Three wounds that empower us to pray and that enable us to share the depths of God’s compassion

May 14, 2024 | INSIGHTS, READ

Most of us will at least be familiar with the name of a medieval mystic who lived the majority of her life at the end of the fourteenth century in a cell adjoining St Julian’s church in Norwich. Her real name is unknown to us but, like nearly a thousand other anchorites in the period, she spent her life set apart from the rest of the world, living in a sealed room with only a window into the sanctuary, and another through which she would receive simple meals, and give counsel to those who requested it.

Such seclusion seems strange to us in the light not only of our modern social whirl but of all the New Testament teaches about the importance of partnering and praying together corporately. Surely too much isolation is likely to diminish the fire of the Spirit, or even to becoming a breeding ground for weird and far from wonderful delusions?

And yet we know that God really does call quite a number to renounce ‘the world’ literally and physically, if not as literally as hermits and anchorites did and do, then at least for a season. You will remember how God called Rees Howells aside for such seasons of intense prayer, for instance. Many who have burned with the fires of devotion in seeming isolation became not only power houses of prayer and witness for their own generation, but those whose words and wisdom continue to shape and inspire countless others in their walk with the Lord.

Our theme in this article is what Julian intriguingly described as ‘three wounds’ that she had sought from the hand of the Lord when she was still young. These were:

The wound of true contrition,
the wound of compassion,
and the wound of desire and longing for God.

These are deep teachings, and as we set ourselves to understand and share in what Julain meant by them, may I encourage you to ‘dwell’ with these thoughts. They set a benchmark for our lives that invites us to re-examine what the Lord has already done in our hearts, what He is doing, and what He might yet wish to do in and through us.

The Power of Contrition

Contrition – what an unexciting and old-fashioned sounding concept! It wounds our pride and self-satisfaction, and convicts us of just how deeply we have offended both the Lord and others by certain things that we say or do. On the face of it, it does not sound the most welcome or attractive gift.

Surely we would do better to think of all the things we have got right rather than those we have got wrong. Doesn’t contrition risk plunging us into unnecessary depths of introspection? Not if we are careful to embrace the contrition that is the authentic work of the Holy Spirit. Shocking though it is when we recognise more clearly some of the ways in which we have been the cause of suffering and embitterment for others, the more we are prepared to face this exposure, the more He is able to release streams of living water from within us to minister to others. How much better is it to allow the spirit of contrition to be at work in our lives than to brush aside sin, or to allow a foothold to bitterness when things go wrong and people irk and provoke us, and wallow in self-pity? How can such things not but stifle the flow of the Spirit in our lives?

Look at it this way. Who is that people instinctively turn to when they are in real need of prayer and counsel? Is it not those in whom they sense that the Holy Spirit has been at work shaping and refining, rather as the repeated flow of water carves deep gorges through even the toughest rock?

True contrition leads to entirely new levels and layers of authority in those whose inner passion for God and integrity enables them to overcome all the bluster, white noise and other ploys that the enemy sends our way. Nevertheless, we must proceed carefully in handling the whole matter of contrition, because the very sensitivity that enables us to become aware of many of the dynamics that are involved in situations (and to sorrow over the unhelpful words we utter and the attitudes we project) brings us very close nor only to God’s heart but right into the devil’s backyard too – where he stands ever poised to hurl subtly weighted brickbats at us. But whereas the Accuser of the Brethen Accuser’s condemnatory thrusts are as destructive as modern missiles, true contrition serves as a godly goad to take our sins and the failings we are so acutely aware of directly to the Lord for cleansing.

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. It pierces to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’ This is no soft and sentimental matter. ‘No creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.’ (Heb. 4:11-13) This is what AW Tozer, that great 20th century pursuer of God, wrote when speaking of this wound of contrition:

‘Until the knowledge [of our sinfulness] hits hard, until it has wounded us, until it has got through and past the little department of our theology, it does us no good [because we have] never been wounded with the knowledge that we’ve sinned. Repentance is a wound that I pray we may all feel.’

So far from unhealthily introspective, true contrition allows us to turn our focus outwards, toward the sorrows of others. We could save ourselves much toil and heart ache by turning away from all sight and sound of such things, but we choose to open our hearts to embrace those who are suffering or distant from God. Because Christ Himself still suffers to woo and win hard hearts – and He calls us to feel and pray along with Him.

As Tozer put it, ‘To enjoy the peace of the finished work of Christ and yet suffer to win others; to find God and yet to be always pursuing Him. When Moses saw the glory of God, he begged that he might see more. When God revealed to him that he had found grace, he wanted more grace.’ In strictly logical terms these may sound like paradoxes – but in the spirit we understand entirely what is happening.

When we come to the Lord with a contrite heart we are able to identify not only our own sins and shortcomings, but also to intercede for those of our church and nation. We bring them before the throne of mercy, pleading with Him for mercy to triumph over judgement, so that people might be saved from reaping the otherwise inevitable and destructive harvest of their wrongdoing. Our prayers of contrition have far more power than we may initially realise in addressing the sins and sufferings in the world.

When we are young in the Lord, the chances are that we may experience occasional bursts of contrition as a result of doing something silly or sinful. As we mature, in all probability our actual sins hopefully become more like a railway accident than a railway timetable – but contrition often becomes deeply engrained within as an integral part of our walk with the Lord.

The power of compassion

When she was thirty, Julian became paralysed from the waist down, and so seriously ill that she was not expected to live long. In her suffering, it ‘came to her mind’ that she might find a deeper level of identification with the sufferings of Christ on the cross. She realised that ‘Christ loved me so deeply that in all the universe that would be no suffering, as of that which I felt in assisting in the unimaginable sufferings of the Passion.’ Like Paul, and countless godly souls since, she experienced the honour of sharing in the ‘fellowship of His sufferings’ – a suffering that opened up a deep well of compassion in her heart for her fellow human beings. (Philippians 3:10 but do look up Romans 8:17, and 1 Peter 4:13 in this context too).

Many of Jesus’s greatest miracles and works of power were preceded by something that, in the Greek at least, sounds very explosive: splagchnizomai. (Strongs 4697) This very strong word is typically rendered as compassion – but it describes something more akin to a severe stomach ache than a ‘nice’ and gentle sweetness. This is how Tozer describes the wound of compassion:

Compassion is an emotional identification, and Christ had that in full perfection. The man who has this wound of compassion is a man who suffers along with other people . . .

[Because the Lord] calls His people to be to Him the kind of an earthly body in which He can weep again and suffer again and love again. For our Lord has two bodies. One is the body He took to the tree on Calvary; that was the body in which He suffered to redeem us. But He has a body on earth now, composed of those who have been baptised into it by the Holy Ghost at conversion. In that body He would now suffer to win men. Paul said that he was glad that he could suffer for the Colossians, and so fill up the measure of the afflictions of Christ in His body for the church’s sake. (Col. 1:24)

I don’t know whether I can make it clear or not. I know that things like this have to be felt rather than understood, but the wounded man is never a seeker after happiness. There is an ignoble pursuit of irresponsible happiness among us. Over the last years, as I have observed the human scene and have watched God’s professed people live and die, I have seen that most of us would rather be happy than to feel the wounds of other people’s sorrows. I do not believe that it is the will of God that we should seek to be happy, but rather that we should seek to be holy and useful. . . .

The woman, said Jesus, who is giving birth is not happy at the time of her travail, but as soon as the child is delivered she becomes happy because a man is born into the world. You and I are, in a sense, to be mothers in Israel, those through whom the Lord can suffer and grieve and love and pity again to bring children to birth.

A heart that has never been broken, and which even resists woundedness, is ever in danger of becoming cold and distant – brash and glib even. One senses the lack of depth in those who resort too easily to platitudes of faith. But the one who has been wounded, and who has learned to hand those wounds to the Lord, and to handle them creatively by taking their part in sharing in the things that wound Him – this is one who is able to truly reach and touch the world.

The longing for more of God

After Julian had recovered completely from her sickness, she was shown many things that afterwards became known as her Revelations of Divine Love. She loved her Lord intensely, even to the point of being willing to shut herself away from all earthly loves and pleasures so that she might have Him alone.

This calling to be set apart is of such significance – and challenge – that the Lord ordinarily draws those He is drawing in this way towards it by careful stages, so that they are able to not only cope with the rigours of such extreme isolation, but also to thrive in it. Even the great Cuthbert had to spend time in only partial separation before he was permitted to fulfil his longing to live in a still more remote and isolated hermitage on Farne Island.

Most of us can look back across our lives and see how the Lord brought us to the point we have now reached, even if we could never have imagined being here even a few years ago. I love how He makes a straight path out of all our wanderings and wonderings! It is the Lord who draws certain people towards a withdrawn life for prolonged seasons, so that they can seek Him passionately and exclusively. They are content to remain utterly unknown and unnamed before the world, desiring only that they be known in Heaven.

To some extent I have experienced this process myself. After several years of non-stop ministry in Oxford in a thriving community, the Lord called me to Chester, where I lived initially on my own in a top floor flat where guests were not encouraged. This I could never have imagined during those years of constant action – but as one ministering couple heard the Lord saying to them (when they asked why I now seemed to be so much more tucked out sight), it was because the Lord was jealous for my company.

I was able to spend much time in deeper prayer in this secluded place, as well as writing my first full-length book. As the ministry developed, and things in due time became incredibly busy in Chester, the Lord summoned me again and took us to Ludlow, where I was once again set apart to wait on Him. It was here that I wrote Intimacy and Eternity, for the benefit of those whom the Lord was drawing to spend more time set apart with Himself – not in order to hide from the world, but rather to make the scope of their prayer life more comprehensive.

The call to be set apart, then, is by no means limited to those who are called to the cloister to become physical members of a monastic community. It is instead the same call that drove Mary to ignore Martha’s complaint and to remain sitting at Jesus’ feet. This longing and desire for the Lord is an almost physical ache. This is what Julian meant by the ‘wound of desire and longing for God.’ Tozer wrote this about it:

[Julian] wanted to long after God with a longing that became a pain in her heart. She wanted to be lovesick. She prayed in effect, “O God, that I might want Thee so badly that it becomes a wound in my heart that I can’t get over.” Today, accepting Christ becomes [an end in itself,] getting increased numbers of people to accept Christ, and there we put a period.

. . . Jesus does all the sorrowing and we want to be happy. But, my brethren, if we were what we ought to be, we would seek to know in experience the meaning of the words, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

It is no coincidence that the popular metaphor speaks of love causing our hearts to bleed. Tozer wrote that ‘the man that has the most of God is the man who is seeking the most ardently for more of God.’ The intense desire and longing for God remains a permanent wound in our hearts, no matter what we may be doing in terms of a ‘secular’ job or work of ministry.

The wounded intercessor

How do these wounds speak to our ministry as intercessors? In this way: love makes the heart vulnerable and sensitive to every stir and sigh of our loved one. in the first instance, that will mean being sensitive to the things in our own lives that offend Him. I said earlier that I long to see us ‘lead such lives that God can answer our prayers.’ This is part of our response to that desire. The more open we are to His Spirit, the more sensitive we are likely to be not only to praying from the depths of our being for His cleansing and restoration, but also to the prods and temptations that come from the enemy. It is as we allow that sensitivity to be led by the Holy Spirit that He can use it to inspire passionate and authentic prayers that move the hand of God. Tozer again:

‘The sensitive have the courage to sit in silence with the Lord, even if this means that they become acutely aware of feelings of hurt.

Scripture teaches us that the Lord in all our distress He too is distressed. If we will sit with Him, then we may often find ourselves sharing His heart – and that means not keeping that pain artificially at a ‘safe distance,’ but allowing ourselves to feel and share in it from deep from within. Of course we cannot attempt to pray about everything. We have to set filters as we span the world. But look what real prayers of compassion lead to! As Isaiah goes on to record: ‘the angel of His presence saved them. In His love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.’ (Is. 53:3, 63:9; Gal. 4:9) The fruit is breakthrough.

Paul understood this. When he spoke of ‘travailing in prayer’ it was not so that a child might be born, but so that Christ might be fully formed in people’s hearts. But such travail very demanding, and the Lord knows we are weak; He does not keep us in the agonies of labour for months on end. He shares with us His heart and His pain over the suffering in the world in proportion both to the precise nature of our calling and to our physical and spiritual strength and maturity.

Everyone knows that Jesus went up into the hills a great while before dawn to meet with His Father in prayer. Although He has now physically ‘relocated’ to Heaven, Jesus has continued this work of intercession in Heaven since His ascension into glory. He who is Prophet, Priest and King ‘ever lives to make intercession’ for those who He has saved. This, the author of Hebrews explains, is His permanent priestly ministry – and one that He does not pass on to anyone else, but rather remains at the right hand of God pleading, advocating and interceding for those He is saving to the uttermost. (Heb. 7:24-25, Rom. 8:34, cf 1 John 2:1)

Two things strike one immediately from this: that intercession has remained Jesus’ most important ministry since the Resurrection – and that, as with all the work of God, He shares this ministry with his friends and co-heirs. Thus we find reference in Romans 8:26-27 to the Spirit sighing, praying and even groaning through us – and the disciples in the Acts of the Apostles constantly always on their way to or from a place of fervent prayer.[2]

Paul was not only God’s foremost evangelist and apologist; he was also a fervent intercessor who travailed ceaselessly in prayer, as intensely as a woman in labour, ‘fashioning’ souls for Christ throughout the course of his ministry so that Christ could be fully formed in them. (Gal. 4:19)

‘Build yourself a cell in your heart and retire there to pray.’ (Catherine of Siena)

Ever since I heard about it, I have aways in my mind the plea of an anonymous Russian believer imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag, who smuggled a message written on toilet paper out to Christians in the West: ‘Yes, our main need is for prayer – but lead such lives that God can answer your prayers.’ This has been the starting point for this reflection.

Our walk with the Lord may never lead us to a cell in the Soviet Gulag, nor to one in a cloister, but all of us can set up a cell within our hearts to which we can withdraw to be with Him, as Catherine of Siena so beautifully put it. So far from being self-indulgent, it is those who have the courage to press in to God who succeed in rousing Him to stretch out His hand to bless and intervene in countless situations.

Julian was one who, to quote from Brook Ligertwood’s deeply poignant song, allowed the Lord to ‘break her heart for what breaks His.’[3] If we are in earnest, and our eyes are fixed on Jesus so that we may see as He sees, and love as He loves, He will do the same for us. Tozer prayed for his readers as I do for you:

I have been greatly and deeply concerned that you and I do something more than listen, that we dare to go to God like the Lady Julian and dare to ask Him to give us a faithful, fatherly wound – maybe three of them, if you please: to wound us with a sense of our own sinful unworthiness that we’ll never quite get over; to wound us with the sufferings of the world and the sorrows of the church; and then to wound us with the longing after God, a thirst, a sacred thirst and longing that will carry us on toward perfection. Amen.

[1] The quotes are from Tozer’s Three Faithful Wounds.
[2] Over the years I have come to believe that there is a fundamental difference between prayer and intercession. Prayer is basically about us responding to God’s generous invitation to ‘pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done.’ (Phil. 4:6 NLT) Prayer is basically a two-way affair (we pray and He answers) but intercession is different in that is originates in Heaven. God has something that He wants to do and to bring to birth, or to forestall, and He stirs someone or some group up on Earth to pray for this to come about.

As they in turn reflect that burden back to the Lord, God hears in Heaven and moves in power, in whatever way He chooses. (Angels are most commonly involved in this process). intercession starts therefore, with God, who inspires us to pray. Our prayer goes up to God and He answers. In other words, this is a four-way process. But all prayer is made the richer when we remember both to praise im and to consult Him before we plough in with our requests.


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1 Comment

  1. Success

    God Bless you Sir/Ma’am for this article
    It’s a blessing unto me.


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