What Is Travailing Prayer?
Keys to the Kingdom: What the Bible Says about Travailing Prayer by Betty Miller
What is travailing prayer? It is crying in the Spirit which can take on several different manifestations. Before discussing this let us look at the Bible definition found in John 16:20-22:
Verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. John 16:20-22
Jesus, speaking here to his disciples, leaves them with a beautiful promise. He tells them He is going away, but He is not going to leave them comfortless as He plans to send the Holy Spirit. They later will cry at His departure, yet when they experience the new birth and the infilling of the Holy Spirit, they will rejoice.
Travailing prayer is a manifestation of the grief of the heart of God. This also has a parallel meaning when applied to prayer that cries out unto God. Perhaps we can understand this better if we realize that we now have the Holy Spirit living in us, and He has chosen to use our mouths to speak for Him. Since He has chosen to use us in His great plan to spread the gospel, He uses our mouths to witness to others and our hands to help people. Another beautiful truth that is often overlooked is that He also uses our hearts and emotions to weep and “cry through.” The Spirit of God expresses His grief in this manner.
Most Christians have experienced this without ever realizing it was a work of the Holy Spirit. At their conversion they sometimes wept and cried, grieved over their sins. Then later they got a burden for the salvation and deliverance of others, and cried over them also. This is known as travailing prayer. When we have a burden for others and become sorrowful over them, it is usually the Holy Spirit crying through us over the situation.
There is another kind of weeping and crying, but it is in the flesh and stems from our own selfishness as it is from self-pity. Fleshly crying is always concerned over self. Crying in the Spirit is Godly sorrow for others. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). If we cry in self-pity it brings depression and fear; but crying in the Spirit brings life and joy after it is finished. (Just as a woman cries to bring forth a child during labor, yet she is rejoicing as soon as the child is born.)
We do the same as we yield to the Spirit and take prayer burdens for others. God’s heart is burdened for people, and He is looking for hearts that He can cry and weep through, hearts that are concerned for a lost and dying world. So, in essence, travailing prayer is when we weep and cry over something the Holy Spirit is grieved about. Jesus said they would weep and cry for a little while, but then their sorrow would be turned into joy.
Travailing prayer works on the same principle. We do not understand all the principles in God’s word, nor why they work, but because they are a part of His plan, they work. This neglected principle and key is of vital importance in order to see things “born” in the Spirit. When we weep and cry over others while we petition God on their behalf, it breaks something in the Spirit so that the answer for their lives can come forth. If they need salvation, healing, a miracle, deliverance or whatever, grieving in the Spirit releases them to be able to receive their need. “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:5-6).
Sometimes this spirit of travail does not manifest with visible tears or crying, but it occurs deep within us and it cannot be uttered. We just hurt on the inside for others.
Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God. Romans 8:26-27
The Lord is searching for hearts that will intercede and He will use them many times to travail. We also travail for our own infirmities (moral and physical weaknesses). Many people after receiving the Holy Spirit have a siege of crying and grieving. This is the Holy Spirit cleansing their spirits and souls with the water of tears. We are so full of the things of this world and the sins of the past that we need this cleansing. We should not resist this, but yield to it until all is washed away and we come into the place of joy and peace.
We have not been taught much in this area, so many times the Lord tries to give us a burden for someone or something and we do not recognize it as such, but think that something is wrong with us. We pray to have a burden for lost souls and when we get one, we rebuke the Holy Spirit (thinking He is the enemy) because we do not understand the form of burden that travail takes. Often, we become depressed for no logical reason and, not recognizing it as travail, endure it or ignore it rather than praying until it lifts. The Lord tries to get us to pray; and when we do, not only does that depressed feeling leave, but we can break through spiritual barriers for someone else. The Lord also brings people to our hearts or our minds, and we need to be sensitive in the Spirit as to what the Lord speaks to us about them. They may be in need of prayer and the Spirit could be trying to get us to pray by bringing them to our remembrance. This is especially true if they remain in our thoughts for awhile. Praying in the Spirit like this is an invaluable tool.
We may have a burden for someone but not know his need. We should keep praying until we are released from that burden. Sometimes, we get the prayer victory in a matter of minutes; in other cases it may be longer. As we are led by the Spirit, He directs our prayer lives. He never puts a burden on us that is so heavy that we are unable to get freedom from it as we pray. The Lord knows we have earthly chores that must be attended to, so many times He gives us a burden that comes and goes so we can pray at those times when it is intense, and still attend to our earthly duties at other times. There is a time for travail, for work and for praise. The Spirit of God will balance us in all if we are sensitive to Him. “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
What is the purpose of travail? Travail produces spiritual children. Isaiah 66:8 says, “…for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children.” Christians are spiritually referred to in the Word of God as Zion (God’s people). As we travail, things are birthed in the Spirit. Many souls become “born again” through someone’s travail. Things happen as we pray and travail.
Paul was a man who travailed. “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). Paul had already travailed for them to be born into the kingdom of God, and now he was travailing for the remainder of the work to be done, Christ being formed in them. Paul knew that the destiny of baby Christians was to ultimately come into the fullness of Christ. Those little children were not to remain “babes,” but were to be brought into maturity becoming sons of God. Travail produces sons.
Travail is also a form of suffering for Christ because we choose to endure the pain in our hearts in order that others may be set free. Our flesh suffers, yet it produces life in others. Paul was willing to do this for Christ. “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
There are many different forms that travail may take and varying depths of pain involved. Some of these are mild sensations of heaviness or depression, or just the general feeling of a burden. Some people weep, cry, moan or groan. Others even experience symptoms like birth pains or heart pains while in deep travail. One can experience any of these feelings separately or in combination.
Examples of these same experiences can be found in the lives of Bible saints. Daniel was a saint who experienced travail. In Daniel 7:15, he is seen grieving in the spirit. “I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me.” Also in Daniel 8:27 and Daniel 10:8, we find him feeling faint, sick, and weak during the time he was in prayer. He was fine, though, after he finished praying. Hannah is another example of a travailing saint. We find her story in 1 Samuel 1:5-18. It shows her weeping and in such agony that the priest accuses her of being drunk.
And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore…Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken. And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee. And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord. 1 Samuel 1:10, 13-15
Hannah’s travail produced a son in her life. Our travail will produce spiritual sons. Most travailing is done privately because people who are not walking in the Spirit do not understand this type of prayer. Just as babies are born in private, most birthing of spiritual things are also done in the privacy of an individuals prayer closet or in a small group setting. However, as our understanding opens up to this truth in God’s Word, more and more groups of believers will intercede with the spirit of travail upon them all, thus sharing the burden corporately.
The degrees and depths of travail span the mild forms to the very, very deep forms. One deep form incorporates the actual feeling of birth pains (the same pains that accompany the labor of a woman giving birth to a child). These “birth pains” are experienced by men as well as by women. (In the spirit there is neither male nor female.) Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” We must have Scripture to support all spiritual experiences, so where is this to be found in the Word of God? In Jeremiah 30:5-6, we find an account of men travailing as women: “For thus saith the Lord; We have heard a voice of trembling, of fear, and not of peace. Ask ye now, and see whether a man doth travail with child? wherefore do I see every man with his hands on his loins, as a woman in travail, and all faces are turned into paleness?” Here we find that after travail, they were released from their bonds, the yokes were taken off their necks and they were free to serve the Lord. Travail brought freedom to these men!
If we have a question as to whether it is the Lord presenting us with a burden that needs travailing prayer, or whether it is the enemy seeking to put depression on us, we can simply seek Him for the answer. Prayer is the way to rid ourselves of all kinds of depression. As we begin to pray, the Lord will show us if the depression is in us or if we are carrying a prayer burden for someone else. As we yield to God and resist the devil, we will get the victory.
One account that shows Jesus in travail is found in John 11:32-44. We are all familiar with this account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. However, many of us have not noticed the travail that preceded this miracle. Beginning in Verse 32, we read:
Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept. John 11:32-34
We see that the Lord had such a burden that He not only wept, but also groaned in the Spirit. He certainly was not crying because Lazarus was dead, for He knew that He was about to be brought back to life. He was crying in the Spirit, breaking the bonds of Satan, so that this miracle would come forth and bring life back to Lazarus. Verse 38 says, “Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days. Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?”
He was still in travail when he approached the grave. He then spoke the words for Lazarus to come forth, and the miracle took place as he was raised from the dead.
The greatest travail of all time was the Lord’s travail of soul in the Garden of Gethsemane before He went to the cross for the sins of the world.
And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground. Luke 22:41-44
This travail was so agonizing and painful that it caused Him to sweat blood. The Lord knew what awaited Him on the cross of Calvary. He could never have faced the crucifixion without first praying through and getting the victory in the spirit. This great travail gave Him the serenity and courage to face the traumatic events of the next day. He had won the victory in the spirit before He ever faced the enemy in the flesh.
We too can learn from this to fight our battles in the spirit. Then we will not have to resort to fleshly means of dealing with problems. Changes occur when we pray and travail. We find that when Zion travails, children are brought forth. The Lord wants us to take His burdens as our burdens. By doing this we are identifying with Him in His sufferings. “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us” (2 Timothy 2:12). We know that as we are willing to suffer with Him and travail for others, we also will reign with Him, reaping the reward of joy by seeing the travail of our souls come forth even as Jesus did.
He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. Isaiah 53:11-12
True intercessors will have the spirit of travail come upon them, for truly this is one of the keys that will bring the kingdom of God to the earth. The overcomers will be men and women who experience the same sorrows that our Lord experienced and who also will inherit the same things Jesus did.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. Revelation 21:4-7
In Ezekiel 9, we see the Lord calls for a mark to be placed upon all who sigh and cry in prayer because they are burdened about the condition of God’s people. These intercessors are given the “mark of God” and thus are protected when judgment comes upon sin. “And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof” (Ezekiel 9:4). We too can experience deliverance as we cry and travail for others. Travailing is yielding to the sorrow of God’s heart over a situation. Travailing prayer is a mighty spiritual weapon