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    The Call to Desperate Intercession: What Is “Travailing Prayer”? 

    Josh Green

    10 Min Read

    23 May 2024

    All over the world, people are being awakened to an expression of prayer that flows from deep within the soul and yearns to see God move. This type of desperate prayer is marked by a deep passion – it can happen in many forms: silent tears, wordless groans, private intercession, and there also seems to be a fresh wave of God’s Spirit moving people to loud cries, intense shouts, and even wailing. 
    What is this kind of prayer? What is God doing through it? Does it matter? And is there an invitation for us, the wider church? How can we respond? 

    Sarah Breuel gave an amazing call to intercession and travailing prayer in her talk at the Gathering ‘23 – it was a significant moment in the 24-7 Prayer movement, and an invitation we’ve been leaning into ever since. You can watch the talk here. 

    To be clear, there are many forms of prayer, all wonderful and valid. From contemplative to contending, all are reflected in the life of Jesus. Some sustain us in a healthy and regular relationship with God, while others call forth the power of God into earthly reality. Prayer should never be about performance and perfection but instead about pursuing the presence of God.  

    Nonetheless, this blog is focusing on a specific type of prayer which has often been linked to revivals in church history.   

    Travailing prayer 

    James Aladiran says, “How can you expect God to be moved by your prayers if you are not moved by them?” This is the heart of this kind of desperate prayer. Are my prayers empty words or are they heart-felt? 

    There’s a rich history of this passionate prayer in the Church. Often, the term “travailing prayer” is used to describe it. “Travail” means “work, especially of a painful or laborious nature,” and the word has also been used to refer to the process of labour in childbirth. We see this in Jesus’ prayer life: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Hebrews 5:7), and in Paul’s, when he writes: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,” (Galatians 4:19). 

    Travailing prayer, then, is from deep longing within the soul and can often be a painful, birth-like experience. It’s a true expression of allowing God to break our hearts for what breaks His. This is prayer that doesn’t expect to move God if it doesn’t first move the human heart. 

    What moves God’s heart? 

    I personally began to go deeper in this kind of desperate, heart-felt prayer when I returned home from visiting Asbury University, where an outpouring of the Holy Spirit had thousands of young people spending hours in the presence of God. Though I’d prayed like this before, this time had new meaning and fresh passion to it. 

    As I travelled back home from the airport after my trip, I reflected on all I’d seen God do back in the United States, a deep longing to see Him do the same in my home nation began to stir in me. The phrase “God, awaken a generation” started to desperately pour out from my heart during the ride home. When I arrived home, I noticed that I’d received a message that a young person connected to our ministry had suddenly felt the urge to come back to Jesus… and they’d felt that urge at the exact time I was praying. 

    I’ve come to believe that though the love of God is unconditional, a move of God is absolutely conditional on whether God’s people pray. 2 Chronicles 7:14 makes this clear: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” I’ve heard it said that, “Without God we cannot, without us He will not.”1 While prayer is critical, revival history repeatedly tells us that it was a specific kind of desperate and fervent prayer that often preceded breakthrough. 

    There are wonderful prayers we pray in the quiet and secret place with the Father that help us regularly meet with God. These kinds of prayers build consistency and faithfulness in our relationship with God and are critical for a thriving Christian life. Travailing prayer is not better than other forms of prayer – we need them all – but it is different. Moreover, biblically and historically, this desperation and persistence in prayer is so often linked to revival.  

    Travailing prayer in the Bible 

    Travailing prayer is thoroughly biblical; Paul described it as agonizing in prayer, Jesus produced drops of blood and tears in Gethsemane, the Hebrews groaned in their slavery and God heard them, Elijah adopted a common birthing posture of his day and cried out to God, Eli thought Hannah was out of her mind and drunk when she prayed like this, Hezekiah wept, Nehemiah wept, Jeremiah wept, Jesus wept, John the Baptist shouted in deserts and prepared the way for Jesus, the early church cried out with one accord and Pentecost happened.  

    This being moved in prayer is often produced by honesty and repentance before God when we come to terms with our own issues and the problems in our societies. We start to develop intercessory burdens as God gives us His heart. These burdens produce a desperate longing in prayer that drives us to our knees, compels us to cry out, and urges us to knock until the door is opened.  

    The persistence of desperation 

    The Bible also makes it clear that if we want to see breakthrough in prayer, we must progress from being casual acquaintances of God to becoming those who “give God no rest.” (Isaiah 62:7).  

    Jesus said it like this when He taught us how to pray: “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.” (Luke 11:8). If we want to see breakthrough in our prayers then they must be persistent in relentless pursuit of the Presence of God, consistent in daily devotion, and resistant to the dominion of darkness. 

    The type of prayer that keeps on knocking comes from desperation. It’s generated from a deep travail in the soul, a broken hallelujah, a desperate plea. That’s why John Bunyan said, “in prayer, it’s better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”2  

    We must allow God to hear the depths of our hearts, the yearnings of our soul, the brokenness of our spirit. When we pray, God hears the words of our mouths but sees the state of our hearts. So I think we must be more concerned about where we’re praying from rather than simply what we’re praying for

    Birthing revival  

    Revival doesn’t happen by accident, it comes through “the ploughed-up hearts of men and women willing to receive the gift of travail,” pens David Thomas, a prominent figure at Asbury University. He, along with many others, had been praying for years for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on campus. This desperate prayer occurred regularly until God heard from heaven and poured His Spirit on the 8th February 2023 onto a group of honest and broken young people. 

    Thomas expresses the critical nature of travailing prayer in his book To Sow For A Great Awakening. He says this form of prayer was awakened in him through visiting the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. He interviewed those who witnessed the Hebridean Revival from 1949-1952 and says that each person emphatically stated that the revival was birthed through travailing prayer. Throughout history, we can consistently trace this same notion: that each revival that dramatically shaped culture and society was birthed from a place of fervent prayer.  

    This is how 24-7 Prayer began: when a simple student-led prayer vigil went viral and groups all over the world joined in to pray. And it’s still going now in over half the nations on earth. What we’re increasingly excited about is that we’re seeing a new movement of young people taking on the call to prayer, mission and justice. 

    Just in the UK alone, we started gathering young people to pray in cities and towns across the nation. We’ve been amazed as hundreds gathered, and since we began, we’ve been inspired by incredible stories. Some youth groups have doubled in size, one youth leader baptised 8 young people in one service – all came to faith at a 24-7 youth prayer night, a young lad in Birmingham preached the gospel to his mates and 20 of them said yes to following Jesus, another experienced the Holy Spirit so powerfully he recorded a podcast about it, and many others said yes to the call of God to preach the gospel in their school. 

    So, the question I find myself challenged by is, am I willing? For God is infinitely. Am I willing to P.U.S.H…Pray Until Something Happens? Are we available for God to transform us in prayer so that prayer doesn’t become about us getting God to bend to our agenda but about God getting us to submit to His will? Breaking us for the breakthrough to come, purifying us so He can flow through us, reviving the church to rewire the culture through night and day, unrelenting, desperate prayer. Are we willing to be interrupted by God to bend our knees in prayer? The future of the church and the spiritual state of the next generation is depending on it. 

    Next steps

    If you’re interested in going deeper in prayer, you might want to check out:

    Sarah Breuel’s talk on travailing prayer

    24-7 Prayer Rooms

    Prayer Guides to use in prayer rooms and prayer meetings

    1. Possibly derived and adapted from the following quote: “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” St. Augustine, Sermon 169 ↩︎
    2. John Bunyan, The Poetry of John Bunyan – Volume I, (PortablePoetry, 2017) ↩︎
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    Josh Green
    Josh Green

    Josh is Youth Director for 24-7 Prayer GB and Wildfires Festival. Josh travelled the world for years performing and preaching the gospel in various bands. Now, with a burning heart for revival, he continues to fire up young people to be all-in for Jesus. He lives in Manchester with his wife and three kids and attends Ramp Church. He loves good food, proper coffee, and Manchester City.