Travailing in Prayer for Yourself and Others

Intense travailing prayer is praying with great emotional, physical, mental and spiritual energy.  Intense travailing prayer is used when you or someone you are praying for is facing overwhelming problems or struggles. 

The word travail is the same word used for labor pains when giving birth to a child.  In intense travailing prayer you are laboring to bring God’s power into the world or into someone’s life.  Here is how to do intense travailing prayer.

Pray with every power you have like Jesus did

Jesus engaged in the most intense praying in his life in the Garden of Gethsemane just hours before he was arrested.  Jesus prayed fervently that God would spare him from the suffering and painful death on the cross that awaited.  The Bible says, “And being in anguish, he (Jesus) prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”  (Luke 22:44 NIV)  

This prayer burden was so heavy that it was like an actual physical fight, causing him to literally sweat blood.  Jesus was using every ounce of everything he had – his mind, body, emotions and spirit.  Jesus described his inner battle to the disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  (Matthew 26:38 NIV) 

The Bible says, “Going a little farther, he fell down with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will.”  (Matthew 26:39 NIV) 

Why did Jesus fall face down onto the ground to pray?  Had Jesus used so much physical strength agonizing that he was too weak to go any farther?  Or did Jesus throw himself to the ground in a gesture of total prostration and humility before God?  Whatever the cause, it illustrates how intense travailing prayer can be.   

When you do intense travailing prayer, follow the example of Jesus.  Lay it all out before God in whatever way you can.  This type of prayer is driven by intensity and perseverance.  It’s about praying as hard as you can for as long as you can until you completely pour yourself out to God and receive God’s peace.  

Intense travailing prayer adds physical and emotional expressions to the intellectual words and expressions of prayer. 

Emotional expressions include tears, shouts or whispers. 

Physical postures often show your intensity, such as kneeling or lying prone on the floor. 

Movements can be used, such as pacing the floor, rocking back and forth in your chair or waving your fist.  

Symbolic objects might be used, such as clinging to a cross.

Verbal expressions might include sighs, groans, a series of repeated words such as “Lord have mercy” or using an expressive language as practiced in the Charismatic branch of the Christian church. (See Acts 2:4)       

As an example, a doctor whose teenage daughter had a life-threatening medical condition used intense travailing prayer.  At home he shut the door to his home office and prayed while lying face down on the rug.  He told me he did this to show God that he was a low as he could go before God to beg for his mercy and help.               

Ask the Holy Spirit which intense travailing prayer burdens you should take on

You can’t pray with intense travailing prayer for every need and request that comes your way.  Every  prayer on this scale requires time, energy and commitment and calling.  We have a tendency to think that the more intensely we pray for something, the more likely that we’ll get what we want.   This isn’t the principle behind travailing prayer.  

Before launching into intense travailing prayer, look for indications that the Holy Spirit is leading you.  Here are some ways the Holy Spirit might call you: 

Stirs your heart, emotions or spirit about a specific situation

Puts a great desire in your heart for a spiritual breakthrough for yourself or others

Shows you someone who is imprisoned by evil forces, such as addiction

Pours great compassion into your heart for someone who is ill or downtrodden

Sends an urgent call to pray intensely for a specific person.  Such calls might come in the middle of the night.    

Calls you to pray for members of your own family who are wayward, unsaved, dysfunctional or in peril.   Often you are the best person to travail for your family member because of your great love for them and also because you know their situation more intimately than anyone else.

As an example, a woman who was a hospital chaplain told me how she helped a woman whose husband was extremely ill.  The wife was so overwrought and stressed out that it was hard for her to pray.  God filled the chaplain with great compassion for the woman as a call to pray for the wife.  The chaplain told the wife that she would take personally on the woman’s prayer burdens, basically bearing them for her because she didn’t have the energy to do so herself.  The chaplain didn’t take this duty lightly.  It was a huge sacrifice for the chaplain to engage in this kind of prayer.  Thankfully, after weeks of intensive care and intensive prayer, the man improved and the chaplain’s calling to intensive prayer was completed. 

Avoid burnout during intense prayer

Intense travailing prayer is the most draining type of prayer.  It is true spiritual labor and sometimes is like warfare.  It expends great amounts of energy.  Like hard physical work, you need time to rest, refresh and re-nourish.  If you don’t, you’ll feel burned out quickly.

Here are some ways to keep God has given us many ways to become refreshed spiritually. 

Worship. Worship feeds your spirit and renews your heart.   

Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving feeds your mind and soul by helping you see that the small details of life are good because God is a good giver. 

Christian meditation.  Meditation take your mind off situations here on earth and bring you closer to your loving Father.   

Bible reading. Reading the Bible will renew your mind as you learn more about God and are reminded of his promises.    

Christian friends.  Christian friends offer a sense of belonging, support, love and fresh points of view.  They also encourage you with their testimonies of how God has worked and answered prayer in their own lives.    

The thing all of these have in common is enjoying time with God that’s not focused on terrible situations you are praying about.  The Bible says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.”  (Psalm 34:8 NIV)   Fill your mind and soul with positive things as the Bible says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things.”  (Philippians 4:8 NIV)

One of my favorite ways to renew myself spiritually is to take a walk and mediate in nature.  Other times I might visit a sanctuary or write answers to prayer in my journal  

Believe that your intense travailing prayer is productive

In the Bible, Jesus talked about travail in the sense of childbirth – a painful process of labor.  Comparing our spiritual struggles with the pains of childbirth says that our pain is productive even though it may not feel like it at the time. 

Jesus says, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” (John 16:21 NIV)

When our hard prayer work is done, something is accomplished.   Praying intensely doesn’t mean that we necessarily will get what we want.  But something will come of it, either here on earth or in heaven.  Your travailing prayers might:

Help someone feel God’s presence during a devastating loss

Start a slow-going chain of events that leads someone back to God. 

Help you learn to trust God no matter what like Jesus did while praying in Gethsemane.

Give you “the peace that passes all understanding” that allows you to end your prayers and move on.  (See Philippians 4:7) 

Allow you to finally be able to place something or someone near and dear to you into God’s hands. 

May give you a personal promise or a new insight.

In my experiences in travailing prayer I have found that it’s usually not a one and done process where things change immediately.  You might pray at different times over time. 

I prayed for several years for someone I loved.  This person was in denial and wouldn’t accept the help that would bring hope and healing.   There were periods when I prayed intensely and times when I rested and went on with normal life.  I wrote down one of the prayers I prayed at a very low point entitled a strong prayer for healing.  The person finally sought help after years of my prayers and the prayers of others.  God was at work, even when nothing seemed to change.      

Rely on unseen spiritual strength.

When Jesus was praying intensely in the Garden of Gethsemane the Bible says, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.”  (Luke 22:43)  Although you might not see an angel, rest assured that the Holy Spirit to strengthening you.    

Jesus tells us, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of Truth.  The world cannot accept him because it neither sees him nor knows him.  But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”  (John 14:15 NIV)    

Your lack of strength or skill can be an asset in intense prayer as Paul said about his own weaknesses, “But he (God) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’…For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9,10 NIV)

The Bible tells us, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”  (Romans 8:26,27 NIV) 

The reason we need supernatural strength is because the things we are praying about cannot be solved or resolved by our human power.   Paul tells us, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.   Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms.”  (Ephesians 6:10-12 NIV)

Don’t give up, even when others do

In Gethsemane, Jesus didn’t stop praying even when everyone else did.  On that night of intense prayer Jesus asked his disciples to watch and pray with him.  He said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me.”  (Matthew 26:38)   The disciples intended to support Jesus in prayer, but they fell asleep.  Jesus woke them up and asked them why they couldn’t keep praying with him for an hour.  Jesus said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  (Matthew 26:41) 

If the Holy Spirit leads you to pray, pray as soon as possible and keep on praying until you feel your work is done.  I think the disciples failed to keep praying because they didn’t understand the urgency.  Even though Jesus told them plainly that he would be crucified, they didn’t think that it was going to happen immediately.   

When answering a call to intense travailing prayer, time matters.  When God sends a strong urge to pray do your very best to do it promptly and to keep doing it even if others have stopped praying.   

I have been extremely surprised many times when hearing about how others have prayed during the long haul for things I never imagined would happen.  Because I didn’t think they would happen, I never thought to pray.  Thank heavens for those who heard the call and prayed!

As an example, I was born after the Berlin Wall was built, so to me, it was the way the world was, with one side of Germany free and one side under Communist rule.  I was an adult with children of my own when the earth-shattering news came that Communism had fallen and the Berlin Wall was torn down!  I was even more shocked to hear several women in my Bible study group say that for years their church had been praying intensely for the fall of Communism so that Christ could be preached.  To them the wall coming down was an act of God and an enormous answer to prayer! 

I learned a valuable lesson about intense prayer from them.  I learned that I tend to pray for things that I think might actually happen.  I was basically giving up praying for impossible things before I even started.  I learned to keep praying when God calls and not to give up.     

Leave the results to God.

Often when we expend this sort of prayer energy on something, we hope to see a quick and positive answer.  We must remember that travail is a mysterious form of prayer.  Travailing prayer is not a way of earning a specific outcome. It works on many levels that are beyond our comprehension.

You might think of intense travailing prayer in terms of farming.  Sometimes you may be pulling weeds by standing against evil.  Sometimes you might be watering the ground by softening or nourishing someone’s heart.  Sometimes you might be plowing, breaking up rebelliousness and unbelief.   Sometimes you might be planting seed, setting the stage for breakthroughs that will later bear fruit.  Sometimes you might be guarding the crop from pests like crows or deer by praying God’s protection from evil, attack and loss. 

Paul explained it this way, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.  The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”  (2 Corinthians 3:6-9 NIV)

Remember when doing intense travailing prayer that you are taking part in a process that God is orchestrating and blessing.  Rest assured that your prayers have fulfilled their purpose in ways that you may only understand much later.  Remember that God is the one who makes the seed grow and trust that when you have answered his calling, you will share in the reward of your labor.

Examples in the Bible of intense travailing prayer

David praying for seven days prostrate on the floor that his infant son who was seriously ill would live.  (2 Samuel 12: 15-23)

Hannah, who was barren, praying with anguished tears to be able to bear a son.  (1 Samuel 1 :9-18)

Daniel praying with fasting and in sackcloth and ashes for God’s mercy on exiled and disobedient Israel.  (Daniel 9:1-19)

Jeremiah mourning and lamenting in prayer for his people.  (Jeremiah 8:18 -22, 9;1)

Other helpful articles

How to stand in the gap in prayer

Prayer by proxy when the person you are praying for isn’t present

Praying your pain with Christ’s

Copyright Karen Barber 2011