Agonizing in Prayer
February 6th, 1955 @ 7:30 PM
AGONIZING IN PRAYER
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-6-55 7:30 p.m.
Now, in your Bible, turn again to the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Romans, and we’ll begin at the twentieth verse and read to the end of the chapter. Romans, the fifteenth chapter, beginning at the twentieth verse, "Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation," [Romans 15:20]. That doesn’t sound like Peter was in Rome, does it? Paul said he didn’t preach the gospel where another man had already built:
But as it is written, To whom He was not spoken of, they shall see; and they that have not heard they shall understand.
For which cause also I have been much hindered from coming to you.
But now having no more place in these parts, and having a great desire these many years to come unto you,
Whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you. For I trust to see you in my journey, and to be brought on my way thitherward by you, if first I be somewhat filled with your company.
But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints.
For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem.
It hath pleased them verily, and their debtors we are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in earthly things – material things, carnal things.
When, therefore, I have performed this and have sealed to them this fruit, I will come by you into Spain.
And I am sure that when I come unto you, I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.
Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in your prayers to God for me,
That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judea, and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints,
And that I may come unto you with joy by the will of God, and may with you be refreshed.
Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.
That’s the close of the fifteenth chapter. Now, this is my text:
Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in your prayers to God for me,
That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judea, that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be acceptable,
That I may come unto you with joy by the will of God, and may with you be refreshed.
Now, I’m to speak of this pleading for prayer. "Brethren," – as Paul said in the last chapter to the church at Thessalonica [2 Thessalonians 3:1] – "Brethren, pray for us." The burdened spirit and the sorrowful heart of Paul, who knew so many burdens and who had so many sorrows, he wrote to the people whom he hadn’t seen. Most of them were strangers to him. He wrote to them and made appeal for their prayers. And he does it in such an unusually beautiful, effective, and moving way: "I plead with you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit" [Romans 15:30]. What a basis of appeal! And there’s a tear in every syllable: "For the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that you strive together praying to God for me" [Romans 15:30].
I guess it’s the way the Lord made us; but, when our spirits are oppressed, and we are burdened, and we have an unusually great and poignant need, I guess it’s the way the Lord made us, but we seek sympathy from others and remembrance in prayer. Our Lord was that way in the hour of Gethsemane. When He came back to his sleeping disciples, it was an exclamation of disappointment when our Lord said, "What? Could you not watch with me for one hour, just one hour?" [Matthew 26:36-45; Mark 14:32-42]
I think we’re just made that way. A burden that you keep to yourself is intolerable. It’s just bigger than any heart could ever stagger under. And so the Savior’s appeal: "You stay here and watch and pray;" and He went a little farther and fell on his face before God and poured out His soul and came back and they were asleep. They hadn’t even thought about Him. They hadn’t bothered to remember. They were asleep. They just let Him bear it by Himself. So, the appeal of the Lord: "What? What? Could you not watch with me for one hour?"
Any time that a child of God faces an uncertain future – an illness, an operation, a thing that has in it all of the elements of heartbreak – if you’re a child of God, one of the first things for which you’d like to make appeal is this: to some blessed saint who’s got the ear of heaven, "Remember me. Pray for me." Or, as the eloquent [Charles Haddon] Spurgeon one time said, "Friend, sometime when you have the ear of the Great King, would you call my name?"
That’s it. "For the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, strive together with me in your prayers to God for me" [Romans 15:30]. There is in that, in its appeal, in its preciousness, you almost feel as though I ought to take off my shoes here. Paul, opening his heart, making appeal for prayer.
Now, to whom does he do it? Well, I never heard of these people. They are unknown; they are. They are humble, without achievement, without prestige, without anything that anybody knows of; but Paul is making appeal for remembrance in prayer to, now listen, to these people. Epaenetus [Romans 16:1]. I never heard of Epaenetus. Mary. I’ve heard of Mary the mother of Jesus and of Magdalene, but who is this Mary in Rome? [Romans 16:6] I have no idea. And Andronicus [Romans 16:7] and Junia [Romans 16:7] and Amplias [Romans 16:8] and Urbane [Romans 16:9], and Stachys [Romans 16:9] and Apelles [Romans 16:10] and Herodion [Romans 16:11] and Tryphena [Romans 16:12] and Tryphosa [Romans 16:12] and Persis [Romans 16:12] and Rufus [Romans 16:13] and Philologus [Romans 16:15] and Nereus [Romans 16:15] and Olympas [Romans 16:15]; I never heard of them. Nobody else ever heard of them. They were simple, humble people that were unknown. And, yet, the great Apostle, in a time of need and a burdened soul and heaviness of spirit, makes appeal to these humble saints of God to strive together before the Lord in prayer for him.
Well, what do you think of that? What do you think of that? I was preaching down here at the Palace Theater, and it was a beautiful, beautiful spring day. It was a day like the old people could get outside in the sunshine when they have to stay at home and they are invalid and they’re sick so much. It was such a beautiful day – such a day as those old people could get outside.
And after I had preached there at the Palace Theater, I walked out the front door which is something I rarely ever do. I go out the side door mostly. I went out the front door, and there in the foyer of the theater stood a little old woman dressed all in black – her hat, her shoes, her dress – she was dressed in black. She was a little, bent-over woman; and she came up to me, and she said, "Pastor, this is the first time I’ve ever seen you." She said, "I am mostly invalid, and I just listen over the radio; but I have belonged to that church." And she told me the number, number of years and years; and she said, "Today is such a beautiful day. A neighbor brought me down here to the theater that I might look into your face and see you."
"Now," she said, "Pastor, I am so sorry. There’s not anything I can do to help you in the work. I am poor and have no money; and I am old, and I cannot come." She said, "Pastor, all I could do is just pray for you."
Well, the way she talked to me and the way she said that has lingered in my memory though that happened almost in the first year that I came here. She was apologetic about it: "You see, I am poor and have no money;" and "I am old and I cannot come;" and "all I could do is pray."
Bless her heart. She’s in glory now. Bless her memory. I would think there wasn’t a story of this glorious church is written – and our church, by the way, is coming to be more famous and more famous with every passing day in other countries. In afar, where you’d never dream anybody knows us or anyone ever heard of us, they’ll note intimately just what we’re doing here. When the story is written and the page of God’s book is opened and we see it, there’ll be a reason for the favored blessing of God upon our people and upon our congregation and upon this ministry. And you’ll find it in those humble, unknown people that I never heard of and that you don’t know, but their names are here; and they were such precious souls, and they remembered to pray.
Now, I want to look at our text. There’s a word that he uses there. "For the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye" – and you have it translated "strive" which is good; but the Greek word is agōnizo, and that is your English word "agonize" – "that you agōnizo, that you strive, that you struggle, that you agonize together with me in your prayers to God for me."
You’ll find that word in Colossians 4:12: "Epaphras, who is one of you" – that is, he’s a Gentile there in the Colossian church – "Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always" – now this time they translated it, "laboring fervently for you in prayers," but that’s your agōnizo again – "agonizing for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God."
So we return to this text: "For the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye agonize together with me in your prayers to God for me" – that you strive for me [Romans 15:30].
Now, why should prayer be a struggle? Why should it be an agonizing? Why should it be a suffering and a difficulty? "For the Lord’s sake, and the love of the Spirit, agonize together with me in your prayers." Why should it be? Well, is it because our Lord is reluctant? It is hard to get the Lord to relent. His gifts are held; and He doesn’t give them, and it is with difficulty that He bestows them. Our Lord is a hard taskmaster, and you have to struggle and agonize before Him before He’ll answer our prayers. Is it because He’s that kind of a God?
No. In the first chapter of James, James says, "Ask, for God giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not" [James 1:5]. And, again, in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Luke, our Lord says Himself, He says Himself, "Ask, and ye shall receive; and seek and knock, and you will find" [Luke 11:9]. He said, and He illustrated it, "What man of you that is a father, if his son ask him for bread, would he give him a stone? Or if he ask him for a fish, would he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he ask for an egg, would he for an egg give him a scorpion?" [Luke 11:11-12]. Why, you wouldn’t think of such a thing as that. You wouldn’t. If ye, then, being immature, and evil, and fallen short, and human, and mundane, if we are that way by our children, "how much more will our heavenly Father give good gifts unto them that ask Him?" [Luke 11:13]
So it isn’t in God; and, yet, He uses the word. And I say it is true of our own experience this striving together in prayer, this struggling in prayer, this agonizing in prayer. Why is it that? Why is it such?
Well, this is the reason. First: Satan. Satan. Against your prayer life, Satan will always aim his most murderous and numerous darts against your prayer life. Satan will always marshal all that he can against it. Satan will. In the Ephesian letter, in the sixth chapter, the Apostle Paul says, "For we wrestle not, we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world" [Ephesians 6:12]. Satan is against us, and to pray, really to pray, is a struggle. It’s a striving. It’s a difficulty. It’s an agony.
Why is it such? Another reason: our carnality: our flesh, these bodies of death in which we live. In the eighth chapter of the Book of Romans, Paul says that our flesh is enmity against God [Romans 8:7]. In the fifth chapter of the Galatian letter, Paul says, "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these two are contrary one to the other, so that you cannot do what you want" [Galatians 5:17]. Our carnality, our fleshly bodies, are against prayer. It’s hard to pray. It is difficult to pray. It is a striving to pray.
When the angel wrestled with Jacob all night long, all night long [Genesis 32:24-30], don’t think, don’t be persuaded – I read a message this week that was just diametrically the opposite of that thing in the thirty-second chapter of the Book of Genesis. The man who was writing his article on the thirty-second chapter of the Book of Genesis was saying that Jacob was wrestling with God. No, he wasn’t. God was wrestling with Jacob [Genesis 32:24-25]. You read it and see. God was wrestling with Jacob. The angel was wrestling with Jacob. Why? Because Jacob was a low-down, good-for-nothing scoundrel, that’s why.
He was a cheat. He was a thief. He was everything wrong and bad and against God; and the Lord wrestled with him and didn’t prevail [Genesis 32:25]. And the angel wrestled with Jacob all night long and didn’t prevail. And as the dawning light began to burst, the angel touched his thigh, touched the hollow of his thigh, touched the joint of his thigh, and it was loosed and unjointed and crippled and hurt. He finally yielded.
I know a lot of people that way. They never served God until a tragedy came. They never served God until an awful hurt came. Lots of people are that way. The Lord has to crush them, has to break their hearts, has sometimes to touch their bodies to make them saintly and godly and yielded.
That’s what happened. Jacob wrestled against God, and the Lord touched the hollow of his thigh; and when he saw he was crippled and hurt and crushed, it also broke his spirit. And when the angel started to leave him like that, then it was that Jacob held on to the angel and said, "I’ll not let You go until you bless me" [Genesis 32:26]. And when he went to see Esau, he halted on his thigh and was crippled all of the days of his life [Genesis 32:31].
That’s the reason you strive – because of the flesh, because of our carnality, which is enmity against God.
There’s another reason why you strive in prayer, why it is difficult to pray. It’s because of the rush of this world. Why, who’s got time to pray? Who takes time to pray? You’re busy. I’m on the way; don’t stop me. Some other time, some other hour, but not now; it isn’t convenient. I have this to do. We’re busy; and the world rushes, and we rush too.
In the Dallas Morning News is a little magazine: This Week. It’s in every Sunday edition, and on the inside of the front page is always a little article, "Words to Live By." And you read the one for today; it’s on prayer, and it closes with this. The author, who is a famous novelist, says that in the little English village where he grew up as a boy there was an old man who always dropped in to the church, and he just sat there silent and still. And one day, he went up to him and teasingly said, "You know, you do so funny. You do so strange. You just sit here, and you don’t kneel, and you don’t say fine words and fine prayers." And the novelist says, "I’ll never forget the sublime answer of that old saint. He humbly replied, ‘Friend, the Lord is here, and I’m here, and that’s enough – just being still before the Lord.’" "Be still," said the Psalmist, "and know that I am God" [Psalm 46:10].
You know what? Why, I can’t remember it. I don’t understand. We’d do twice as much and go twice as far if we were to cut out half of the activities of this church, and I could get our people to go over there to that chapel and just be still before God and look to God. But I can’t do it. I don’t myself. I’m too busy. We’re too busy, and the world is with us. And that’s the reason, I say, it’s a striving to pray. It’s an agonizing to pray. It’s a difficulty and a struggle to pray.
Now, we must finish my text. What was he praying for? "That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judea" – the Jews that hated him – "that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints" [Romans 15:31]. The Judaizers, who didn’t like him, that he’d succeed with them; and third, "that I may come unto you with joy by the will of God" [Romans 15:32]. Now that was why he says, "I want you to pray to God for me" [Romans 15:30].
Well, how did God answer their prayers because, I believe, they prayed – every one of these blessed old saints here? Epaenetus, whoever Epaenetus was, when he got that letter and heard it, old Epaenetus, whoever he was, got down on his knees and said, "Now, Lord, when Paul goes to Jerusalem, Lord, may he be acceptable in the church and may he be acceptable in Judea. And, deliver him and send him to us here at Rome." And Amplias and Tryphena and Tryphosa, they all prayed for Paul.
All right, how did the Lord answer those prayers? All right, this is the way the Lord answered their prayer. When Paul got to Jerusalem, they nearly beat him to death. That is the first thing that happened to him: they nearly beat him to death [Acts 21:27-23:22]. And had it not been for the chiliarch there, Lysias, had it not been for Lysias, they would have killed him right there in the temple [Acts 23:23-35]. They would have beat him to death.
All right, how else did [He] answer his prayers? All right. When they nearly beat him to death, why, they put him in jail; and he stayed in jail in Caesarea alone for two solid years just staying there in Caesarea [Acts 24:1-27].
And then, "Pray that I may come unto you with joy by the will of God." When he got to Rome, how did he get to Rome? He got to Rome between soldiers with an iron chain [Acts 27:1-28:31]. He came to Rome as a prisoner making appeal for his life. That’s how the Lord answered his prayers. That’s how He answered his prayers. "Pray for me that I may be delivered from them that don’t believe in Judea . . . And that I may come unto you with joy by the will of God, and may with you be refreshed" [Romans 15:30-32]. And when he came after being beaten, after being in jail and in prison, when he came, he came with an iron chain on his hand. That’s how the Lord answered his prayers.
"Well, then the Lord doesn’t answer prayer. He doesn’t answer prayer. He doesn’t deliver us from the hand of those that hate us and from those who would thrust us in prison and from those who would put chains upon us. Then, the Lord doesn’t answer prayer." Ah, you just don’t know. You’re not learned in the ways of the Lord. You’re not wise in Jesus. How does the Lord answer prayer? You look how He answers prayer. "Pray that I may come unto you" [Romans 15:32]. And, when he came, that’s the way he came all right.
But what came of the way that the Lord answered his prayer? All right, he was chained to a different Roman soldier every eight hours [Acts 28:16]; and in the course of his imprisonment, he had personal contact with every soldier in the Praetorian Guard. Every one of the elite of the soldiers that belonged to the personal guard of Caesar, Paul was chained to him.
How in the world would a Baptist preacher preach the gospel to the elite of the Roman guard in the Praetorian in Rome? How? There wasn’t any way in earth that it could be done, but a despised, outcast Jew could do it. But when he was chained to a soldier every eight hours, they all heard him. They all knew the Lord; and they all heard the story from the very lips of Paul himself. That’s one thing that happened.
Another thing that happened: everybody in Caesar’s household heard the word. Paul sends greetings to the churches "from the saints that are in Caesar’s household" [Philippians 4:22]. Caesar’s cook, and Caesar’s chambermaid, and Caesar’s chamberlain, and Caesar’s butler, and Caesar’s door man, and Caesar’s charioteers, and Caesar’s ambassadors: everybody in Caesar’s household got acquainted with the gospel of God through the prisoner Paul.
And then another thing: those "prison epistles" that were written, you wouldn’t have those letters had he not been in prison [Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon]. He wrote those letters in the dungeons. Had he been out there, busy in his missionary journeys, he would never have taken time to write those letters, to think those things, to let God speak to his heart. But inside, in chains, he prayed and thought and meditated, and God spoke to him; and he wrote those letters that we have here in our Bible.
That’s how the Lord answered his prayers. Not like he thought, not like he wanted, but better still.
You know, there’s a world of things today that are being published. I read it endlessly about this thing of God and the faith and prayers. Now, you’ve already read this, but I want to repeat it. It’s in the current issue of the Reader’s Digest, and it says this was scribbled about a century ago by an anonymous soldier of the Confederacy.
I asked God for strength that I might achieve,
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for help that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy.
I was given poverty that I might be wise . . .
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for
But everything I had hoped for.
Despite myself, my prayers were answered.
Paul, Paul, Paul: "For the Lord’s sake, for the love of the Spirit, strive together with me in your prayers, that I may be delivered, that I may come unto you with joy" [Romans 15:30-32]. And the Lord answered his prayers in a better way than Paul ever dreamed, and He does that for us – not always as we like, as we want, but in a better way, in His way; and His way is always infinitely the best.
All right, may we sing our song? And, while we sing it, while we sing it, somebody you, tonight, give your heart to the Lord. "Here I am, Pastor. Here I come." Somebody put his life with us in this church, you or a family. As God shall make the appeal, you come. Anywhere. Anywhere. You come tonight, taking the Lord, giving your heart to God, believing in Jesus, trusting in Him, or putting your life with us in the church, while we stand and while we sing.