Wrestling in Prayer

Aside from many elementary-school recesses, my football career was short-lived. It consisted of exactly one powder-puff game during homecoming week my senior year of high school. We girls each borrowed a football player’s jersey for the game and suited up for one glorious night on the gridiron. My big moment was an interception, but beyond that my statistics (had they actually been recorded) would not have helped anyone’s fantasy team.

However, while I’m not much of a football player, I could probably go professional in spectating. In my house, I’m the football fan—much more so than my husband who merely tolerates the sport. As I’m watching, sometimes it amazes me how these guys can get so winded from a play that lasts only a few seconds. The reason is not that they’re out of shape (at least in most cases). They get winded because they are fighting with every fiber of their being, sometimes to gain (or to prevent the other team from gaining) only a few precious inches.

The Greeks had a word for this type of effort: agonizomai.Not surprisingly, Paul uses it when he encourages Timothy to “fight the good fight” (1 Tim. 6:12) and later when he tells Timothy that he himself has “fought the good fight” (2 Tim. 4:7). What might surprise you, though, is that Paul also uses this word in reference to prayer. Writing to the Colossians, Paul mentions the strenuous work Epaphras does on his knees on behalf of the Colossians: 

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. He is always wrestling for you in his prayers, so that you can stand mature and fully assured in everything God wills. (Colossians 4:12, emphasis added)

Epaphras fought in prayer for the Colossian church. Though I don’t know what his specific prayers were or in exactly what ways he interceded for the Colossians, I know from experience that prayer is hard work. Sometimes we have to fight tooth and nail to gain a mere inch. And yet, it’s to this discipline we are called to devote ourselves (Col. 4:2). Let’s take a look at some x’s and o’s so we can form a gameplan. 

The External Fight

We’re likely pretty familiar with this aspect of the battle. Part of “wrestling” in prayer is winning the war against the distractions. Our lives are so full of bells, whistles, buzzes, and beeps that it can be hard to accomplish any task without interruption. No problem. I’ll just leave my phone in the other room, you think. Not so fast: you forgot that you were wearing a distraction device on your wrist. If you’re really dedicated, you may vow to take off your smartwatch before kneeling for prayer. But then your knees ache or you’re hungry or the dog wants to go out or the kids wake up. 

Distractions are everywhere and they’re not just digital. They’re a prime tool of the enemy, and we have to guard against them as much as possible. Whether that means leaving your phone (and watch) in another room, changing your notification settings, or throwing an apron over your head, you must be prepared to deal with distractions while praying. The blitz will come. Will you be ready? 

The Physical Fight 

As embodied souls, we must prepare for a dual-battlefield war. We fight not just spiritually, but physically as well.Hunger, fatigue, sickness, and physical discomfort are all arrows in the opponent’s quiver, and he is ready to draw and fire in an instant. As with distractions, we mustn’t wonder if a physical temptation will take hold, but when it will happen. 

In order to wrestle in prayer, you must be ready to fight on the physical front as well. Take whatever steps necessary to set yourself up for success—grab a blanket if it’s cold, have a snack if you’re hungry, walk around if you’re tired—but as with distractions, there are always more physical temptations that the enemy will use in an attempt to wear you down. When he does, why not pray about it? Recognize what’s going on and keep fighting. Like a running back fighting for the first down, refuse to let yourself get tackled. 

The Spiritual Fight 

You’ve gained ground in the physical fight and put the distractions to rest, but the match is far from over. Your adversary has hardly dipped into his bag of tricks. His most pernicious tactics are yet to come in the next phase of the battle: the spiritual fight. The tempter has a plan for every season as he attacks our prayers. 


If you’ve been a believer for more than a few minutes, you’ve no doubt experienced discouragement in prayer. You know that you’re supposed to pray persistently (Luke 18:1), but sometimes it just seems so pointless. Why pray for something that is never going to happen anyway? When you’re being bullied with this wile of Satan, you will no doubt reach the point of wanting to chuck the whole thing. 

So, what do we do when we’re being pummeled by discouragement in prayer? As Martin Lloyd-Jones has famously written, we must stop listening to ourselves and start talking to ourselves.By this I mean, you have to take hold of the inner dialogue trucking through your mind and put it in its proper place. Is what you’re thinking true? What is actually true? Go back to God’s Word and to the character of God. Our prayers don’t fall on deaf ears, and we do not pray to a God bound by time as we are. Taking time to immerse yourself in truth about God and His character will help orient you when it comes to your prayer life.


A close cousin to discouragement, skepticism wonders if prayer matters at all. Through the letters of the fictional demon Screwtape, C. S. Lewis hits upon this conundrum. Screwtape calls it the “heads I win, tails you lose” argument. It goes like this: 

If the thing he prays for doesn’t happen, then that is one more proof that petitionary prayers don’t work; if it does happen, he will, of course, be able to see some of the physical causes which led up to it, and “therefore, it would have happened anyway,” and thus a granted prayer becomes just as good a proof as a denied one that prayers are ineffective.2

Our skeptical hearts provide the perfect battlefield for doubts about prayer. But disbelief and discouragement are not the only spiritual battles we face. I lack time to talk about laziness, low expectations, weak theology, and many others. Our opponent has no lack of blitzes to run. For this reason, we must keep fighting in prayer with every ounce of our strength. 

Thankfully we do not fight alone. 

When our prayers seem to come up empty, or we’re beaten down by one of the enemy’s tricks, we still have hope because “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Paul puts the glorious promise like this: 

In the same way the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. (Romans 8:26)

Prayer is a fight. It’s nothing less than all-out war. And it’s a war we are called to fight. Undoubtedly, we will endure our share of bumps, bruises, injuries, and setbacks, but may we not allow them to send us to the sideline. 

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 David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression. Its Causes and Cures (Pickering & Inglis: London, 1965), 20.

2 C. S. Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. United Kingdom: HarperCollins, 2007, 264.

About the Author

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson lives in a small Minnesota town with her husband, son and daughter, and ridiculous black dog. She enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and coaching basketball. You can read more of her musings about God's Word at biblestudynerd.com.

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