How to help when you feel helpless

What is the most impactful document ever written? The Magna Carta? The Treaty of Versailles? The Communist Manifesto?

At the risk of sounding biased, a strong case can be made for Paul’s Letter to the Romans. With a profound impact on the early church, the development of Christian theology and the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation, Romans is indisputably one of the most influential works in world history.

We tend (somewhat understandably) to focus on the first eight or so chapters. But the letter’s body ends with a profound insight for the Christian life. How does Paul conclude his world-shaping treatise? With an exhortation.

A helpless struggle

After a very brief introduction, Paul has launched into a treatise on the gospel, waiting until the letter’s end to explain his occasion for writing to the church in Rome. In chapter 15 he describes his hope to bring a contribution from Greece to the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. Then, Paul says, he will visit Rome, hoping to have the church there assist him on a subsequent missionary trip to Spain.

Aerial view of the Colosseum and its surrounds in Rome. Spencer Davis / Unsplash

In the meantime, Paul urges his brothers and sisters in Rome to “join me in my struggle” (Romans 15:30). Anticipating that the unbelievers in Judea may present a threat, and hoping that the contribution he takes to Jerusalem will be received favourably, Paul asks the church in Rome for help (15:31).

How are they to help? Not by sailing thousands of kilometres from Rome to Jerusalem. Even if they were willing to do that for an apostle whom they had never met, the journey would take weeks. There is nothing they can do.

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? Is there someone struggling in your life, while you feel you can only look on?

Often there are ways to help if we are creative. But all sorts of barriers – lack of expertise, limited resources and time, chronic illness, distance, age, capacity and more – can make us feel completely helpless.

In the same way, the Christians in Rome who were invested in Paul’s ministry seem to have no hope of helping him in Judea. But Paul is not convinced.

As a Christian, you are never unable to help. You can always contend for – struggle together with, fight alongside – your loved ones.

Joining in the struggle

“I urge you, brothers and sisters,” Paul concludes the body of his letter, “by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle …”


“… by praying to God for me.” (Romans 15:30)

For the phrase “join me in my struggle”, Paul uses one word: synagōnizomai. The same way ‘sym-pathise’ means ‘suffer with’, ‘syn-agōnizomai’ means ‘struggle with’. From this root, we get the English word ‘agony’. And the same word is used twice in the phrase “fight the good fight” (1 Tim 6:12).

As a Christian, you are never unable to help – because you can always contend for – struggle together with; fight alongside – your loved ones in prayer.

The power of prayer in Romans 15:30

After all, we take our mark from the one who stops at nothing to fight for us.

“Do not be afraid,” the priest would tell the Israelite army before battle. “For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you [syn-ekpolemēsai]” (Deut 20:3-4).

And in Jesus, we have seen even more fully how the Lord identifies with us, fights on our behalf and even dies in our place.

If you are struggling and don’t know how anyone can help, imitate the apostle Paul, and ask that your brothers and sisters join you in your struggle by praying to God for you.

If you are watching someone struggle and don’t know how to help, heed the apostle’s words. Join your brothers and sisters in their struggle by praying to the God who will stop at nothing to fight for them – the God who never loses a fight.

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