You could call the apostle Paul mad, but you cannot call him soft.
Paul’s understanding of his life’s purpose prioritizes struggle. Not for Paul the vague notion that ‘I am doing what God wants because I have peace.’ One wonders whether he would scoff at such palaver, roll his eyes, or simply move kindly and firmly to correct the person who speaks it.
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. (Romans 15:30–32 ESV)
Near the end of his long letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul invites them to join him in his struggle. Unexpectedly, perhaps, what he wants is for his readers to struggle with God in prayer. The English Standard Version seems to get Paul’s syntax right with its rendering ‘to strive together with me in your prayers’. That is, Paul’s invitation is not simply to strive with him and to do so by praying. Nor does it reduce to striving in prayer with him, as though prayer were the only arena of his struggle.
Rather, Paul’s struggle seems to take place substantively but not exclusively in the task of prayer. He invites the Romans to join in that portion of his struggle which is immediately available to them, that is praying with him for deliverance from his adversaries and open doors to visit them one day in Rome. This interpretation seems to me to deal best with the ambiguity of Paul’s slightly opaque sentence.
How would one respond to Paul’s invitation?
First, the attentive reader would not imagine that Paul’s purpose glides forward without friction. Rather, there is a desperate need for divine intervention if Paul is to have what Paul manifestly wants. Things will not come easily.
Second, praying for success in Paul’s hard task will itself be a prolonged and taxing effort. Our prayers, Paul’s Romans friends might imagine, may not quickly be answered. Heaven’s response might tarry, may seem slow, even unresponsive and out of touch with the urgency of the thing. There is not only prayer for Paul in his struggle, but struggling, tenacious, bruised prayer in support of Paul’s challenging and wounding purpose.
Thirdly, this agonizing prayer—if I may play upon the etymology of the Greek word συναγωνίζεσθαι—will produce an alignment of human and divine purpose. Paul thinks such prayer might well produce an outcome in which ‘by God’s will I might come to you with joy and be refreshed’. He does not enter into the mechanics of how God’s purpose and ours might become the same via the path of prayer, but he believes it can happen and hopes that it will.
Finally, Paul does not presume upon his readers’ immediate response. He can imagine his need going ignored or seeming not to be a priority. For this reason, he appeals to them to join his struggle by struggling in prayer. When other translations reach for strong verbs like beseech (KJV) and urge (NIV), they recognize the degree to which Paul finds it necessary to impress upon his readers the imperative of joining him by praying. It might not appear to be so, but this is really important.
If it seems odd that Christians’ experience in this world should seem so much like warfare, that is because we have lived so long in ease. Perhaps not much longer. Then we will come to know struggle as our new-old normal. We will wage hard battle on our knees, not as though prayer were the only arena of our struggle, but clear that it is an essential one.