We can’t go back.
That thing we did, that place we loved, that peace we felt — it’s a look back over our shoulder now, done. Maybe our job or relationship has ended. Maybe our limelight has faded. Maybe our loves or roles or points on the map have shifted and changed.
The new ground where we stand feels unsteady on our best days, cruel on the worst. Our blessings, our abilities won’t stretch far enough to cover the echoing gaps.
The Apostle Paul devotes two sentences to him in his closing farewell to the Colossians:
Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis (Colossians 4:12-13).
Paul has never been to Colossae — never met the people to whom he writes. He was not the one to share the gospel with them (Colossians 2:1). Epaphras had that privilege and joy, planting the church in this city and, most likely, the ones in nearby Laodicea and Hierapolis (Colossians 1:6-8).
Now, Epaphras has journeyed to join Paul in Rome, bringing both the good news of the Colossians growth and faith (Colossians 1:4) and the bad news of false teachers creeping in to distort the gospel of Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:8, 16). He has traveled 1,100 miles over water and land to seek advice and authority from the Apostle on behalf of the people and places he loves.
And he doesn’t make it back home.
At least the Bible never says so, and in Philemon verse 23, Paul sends Epaphrus’ greetings across the miles with his own, calling him my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus. Some tradition holds that he, like his mentor, was martyred under Nero and buried in Rome.
On the way to make things go right, everything has gone very wrong.
Epaphras was kind of a big deal in the Church throughout Asia Minor — a regional authority known in several different cities. He had risked his name and probably his life to introduce the people of these pagan towns to Jesus, just as Paul had done. He has worked hard for them, and he has been good at it; the mighty Paul throws his word and his weight behind him: our beloved fellow servant, a faithful minister, I bear him witness.
And now, he is chained to Rome, sending postcards back to his place and his purpose — letters to a life that once seemed to need him so badly.
Our prayers are borne out of our longings and learnings and holes. And while I’m sure that Epaphras sometimes cried out to God for his freedom and his life, Paul thought only one of his prayers worth writing about in this letter.
It is the prayer that Epaphras always struggled with and fought for and wrestled against and wept out on the floor of his prison — the verb agonizomai in the Greek.
It is the prayer he prays for the Colossians, because it is the prayer he prays for himself — a man who cannot go back:
That you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.
When we cannot return to the place that felt like home — when we are separated by miles or misunderstandings — when we are held captive or apart for a time — we plead grace that we may stand firm where we are. We plead grace that our faith will grow up through suffering into completion. We plead grace that we can rest supremely confident in the will of God that is being accomplished for us, even if it doesn’t look at all like we thought it would.
When everything in us is homesick for the past or aching for the future, we must battle through our devotion to find the face of God in the unrecognizable now.
Our most important prayers are never about changing our circumstances, but about the finishing of our faith (Psalm 138:8; James 1:2-4).
Like Epaphras, we will always struggle. It can be with this prayer, or it can be with something less.