To my great surprise, I burst into tears while telling my husband about the appointment of “hawkish”John Bolton as the new National Security Adviser. “What are we going to do now!!! How will we survive this?” Used to my complaints about the state of politics in America, my husband was taken aback by my emotion and tried to reassure me. Later that week as I read an article in Christianity Today about travailing prayer, I understood my reaction. I was not just venting; I was actually praying – desperately praying from the depths of my soul.
The adjective travailing describes work or emotion that is painful, difficult, arduous. Travail comes to us from the Latin word: trepalium, meaning an instrument of torture. Dictionary.com says that “the closest English word is probably toil, though travail means that you’re not just exerting monumental effort but suffering as you do so. If your life has been hard-knock enough to be the stuff of old blues songs or Shakespearean tragedies, you’ve had your share of travails.”
As I search my memory of travailing prayers in Scripture, I think of Hannah begging for a child, Abraham bargaining for the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses at the altar praying for rain, David pleading for safety from his enemies, Jesus in the Garden questioning the need for his death, Paul urging the church in Galatia not to return to their old ways. These prayers were agonizing, the result of desperation.
In the early days of the American experiment, Thomas Paine wrote several anonymous pamphlets meant to encourage the colonists to stand up against the British, gathered together under the title Common Sense. These were the first words in the first pamphlet: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Our souls are also being tried by the times we live in. What we need are honest and bold travailing prayers. David Thomas says, “Travailing prayer, [a] kind of burdened focused pressing [prayer] . . . seem closer [than casual spoken prayers] to the heart of prayer in Scripture . . . . When confronted with insurmountable difficulties of a broken world, the lessons of travail have challenged me to pray big.” He goes on to say:
“An honest assessment of our times moves me to seek God for a share in his holy love for the world, voiced first not in a pulpit, blog, magazine article,or tweet, but in a closet. That’s my choice to take as my own the most ancient and desperate prayer of the church, “Come Holy Spirit.”
We, too, need to pray big! We need to pray passionately, pray vigorously, pray apolitically, and pray desperately. “Come Holy Spirit!”