competition, at that) just seems contradictory. But the contradiction calls to mind two thoughts.
The first is that I remembered Jacob: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” (Gen 32:24-25)
Doing early morning study of Koine Greek is probably a mistake . . . but I wondered, “Does Paul use the same word to describe Epaphras as the Septuagint uses to describe Jacob?” Short answer — no. Long answer — In Genesis, the wrestling contest is described using the word palaío; in Colossians, the word is agonizomai. The former is specific; the latter refers in general to athletic competition and may also mean “to struggle” or “to labor.”
Nonetheless, I wonder if Paul is calling Jacob’s late-night wrestling match with God to mind. If Jacob’s dream-time contest is a metaphor for prayer (and I think it is), then there is a striking contrast between first-party prayer (petition) which leaves the supplicant limping, and third-party prayer (intercession) which permits the subject to “stand mature and fully assured.” I don’t know what to make of this. Is there a suggestion that the prayers of others are more effective for our well-being than our own?
An Indian guru once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness.” Was Jacob’s hip put out of joint by his encounter with God? Or was it always out of joint and the encounter merely led to a recognition or an admission of that fact? Prayer for oneself always does, in my experience, bring one up face-to-face with one’s own inadequacies. And, I have to say, I rely much more upon the prayers and prayerful support of others than upon my own. So perhaps there is something in the contrast Paul may be making.
The second, unrelated thought, is how often I struggle to find the “right words” with which to pray, both in private meditation and in public worship. As a priest, I am often asked to pray in public and, when that happens, I am grateful that, as an Episcopalian, I have been steeped in the language and cadences of The Book of Common Prayer. When I cannot think of anything original to say, I can rely on the prayerful words of generations of Anglicans and, from memory of the prayer book’s beautiful phrases, cobble something quickly together.
It is not always so in my private devotions. But that same Indian guru said of prayer, “It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” So if my struggle to find the right words is unsuccessful, I just let it go and sit quietly, sure that God will understand me.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.