Travailing: The Depth of Intercessory Prayer

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The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
(Romans 8:26–27 NIV)

The Acts of the Apostles might well be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, and two great truths stand out: First, where there is much prayer, there is vivid expression of the Holy Spirit; and second, where there is the vivid presence of the Holy Spirit, there is much praying. This dynamic relationship—prayer and the presence of the Holy Spirit—produces that which is beyond us; in fact, this is the source of miracles. One of the reasons we don’t see more miracles is that we don’t expect more miracles. Recalling the scripture passage from Day 11, Peter’s friends were praying, but they were not expecting.

Paul’s expression of the Holy Spirit’s role in our praying—which is the memory passage we are presently working with—suggests the intimate connection between the Holy Spirit and intercession. As stated earlier, intercession is at the heart of our relationship to the Father, the risen and reigning Christ, and to the Holy Spirit.

Two verses of Scripture combine to give the picture. Romans 8:27 says that God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. Put that with the exhilarating fact that Christ ever lives to make intercession for us and you have the dynamic work of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God searches our minds, and the Holy Spirit becomes the intercessor of our hearts. As the Risen Lord, Jesus is the Great Intercessor, so the intercessions of the Holy Spirit and the Christ are one. As we abide in Christ, which we are going to think more about in the days ahead, our intercession is one with the Holy Spirit and Christ, the Great Intercessor, in the throne room of heaven.

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Look briefly now at a description of intercession that is present in both the Old and New Testaments. Paul gave expression to it in his prayer for the Galatians: “My little children, for whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you . . .” (Gal. 4:19 KJV). Note that Paul is “travailing” again. Those to whom he is writing are already Christian. Paul must be connecting his intense longing for them now (that Christ be formed in them) with the burning passion he had had for them to find freedom from the law that only faith in Christ could bring.

No word suggests the depth and intensity of intercessory prayer better than “travailing.” No wonder Paul used the word. However, it is not unique to him. In the very first verses of the Bible, there is the description of the earth being formless and empty, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God hovering over the waters. Some translations say the Spirit was “brooding over” and others, “moving upon” the face of the waters.

The big idea is “birthing.” The Spirit is birthing something, bringing forth life. As the different translations indicate, the Hebrew word rachaph, used for “moving,” literally means “to brood over.” When you connect that with brood as a noun, you have that which has been bred or produced . . . as Webster defines it, “offspring” or “progeny.” A mother hen has a brood of chicks, the little ones she has produced.

In his “song,” which he recited in its entirety in Deuteronomy 32, Moses recounted Israel’s history as God “birthing” a people. He described the land and Abraham, the father of these “people of God,” as being as barren as was the earth at creation. Then “like an eagle that stirs up the nest and hovers over its young” (v. 11), the Lord led Abraham. The Spirit “brooded” over Abraham and Sarah, releasing life and power, with the promise that they would conceive a child in their now barren years . . . a child who would be the beginning of the nation of God’s own making. So “birthing” is the work of the Holy Spirit. And “birthing” is connected with “travail.”

Dutch Sheets, who first called my attention to this birthing dynamic of intercession, reminds us that, “What the Holy Spirit was doing in Genesis when He ‘brought forth’ or ‘gave birth to’ the earth and the world is exactly what He wants to do though our prayers in bringing forth sons and daughters.” (Dutch Sheets, Intercessory Prayer [Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1996], 123)

Sheets is discussing the need for intercession for those who are not yet Christian, and how travailing is a good understanding of the kind of praying we should be doing for those we know and love who are not yet believers. His point is that the Holy Spirit wants to “birth” these people in the faith through us.

As indicated in the beginning of this discussion, Paul was “in travail again” for the Galatians. So he was connecting his intense longing that Christ be formed in them with his earlier burning passion for them to find freedom from the law and salvation that only faith in Christ could bring.

So travailing prayer is not just connected with the new birth of individuals in the sense of conversion; it is also a form of intercession that releases the power of the Holy Spirit to give birth to something ongoing, redemptive, reconciling, and healing in people.

Enjoy this entry? It’s an excerpt from Maxie Dunnam’s work, The Intercessory Life: A Missional Model for Discipleship.

The intercessory life is about discipleship. To be sure, intercession is prayer, but prayer is only one expression of intercession, though much more. Intercession is the pattern for discipleship. Yes, right now. In your world. In your church. In your home. In a prison. In a school. On the bus. In the office. On the street. This book teaches practical ways to bring the world into the prayer closet and to unleash the power or prayer in our everyday world.

Maxie Dunnam’s six-week study challenges us to get beyond the cozy comforts of a devotional life and break into ways of living prayer that open new horizons of possibility. The Intercessory Life: A Missional Model for Discipleship is the pattern for our interior growth in prayer as well as the outward expression of a missional Christ-life in the world.

Get it from our store here.

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Maxie D. Dunnam is the former president and chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary. He is now Senior Pastor Emeritus and Executive Director of CCGlobal at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis.

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