Come on Church, Push!
One night at about two a.m. I found myself suddenly awake, out of bed and on my knees praying earnestly for a biker friend of mine named Dan. He had drifted from the Lord and his heart had hardened toward God. After what seemed like 20 minutes, but might have been two hours, the burden and inner groanings lifted and I quickly fell asleep again.
“I had actually partnered with God in prayer and it had made a difference!”
A few days later I heard the outcome from another friend. Apparently, at the time I was praying, Dan became restless and was unable to sleep. He had phoned our pastor and asked if he could get together with him that night. They drove for several hours along the highway talking about spiritual things. Dan confessed his anger and bitterness toward God, and re-committed his life to the Lord. I was stunned and elated to think that maybe I had played a part in it all. I had actually partnered with God in prayer and it had made a difference!
That incident took place over 25 years ago during the Jesus movement. Since then I have heard stories of God seemingly placing an intense burden on someone to pray fervently for a situation or a person, but I naively assumed such experiences were rare. In the last 12 years however, God has stretched me greatly in things of the Holy Spirit and the supernatural including the vital place of travailing prayer.
A few years back, I had just settled into what I thought was the last paradigm shift I needed to make this side of heaven when the move of the Spirit hit three years ago. In the midst of the laughter and healing came an empowering for bold and passionate prophetic intercession that unnerved and challenged many. Yet historically speaking this shouldn’t come as a surprise, because preceding or during any move of God there is a noticeable acceleration in God-initiated prayer and intercession which is often fuelled and propelled by the prophetic (Amos 3:7-8).
In our own church in Stratford, Ontario, which unfortunately meets in an auditorium that is extremely lively acoustically, we have seen “normal” people break out in loud travail, groaning, or even roaring. These often quiet and reserved Christians very aggressively and authoritatively intercede for revival and for the lost, under the power and anointing of the Spirit.
Also for a number of years united, corporate prayer for revival has been growing in momentum around the world. Prayer warriors are being raised up in large numbers, and at times, with much intensity, noise, and dramatic emotional or physical manifestations.
“A form of intercession that releases the creative power or energy of the Holy Spirit into a situation to produce, creates or gives birth to something.”
Our church has been significantly touched by this fresh wave of the Spirit and the strong and dramatic travailing prayer and intercession. However, I am painfully aware that I am still on a steep learning curve and have had to grapple with many questions: Does this kind of prayer have a biblical foundation? What is it? Is it flaky? When, and to whom does it happen? As a pastor, how can I avoid quenching the Spirit without being derailed?
We find ourselves again and again forced to be humbled, allowing God to expose our prejudices, fears, temperamental preferences, cultural conditioning, and arrogance while at the same time remembering that the realm of the Spirit is translational, and beyond full rational comprehension. God’s ways are often not our ways and his thoughts are above and beyond our limited thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9 My translation). With simple child-likeness, we must submit to the authority of Scripture and keep in step with the Spirit.
What it is?
In his book by Dutch Sheets, pastor of author and intercessor Cindy Jacobs Intercessory Prayer gives this definition of travailing, or birthing prayer: “A form of intercession that releases the creative power or energy of the Holy Spirit into a situation to produce, creates or give birth to something.” He wisely points out that travailing or birthing prayer may or may not be accompanied by intense groaning, weeping, or other outward manifestations, and therefore should not be defined by them.
As difficult as it may be, we must avoid the mistake of making outward manifestations the focal point. We must focus instead on the work that God is accomplishing. The real issue is that our prayers are releasing the Holy Spirit to bring forth spiritual life and fruit in people and situations.
Is it flaky?
From Scripture and through experience, I have observed that there exists a valid form of prayer called “travail” that can “give birth” spiritually. Travail however, is initiated and energized by the Holy Spirit. It is not something one can manufacture or “work up.” One can only yield to it.
“God may therefore, call on any believer, at any time, to travail in prayer for birthing his kingdom purposes. This is a challenging issue which the enemy has gleefully exploited.“
Travailing prayer generally becomes flaky only when it operates independently of pastoral leadership and outside of biblical guidelines says intercessor Cindy Jacobs in her book, Possessing the Gates of the Enemy. To guard against flakiness, prayer warriors continually need to keep their hearts pure, teachable, accountable and devoid of a critical and bitter spirit.
What does the Bible say?
The apostle Paul urges us to pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests (Ephesians 6:18 My translation). The question is, are we open to all kinds of prayers—even ones that mystify us or make us uncomfortable? Arthur Wallis, in his book Pray in the Spirit, points out that praying in the Spirit may mean praying:
1. With words in a language that can be understood by the mind.
2. With words in an unknown language (tongues) (1 Corinthians 14).
3. Without words using sighs, groans, and cries too deep for words (Romans 8).
If some have found the notion of praying in tongues perplexing, they may find the idea of wordless praying even more problematic. However, Paul in Romans 8:22-27 declares that creation, believers and the Holy Spirit all groan as if in the pains of childbirth and with a sense of longing and expectation. He seems to anticipate our struggle to understand how prayer can be expressed not only through words but also by groanings, when he states that God knows the mind of the Spirit and that the Spirit intercedes in accordance with the will of God.
The following passages either directly or indirectly address travailing, or birthing, prayer:
Elijah crouched down, put his face between his knees and prayed for rain. In Elijah’s day, the posture he used was that of a woman giving birth. (1 Kings 18:41-45 NIV)
“Yet no sooner is Zion in labour than she gives birth to her children.” (Isaiah 66:7-8 NIV)
At Lazarus’ death Jesus groaned in his spirit, was agitated, and wept. (John 11:33-43 NIV)
In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus travailed. (Mt 26:38 & Heb 5:7 NIV)
Paul says he is again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in His children. Paul had travailed for their spiritual birth, and was now travailing for their maturity. (Galatians 4:19 My translation)
Who Gets To Travail?
You may have read about great intercessors like Rees Howell, or David Brainard, or may have witnessed strong and dramatic manifestations accompanying other peoples’ prayers, and concluded that travailing prayer is beyond ordinary Christians like yourself. But in Romans 8, Paul speaks of people, those who have first fruits of the Spirit and who are weak, not knowing how to pray as they ought. He says that prayer under the unction of the Holy Spirit with groanings that are unintelligible is accessible to all believers, not just to an elite group of supersaints.
When does it happen?
God may therefore, call on any believer, at any time, to travail in prayer for birthing his kingdom purposes. This is a challenging issue which the enemy has gleefully exploited. It has created much tension and conflict between pastors and prophetic intercessors. Our church has not been immune from this and has lost a number of prophetic intercessors for this reason.
Some argue that travailing prayer, which can offend those who don’t understand it, should be reserved for the prayer closet, and not be exposed to public church life in the same way as natural labour and birth are carried out in the privacy of a home or delivery room.
Ideally while privacy is most desirable in seasons of revival, which are seasons of war, exceptions may be needed. It can happen while you’re driving a car, cleaning the house or mowing the lawn. The burden can come suddenly and leave suddenly or come for an extended period of time. The important thing is to yield to the Spirit. The Bible records that Jesus sobbed and prayed openly in the streets while riding into Jerusalem. (Luke 19) While on a recent fast, I experienced inner groaning and travail for several days regardless of where I was or what I was doing.
Mary Alice Isleib, who wrote Effective Fervent Prayer says we should not always try to forbid or hide travailing prayer simply because some are uncomfortable and offended by it or fear it. At times however I make a judgment call to move travailing individuals from a church service to a side room so that people are not distracted from what the Spirit is doing with the rest of the congregation. We try not to shame these intercessors, but seek to acknowledge and affirm them, and show them our appreciation.
Also, intercessors need to feel included, rather than relegated to a “lunatic fringe.” To do this church leaders can establish a variety of meetings with different purposes, some of which meet their needs—family worship services, renewal meetings, prayer meetings, watch night services, and prayer ministry at the end of meetings. Pastors and elders who are called of God to direct the affairs of the church need wisdom to judge rightly and therefore require the prayer support of their congregations.
I am convinced that travailing prayer is not only scripturally valid, but is an essential and powerful weapon and tool of the Holy Spirit to birth and bring to life the end-time apostolic purposes of God in our churches today. Untold millions await their births into God’s kingdom, and we have the privilege of playing an integral part in the birthing process not only through the proclamation of the gospel, but through prayer. In the words of pastor Dutch Sheets, “Come on church, push!”