Desiring God by John Piper
One common objection to Christian Hedonism is that it puts the
interests of man above the glory of God—that it puts my happiness
above God’s honor. But Christian Hedonism most emphatically
does not do this.
To be sure, we Christian Hedonists endeavor to pursue our interest and our
happiness with all our might. We endorse the resolution of the young Jonathan
Edwards: “Resolved: To endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness in the
other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence,
yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can
be thought of.”1
But we have learned from the Bible (and from Edwards!) that God’s interest
is to magnify the fullness of His glory by spilling over in mercy to us. Therefore,
the pursuit of our interest and our happiness is never above God’s, but always in
God’s. The most precious truth in the Bible is that God’s greatest interest is to
glorify the wealth of His grace by making sinners happy in Him—in Him!
When we humble ourselves like little children and put on no airs of self-sufficiency, but run happily into the joy of our Father’s embrace, the glory of His
1. Edwards’s resolutions have recently been published in a booklet: Stephen J. Nichols, Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions, and Advice to Young Converts (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002).
grace is magnified and the longing of our soul is satisfied. Our interest and His
glory are one. Therefore, Christian Hedonists do not put their happiness above
God’s glory when they pursue happiness in Him.
WHY THE HEDONIST IS ON HIS KNEES
One piece of evidence that the pursuit of our joy and the pursuit of God’s glory
are meant to be one and the same is the teaching of Jesus on prayer in the
Gospel of John. The two key sayings are in John 14:13 and 16:24. The one
shows that prayer is the pursuit of God’s glory. The other shows that prayer is
the pursuit of our joy.
In John 14:13, Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do,
that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” In John 16:24, He says, “Until now
you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy
may be full.” The unity of these two goals—the glory of God and the joy of His
children—is clearly preserved in the act of prayer. Therefore, Christian
Hedonists will, above all, be people devoted to earnest prayer. Just as the thirsty
deer kneels down to drink at the brook, so the characteristic posture of the
Christian Hedonist is on his knees.
Let’s look more closely at prayer as the pursuit of God’s glory and the pursuit
of our joy, in that order.
PRAYER AS THE PURSUIT OF GOD’S GLORY
Once again, hear Jesus’ words in John 14:13: “Whatever you ask in my name,
this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” Suppose you are totally paralyzed and can do nothing for yourself but talk. And suppose a strong and reliable friend promised to live with you and do whatever you needed done.
How could you glorify your friend if a stranger came to see you? Would you
glorify his generosity and strength by trying to get out of bed and carry him?
No! You would say, “Friend, please come lift me up, and would you put a
pillow behind me so I can look at my guest? And would you please put my
glasses on for me?” And so your visitor would learn from your requests that you
are helpless and that your friend is strong and kind. You glorify your friend by
needing him and asking him for help and counting on him.
In John 15:5 Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides
in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do
nothing.” So we really are paralyzed. Without Christ, we are capable of no good.
As Paul says in Romans 7:18, “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.”
But according to John 15:5, God intends for us to do something good—
namely, bear fruit. So as our strong and reliable friend—“I have called you
friends” (John 15:15)—He promises to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
How then do we glorify Him? Jesus gives the answer in John 15:7: “If you
abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be
done for you.” We pray! We ask God to do for us through Christ what we can’t
do for ourselves—bear fruit. Verse 8 gives the result: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit.” So how is God glorified by prayer? Prayer is the open admission that without Christ we can do nothing. And prayer is the turning away from ourselves to God in the confidence that He will provide the help we need. Prayer humbles us as needy and exalts God as wealthy.
IF YOU KNEW HIM, YOU WOULD ASK!
In another text in John that shows how prayer glorifies God, Jesus asked a
woman for a drink of water:
The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a
drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with
Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who
it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him,
and he would have given you living water.” (4:9–10)
If you were a sailor severely afflicted with scurvy, and a generous man came
aboard ship with his pockets bulging with vitamin C and asked you for an
orange slice, you might give it to him. But if you knew that he was generous
and that he carried all you needed to be well, you would turn the tables and ask
him for help.
Jesus says to the woman, “If you just knew the gift of God and who I am,
you would ask Me—you would pray to Me!” There is a direct correlation
between not knowing Jesus well and not asking much from Him. A failure in
our prayer life is generally a failure to know Jesus. “If you knew who was talking
to you, you would ask Me!” A prayerless Christian is like a bus driver trying
alone to push his bus out of a rut because he doesn’t know Clark Kent is on
board. “If you knew, you would ask.” A prayerless Christian is like having your
room wallpapered with Saks Fifth Avenue gift certificates but always shopping at
Goodwill because you can’t read. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that
speaks to you, you would ask—you would ask!”
And the implication is that those who do ask—Christians who spend time
in prayer—do it because they see that God is a great Giver and that Christ is wise
and merciful and powerful beyond measure. And therefore their prayer glorifies
Christ and honors His Father. The chief end of man is to glorify God. Therefore,
when we become what God created us to be, we become people of prayer.
ROBINSON CRUSOE’S TEXT
Charles Spurgeon once preached a sermon on this very topic and called it
“Robinson Crusoe’s Text.” He began like this:
Robinson Crusoe has been wrecked. He is left on the desert island all
alone. His case is a very pitiable one. He goes to his bed, and he is smitten
with fever. This fever lasts upon him long, and he has no one to
wait upon him—none even to bring him a drink of cold water. He is
ready to perish. He had been accustomed to sin, and had all the vices of
a sailor; but his hard case brought him to think. He opens a Bible which
he finds in his chest, and he lights upon this passage, “Call upon me in
the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.” That
night he prayed for the first time in his life, and ever after there was in
him a hope in God, which marked the birth of the heavenly life.2
2. Charles Spurgeon, Twelve Sermons on Prayer (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1971), 105.
Robinson Crusoe’s text was Psalm 50:15. It is God’s way of getting glory for
Himself—Pray to Me! I will deliver you! And the result will be that you will glorify
Spurgeon’s explanation is penetrating:
God and the praying man take shares.… First here is your share: “Call
upon me in the day of trouble.” Secondly, here is God’s share: “I will
deliver thee.” Again, you take a share—for you shall be delivered. And
then again it is the Lord’s turn—“Thou shalt glorify me.” Here is a
compact, a covenant that God enters into with you who pray to him,
and whom he helps. He says, “You shall have the deliverance, but I
must have the glory….” Here is a delightful partnership: we obtain that
which we so greatly need, and all that God getteth is the glory which is
due unto his name.3
A delightful partnership indeed! Prayer is the very heart of Christian
Hedonism. God gets the glory; we get the delight. He gets the glory precisely
because He shows Himself full and strong to deliver us into joy. And we attain
fullness of joy precisely because He is the all-glorious source and goal of life.
Here is a great discovery: We do not glorify God by providing His needs,
but by praying that He would provide ours—and trusting Him to answer.
IS PRAYER SELF-CENTERED?
Someone may say that this is self-centered. But what does self-centered mean? If
it means I passionately desire to be happy, then yes, prayer is self-centered.
But is this a bad thing, if what I cry for is that God’s name be hallowed in
my life? If my cry is for His reign to hold sway in my heart? If my cry is for His
will to be done in my life as it is done by angels in heaven? If I crave the happiness of seeing and experiencing these things in my life, is that bad?
How is the will of God done in heaven? Sadly? Burdensomely?
3. Ibid., 115.
Begrudgingly? No! It is done gladly! If I then pray, Thy will be done on earth as it
is in heaven, how can I not be motivated by a desire to be glad? It is a contradiction to pray for the will of God to be done in my life the way it is in heaven, and then to say that I am indifferent to whether I am glad or not. When the earth rejoices to do His will and does it perfectly, His will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.
But surely we should not call this pursuit of happiness in prayer selfcentered.
It is radically God-centered. In my craving to be happy, I acknowledge
that at the center of my life there is a gaping hole of emptiness without God.
This hole constitutes my need and my rebellion at the same time. I want it filled,
but I rebel at God’s filling it with Himself. By grace I awake to the folly of my
rebellion and see that if it is filled with God, my joy will be full. “Self-centered” is
not a good way to describe this passion to be happy in God.
PRAYING LIKE AN ADULTERESS
But someone will say, “Yes, but not all prayers are prayers for God’s name to be
hallowed or for His kingdom to come. Many prayers are for food and clothing
and protection and healing. Is this sort of praying not self-centered?”
It may be. James did condemn a certain kind of prayer. He said:
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on
your passions [literally: on your pleasures]. You adulterous people! Do
you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?
Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an
enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the
Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to
dwell in us”? (James 4:3–5)
So there is a kind of praying that is wrong because it makes a cuckold out of
God. We use our Husband’s generosity to hire prostitutes for private pleasures.
These are startling words. James calls us “adulterous people” if we pray like this.
He pictures the church as the wife of God. God has made us for Himself
and has given Himself to us for our enjoyment. Therefore, it is adultery when
we try to be “friends” with the world. If we seek from the world the pleasures we
should seek in God, we are unfaithful to our marriage vows. And, what’s worse,
when we go to our heavenly Husband and actually pray for the resources with
which to commit adultery with the world, it is a very wicked thing. It is as
though we would ask our husband for money to hire male prostitutes to provide
the pleasure we don’t find in him!
So, yes, there is a kind of praying that is self-centered in an evil sense. Now
the question becomes: What keeps all of our praying for “things” from being
ENJOYING CREATION WITHOUT COMMITTING IDOLATRY
This is really part of a much larger question; namely, how is it possible for a
creature to desire and enjoy the creation without committing idolatry (which is
adultery)? This may seem like an irrelevant question to some. But for people
who long to sing like the psalmists, it is very relevant. They sing like this:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
One thing have I asked of the LORD
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD,
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.
If your heart longs to be this focused on God, then how to desire and enjoy
“things” without becoming an idolater is a crucial question. How can prayer
glorify God if it is a prayer for things? It seems to glorify things.
Of course, part of the answer was given in Robinson Crusoe’s text, namely,
that God gets glory as the all-sufficient Giver. But this is only part of the answer,
because there can be a misuse of things even when we thank God as the Giver.
The rest of the answer is expressed by Thomas Traherne and Saint
Augustine. Traherne said:
You never Enjoy the World aright, till you see how a Sand Exhibiteth
the Wisdom and Power of God: And Prize in every Thing the Service
which they do you, by Manifesting His Glory and Goodness to your
Soul, far more than the Visible Beauty on their Surface, or the Material
Services, they can do your Body.4
And Augustine prayed the following words, which have proved immensely
important in my effort to love God with all my heart:
He loves Thee too little
Who loves anything together with Thee,
Which he loves not for Thy sake.5
In other words, if created things are seen and handled as gifts of God and as
mirrors of His glory, they need not be occasions of idolatry—if our delight in
them is always also a delight in their Maker.
C. S. Lewis put it like this in a “Letter to Malcolm”:
We can’t—or I can’t—hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning
or message (“That’s a bird”) comes with it inevitably—just as one
4. Thomas Traherne, Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 14.
5. Saint Augustine, Confessions, in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 54.
can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading
is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the
roar; I “hear the wind.” In the same way it is possible to “read” as well as
to “have” a pleasure. Or not even “as well as.” The distinction ought to
become, and sometimes is, impossible; to receive it and to recognize its
divine source are a single experience. This heavenly fruit is instantly
redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the
country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being
touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for
evermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate
event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany is
itself to adore.6
If our experience of creation becomes an experience of the heavenly
orchard, or the divine finger, then it may be worship, not idolatry. Lewis says it
yet another way in his meditations on the Psalms:
By emptying Nature of divinity—or, let us say, of divinities—you may
fill her with Deity, for she is now the bearer of messages. There is a
sense in which Nature-worship silences her—as if a child or a savage
were so impressed with the postman’s uniform that he omitted to take
in the letters.7
Therefore, it may or may not be idolatry to pray for the mailman to come.
If we are only enamored by the short-term, worldly pleasures his uniform gives,
it is idolatry. But if we consider the uniform a gracious bonus to the real delight
of the divine messages, then it is not idolatry. If we pray for a spouse or job or
physical healing or shelter for God’s sake, then even here we are God-centered
and not “self-centered.” We are agreeing with the psalmist: “There is nothing on
6. C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, in A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C. S. Lewis, ed. Clyde Kilby (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 204.
7. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), 82–3.
earth that I desire besides you”! That is, there is nothing I want more than You,
and there is nothing I want that does not show me more of You.
GLORIFYING GOD NOT BY SERVING HIM, BUT BY BEING SERVED BY HIM
But now back to the main train of thought. I said a moment ago that Robinson
Crusoe’s text opened for us a great discovery. (And just then someone objected that all this is self-centered.) The discovery was that we do not glorify God by providing His needs, but by praying that He would provide ours—and trusting Him to answer. Here we are at the heart of the good news of Christian Hedonism.
God’s insistence that we ask Him to give us help so that He gets glory
(Psalm 50:15) forces on us the startling fact that we must beware of serving God
and take special care to let Him serve us, lest we rob Him of His glory.
This sounds very strange. Most of us think serving God is a totally positive
thing; we have not considered that serving God may be an insult to Him. But
meditation on the meaning of prayer demands this consideration.
Acts 17:24–25 makes this plain:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of
heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he
served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself
gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
This is the same reasoning as in Robinson Crusoe’s text on prayer:
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are
mine.… Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you
shall glorify me.” (Psalm 50:12, 15)
Evidently, there is a way to serve God that would belittle Him as needy of
our service. “The Son of Man came not to be served” (Mark 10:45). He aims to
be the servant. He aims to get the glory as Giver.
STILL SERVANT AT THE SECOND COMING!
This is true, not just in the days of His earthly humiliation, but even in His
glory at the close of the age. To me, the Bible’s most astonishing image of
Christ’s second coming is in Luke 12:35–37, which pictures the return of a master from a marriage feast:
“Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men
who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast,
so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and
knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when
he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have
them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.”
HOW IS GOD DIFFERENT FROM ALL THE OTHER GODS?
To be sure, we are called servants—and that no doubt means we are to do
exactly as we are told. But the wonder of this picture is that the “master” insists
on “serving” even in the age to come when He appears in all His glory “with his
mighty angels in flaming fire” (2 Thessalonians 1:7–8). Why? Because the very
heart of His glory is the fullness of grace that overflows in kindness to needy
people. Therefore, He aims “in the coming ages [to] show the immeasurable
riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).
What is the greatness of our God? What is His uniqueness in the world?
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen
a God besides thee, who works for those who wait for him. (Isaiah
All the other so-called gods try to exalt themselves by making man work for
them. In doing so, they only show their weakness. Isaiah derides the gods who
need the service of their people:
Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. (46:1)
Jeremiah joins the derision:
Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot
speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. (10:5)
God is unique: “For of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear…” And
His uniqueness is that He aims to be the Workman for us, not vice versa. Our
job is to “wait for Him.”
GOD WORKS FOR THOSE WHO WAIT FOR HIM
To wait! That means to pause and soberly consider our own inadequacy and the
Lord’s all-sufficiency and to seek counsel and help from the Lord and to hope in
Him (Psalm 33:20–22; Isaiah 8:17). Israel is rebuked that “they did not wait for
his counsel” (Psalm 106:13). Why? Because in not seeking and waiting for
God’s help, they robbed God of an occasion to glorify Himself.
For example, in Isaiah 30:15, 16 the Lord says to Israel, “In returning and
rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But
Israel refused to wait for the Lord and said, “No! We will flee upon horses.”
Then in verse 18 the folly and evil of this self-initiated frenzy is revealed:
“The LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show
mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait
for him.” The folly of not waiting for God is that we forfeit the blessing of having
God work for us. The evil of not waiting for God is that we oppose God’s
will to exalt Himself in mercy.
God aims to exalt Himself by working for those who wait for Him. Prayer
is the essential activity of waiting for God—acknowledging our helplessness and
His power, calling upon Him for help, seeking His counsel. Since His purpose
in the world is to be exalted for His mercy, it is evident why prayer is so often
commanded by God. Prayer is the antidote for the disease of self-confidence,
which opposes God’s goal of getting glory by working for those who wait for
“The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give
strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chronicles
16:9). God is not looking for people to work for Him, so much as He is looking
for people who will let Him work for them. The gospel is not a help-wanted ad.
Neither is the call to Christian service. On the contrary, the gospel commands
us to give up and hang out a help-wanted sign (this is the basic meaning of
prayer). Then the gospel promises that God will work for us if we do. He will
not surrender the glory of being the Giver.
But is there not anything we can give Him that won’t belittle Him to the
status of beneficiary? Yes—our anxieties. It’s a command: “[Cast] all your anxieties on him” (1 Peter 5:7). God will gladly receive anything from us that shows our dependence and His all-sufficiency.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN UNCLE SAM AND JESUS CHRIST
The difference between Uncle Sam and Jesus Christ is that Uncle Sam won’t
enlist you in his service unless you are healthy and Jesus won’t enlist you unless
you are sick: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who
are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Christianity
is fundamentally convalescence (“Pray without ceasing” = Keep buzzing the
nurse). Patients do not serve their physicians. They trust them for good prescriptions. The Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments are the
Doctor’s prescribed health regimen, not the employee’s job description.
Therefore, our very lives hang on not working for God. “To one who
works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who
does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as
righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5). Workmen get no gifts. They get their due. If
we would have the gift of justification, we dare not work. God is the Workman
in this affair. And what He gets is the trust of His client and the glory of being
the benefactor of grace, not the beneficiary of service.
Nor should we think that after justification our labor for God’s wages
begins: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by
the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2–3). God was the Workman in our justification, and
He will be the Workman in our sanctification.
Religious “flesh” always wants to work for God (rather than humbling itself
to realize that God must work for it in free grace). But “if you live according to
the flesh you will die” (Romans 8:13). That is why our very lives hang on not
working for God.
Then shall we not serve Christ? It is commanded: “Serve the Lord”!
(Romans 12:11). Those who do not serve Christ are rebuked (16:18). Yes, we
must serve Him. But we will beware of serving in a way that implies a deficiency
on His part or exalts our indispensability.
SERVING GOD IS ALWAYS RECEIVING
How then shall we serve? Psalm 123:2 points the way: “Behold, as the eyes of
servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the
hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy
upon us.” The way to serve God so that He gets the glory is to look to Him for
mercy. Prayer prevents service from being an expression of pride.
Any servant who tries to get off the divine dole and strike up a manly partnership
with his heavenly Master is in revolt against the Creator. God does not
barter. He gives the mercy of life to servants who will have it and the wages of
death to those who won’t. Good service is always and fundamentally receiving
mercy, not rendering assistance. So there is no good service without prayer.
HOW DO YOU SERVE MONEY?
Matthew 6:24 gives another pointer toward good service: “No one can serve
two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be
devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
How does a person serve money? He does not assist money. He does not enrich
money. He is not the benefactor of money. How then do we serve money?
Money exerts a certain control over us because it seems to hold out so much
promise of happiness. It whispers with great force, “Think and act so as to get
into a position to enjoy my benefits.” This may include stealing, borrowing, or
working. Money promises happiness, and we serve it by believing the promise
and walking by that faith. So we don’t serve money by putting our power at its
disposal for its good. We serve money by doing what is necessary so that
money’s power will be at our disposal for our good.
The same sort of service to God must be in view in Matthew 6:24, since
Jesus put the two side by side: “You cannot serve God and money.” So if we are
going to serve God and not money, then we are going to have to open our eyes
to the vastly superior promise of happiness God offers. Then God will exert a
greater control over us than money does.
And so we will serve God by believing His promise of fullest joy and walking
by that faith. We will not serve God by trying to put our power at His disposal
for His good, but by doing what is necessary so that His power will be
ever at our disposal for our good. And of course, God has appointed that His
power be at our disposal through prayer: “Ask and you will receive”! So we serve
by the power that comes through prayer when we serve for the glory of God.
Without doubt, this sort of serving also means obedience. A patient who
trusts his doctor’s prescriptions obeys them. A convalescent sinner trusts the
painful directions of his therapist and follows them. Only in this way do we
keep ourselves in a position to benefit from what the divine Physician has to
offer. In all this obedience it is we who are the beneficiaries. God is ever the
Giver. For it is the Giver who gets the glory.
THE GIVER GETS THE GLORY
First Peter 4:11 states the principle so well: “Whoever serves [must do so] as one
who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God
may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and power forever
and ever. Amen.” The Giver gets the glory. So all serving that honors God must
be a receiving. Which means that all service must be performed by prayer.
To be sure, let us work hard; but never let us forget that it is not we, but the
grace of God that is with us (1 Corinthians 15:10). Let us obey now, as always,
but never forget that it is God who works in us, both to will and to do His good
pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Let us spread the gospel far and wide and spend
ourselves for the sake of God’s elect, but never venture to speak of anything
except what Christ has wrought through us (Romans 15:18). Let us ever pray
for His power and wisdom so that all our serving is the overflow of righteousness,
joy, and peace from the Holy Spirit. “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable
to God and approved by men” (Romans 14:18).
So the astonishing good news implied in the duty of prayer is that God will
never give up the glory of being our Servant. “No eye has seen a God besides
thee, who works for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4, RSV).
PRAYER AS THE PURSUIT OF OUR JOY
Uniquely preserved in the act of prayer is the unity of two goals—the pursuit of
God’s glory and the pursuit of our joy. So far in this chapter, we have meditated
on prayer as the pursuit of God’s glory, with John 14:13 as our starting point:
“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified
in the Son.” Now we turn to Jesus’ words in John 16:24: “Until now you have
asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
Is this not a clear invitation to Christian Hedonism? Pursue the fullness of
your joy! Pray!
From this sacred Word and from experience, we can draw a simple rule:
Among professing Christians, prayerlessness produces joylessness. Why? Why is
it that a deep life of prayer leads to fullness of joy, while a shallow life of prayerlessness produces joylessness? Jesus gives at least two reasons in the context of John 16:24.
PRAYER IS THE NERVE CENTER OF FELLOWSHIP WITH JESUS
The first reason prayer leads to joy is given in John 16:20–22. Jesus alerts the
disciples that they will grieve at His death, but then rejoice again at His resurrection:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world
will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.
When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has
come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers
the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.
So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts
Separation from Jesus means sadness. Restoration of fellowship means joy.
Therefore, we learn that no Christian can have fullness of joy without a vital fellowship with Jesus Christ. Knowledge about Him will not do. Work for Him
will not do. We must have personal, vital fellowship with Him; otherwise,
Christianity becomes a joyless burden.
In his first letter, John wrote, “Our fellowship is with the Father and with
his Son, Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be
complete” (1 John 1:3–4). Fellowship with Jesus shared with others is essential
to fullness of joy.
The first reason, then, why prayer leads to fullness of joy is that prayer is the
nerve center of our fellowship with Jesus. He is not here physically to see. But in
prayer we speak to Him just as though He were. And in the stillness of those
sacred times, we listen to His Word and we pour out to Him our longings.
Perhaps John 15:7 is the best summary of this two-sided fellowship of
prayer: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish,
and it will be done for you.” When the biblical words of Jesus abide in our
mind, we hear the very thoughts of the living Christ, for He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And out of that deep listening of the heart comes the language of prayer, which is a sweet incense before God’s throne. The life of
prayer leads to fullness of joy because prayer is the nerve center of our vital fellowship with Jesus.
Jonathan Edwards gives us an account of his early years to illustrate the
height and intensity to which this fellowship can rise:
I had vehement longing of soul after God and Christ, and after more
holiness, wherewith my heart seemed to be full, and ready to break.… I
spent most of my time in thinking of divine things, year after year; often
walking alone in the words, and solitary places, for meditation, soliloquy,
and prayer, and converse with God; and it was always my manner, at
such times, to sing forth my contemplations. I was almost constantly in
ejaculatory prayer, wherever I was. Prayer seemed to be natural to me, as
the breath by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent.8
Prayer is God’s appointed way to fullness of joy because it is the vent of the
inward burnings of our heart for Christ. If we had no vent, if we could not commune with Him in response to His Word, we would be miserable indeed.
PRAYER EMPOWERS FOR THE MISSION OF LOVE
But there is a second reason prayer leads to joy’s fullness: It provides the power
to do what we love to do but can’t do without God’s help. The text says, “Ask,
and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” Receive what? What would
bring us fullness of joy? Not a padded and protected and comfortable life. Rich
people are as miserably unhappy as poor people. What we need in answer to
prayer to fill our joy is the power to love. Or as John puts it, the power to bear
fruit. Prayer is the fountain of joy because it is the source of power to love.
We see this twice in John 15. First in verses 7–8:
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you
wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that
you bear much fruit.”
The connection is clear between prayer and fruit-bearing. God promises to
answer prayers for people who are pursuing fruit that abounds to His glory.
Verses 16–17 point in the same direction:
8. Jonathan Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” in Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, ed. C. H. Faust, T. H. Johnson (New York: Hill & Wang, 1962), 61.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you
should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever
you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These
things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
The logic here is crucial. Question: Why is the Father going to give the disciples
what they ask in Jesus’ name? Answer: Because they have been sent to bear fruit. The reason the Father gives the disciples the gift of prayer is because Jesus has given them a mission. In fact, the grammar of John 15:16 implies that the reason Jesus gives them their mission is so that they will be able to enjoy the power of prayer: “I send you to bear fruit…so that whatever you ask the Father…he may give you.”
Isn’t it plain that the purpose of prayer is to accomplish a mission? A mission
of love: “This I command you, to love one another.” It is as though the field
commander (Jesus) called in the troops, gave them a crucial mission (go and bear
fruit), handed each of them a personal transmitter coded to the frequency of the
general’s headquarters, and said, “Comrades, the General has a mission for you.
He aims to see it accomplished. And to that end He has authorized Me to give
each of you personal access to Him through these transmitters. If you stay true to
His mission and seek His victory first, He will always be as close as your transmitter, to give tactical advice and to send in air cover when you need it.”
CAN A WARTIME WALKIE-TALKIE BE A DOMESTIC INTERCOM?
Could it be that many of our problems with prayer and much of our weakness in
prayer come from the fact that we are not all on active duty, and yet we still try
to use the transmitter? We have taken a wartime walkie-talkie and tried to turn it
into a civilian intercom to call the servants for another cushion in the den.
There are other examples in Scripture of the wartime significance of prayer.
In Luke 21:34–36, Jesus warned His disciples that times of great distress and
opposition were coming. Then He said, “But stay awake at all times, praying
that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place,
and to stand before the Son of man” (v. 36).
In other words, following Jesus will inevitably lead us into severe conflicts
with evil. This evil will surround us and attack us and threaten to destroy our
faith. So God has given us a transmitter. If we go to sleep, it will do us no good,
but if we are alert and call for help in the conflict, the reinforcements will come,
and the General will not let His faithful solders be denied their crown of victory
before the Son of man.
Life is war. And “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the
rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Therefore, Paul commands us to “take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance” (Ephesians 6:12, 17–18).
So we see repeatedly in Scripture that prayer is a walkie-talkie for warfare,
not a domestic intercom for increasing our conveniences. The point of prayer is
empowering for mission: “[Pray] for me, that words may be given to me in
opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians
6:19). “Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare
the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3). “Strive together with me in your prayers
to God on my behalf…that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the
saints” (Romans 15:30–31). “Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed
ahead and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1). “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the
harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38).
The fullness of joy we seek is the joy of overflowing love to other people.
No amount of getting can satisfy the soul until it overflows in giving. And no
sacrifice will destroy the soul-delights of an obedient people on a mission of love
from God, for which prayer is His strategic provision. So the reason we pray is
“that our joy may be full.”
Fellowship with Jesus is essential to joy, but there is something about it that
impels us outward, to share His life with others. A Christian can’t be happy and
stingy: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Therefore, the second reason a life of prayer leads to fullness of joy is that it gives us the power to
love. If the pump of love runs dry, it is because the pipe of prayer isn’t deep enough.
Love is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), and the Spirit is given in
answer to prayer (Luke 11:13). Love is the outworking of faith (Galatians 5:6),
and faith is sustained by prayer (Mark 9:24). Love is rooted in hope (Colossians
1:4–5), and hope is preserved by prayer (Ephesians 1:18). Love is guided and
inspired by knowledge of the Word of God (Philippians 1:9; John 17:17), and
prayer opens the eyes of the heart to the wonders of the Word (Psalm 119:18).
If love is the path of fullest joy, then let us pray for the power to love “that our
joy might be full”!
THE FINAL JOY OF GOD’S PEOPLE
What will be the final joy of God’s people? Will it not be the day when the glory
of the Lord fills the earth as the waters cover the sea? Will it not be the day when
our mission is complete and the children of God are gathered in from every
people and tongue and tribe and nation (John 11:52; Revelation 5:9; 7:9)—
when all causes of sin and all evildoers are taken out of Christ’s kingdom and the
righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matthew 13:42–43)?
And is not Frontier Missions9 a road to that ultimate joy? And is not
Frontier Missions quickened and carried by a movement of prayer? This was the
conviction of the early church (Acts 1:14; 4:23–31; 7:4; 10:9; 12:5; 13:3; 14:23;
and so on) and of the seventeenth-century Puritans10 and of the eighteenthcentury European Moravians11 and American Evangelicals12 and of the nineteenth-century student and laymen’s movements.13 It is also the deep conviction of mission leaders today.14
9. I use the term “Frontier Missions” to refer to those mission efforts that labor to break through a cultural barrier to plant the church in a people group for the first time, as distinct from mission efforts among those who already have a long established church, even though a person has crossed a culture or an ocean to do it.
10. Iain H. Murray, The Puritan Hope (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1971), 99–103.
11. Colin A. Grant, “Europe’s Moravians: A Pioneer Missionary Church,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 3rd ed., ed. Ralph Winter and Steven Hawthorne (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey, 1999), 274–6.
12. Jonathan Edwards, An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth…, in Apocalyptic Writings, ed. Stephen Stein (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977), 309–436.
13. David M. Howard, “Student Power in World Missions,” in Perspectives, 277–86.
14. See especially David Bryant, Concerts of Prayer (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1984); idem, Messengers of Hope: Becoming Agents of Revival for the 21st Century, Dick Eastman, The Hour that Changes the World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1978); and Patrick Johnstone, Operation World: When We Pray God Works (Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster, 2001).
HOW A GREAT AWAKENING CAME
Rightly so. For history testifies to the power of prayer as the prelude to spiritual
awakening and missions advance. One example from New York City history:
Approaching the middle of the nineteenth century, the glow of earlier religious
awakenings had faded. The city, like most of America, was prosperous and felt
little need to call on God. Then came the late 1850s:
Secular and religious conditions combined to bring about a crash. The
third great panic in American history swept away the giddy structure of
speculative wealth. Thousands of merchants were forced to the wall as
banks failed, and railroads went into bankruptcy. Factories were shut
down and vast numbers thrown out of employment, New York City
alone having 30,000 idle men. In October 1857, the hearts of the people
were thoroughly weaned from speculation and uncertain gain, while
hunger and despair stared them in the face.
On 1st July, 1857, a quiet and zealous businessman named
Jeremiah Lanphier took up an appointment as a City Missionary in
downtown New York. Lanphier was appointed by the North Church
of the Dutch Reformed denomination. This church was suffering
from depletion of membership due to the removal of the population
from the downtown to the better residential headquarters, and the
new City Missionary was engaged to make diligent visitation in the
immediate neighborhood with a view to enlisting church attendance
among the floating population of the lower city. The Dutch
Consistory felt that it had appointed an ideal layman for the task in
hand, and so it was.
Burdened so by the need, Jeremiah Lanphier decided to invite others
to join him in a noonday prayer meeting, to be held on Wednesdays
once a week. He therefore distributed a handbill:
How Often Shall We Pray?
As often as the language of prayer is in my heart; as often as I
see my need of help; as often as I feel the power of temptation;
as often as I am made sensible of any spiritual declension or
feel the aggression of a worldly spirit.
In prayer we leave the business of time for that of eternity,
and intercourse with men for intercourse with God.
A day Prayer Meeting is held every Wednesday, from 12
to 1 o’clock, in the Consistory building in the rear of the
North Dutch Church, corner of Fulton and William Streets
(entrance from Fulton and Ann Streets).
The meeting is intended to give merchants, mechanics,
clerks, strangers, and businessmen generally an opportunity to
stop and call upon God and the perplexities incident to their
respective avocations. It will continue for one hour; but it is
also designed for those who may find it inconvenient to
remain more than five or ten minutes, as well as for those
who can spare the whole hour.
Accordingly, at twelve noon, 23rd September, 1857 the door
opened and the faithful Lanphier took his seat to await the response to
his invitation.… Five minutes went by. No one appeared. The missionary
paced the room in a conflict of fear and faith. Ten minutes elapsed.
Still no one came. Fifteen minutes passed.
Lanphier was yet alone. Twenty minutes; twenty-five; thirty; and
then at 12:30 a step was heard on the stairs, and the first person
appeared, then another, and another and another, until six people were
present and the prayer meeting began. On the following
Wednesday…there were forty intercessors.
Thus in the first week of October 1857, it was decided to hold a
meeting daily instead of weekly.…
Within six months, ten thousand businessmen were gathering
daily for prayer in New York, and within two years, a million converts
were added to the American churches.…
Undoubtedly the greatest revival in New York’s colorful history was
sweeping the city, and it was of such an order to make the whole nation
curious. There was no fanaticism, no hysteria, simply an incredible
movement of the people to pray.15
And the joy of Jeremiah Lanphier was very great. “Ask and you will receive,
that your joy may be full.”
SUMMARY AND EXHORTATION
The Bible plainly teaches that the goal of all we do should be to glorify God.
But it also teaches that in all we do we should pursue the fullness of our joy.
Some theologians have tried to force these two pursuits apart. But the Bible does
not force us to choose between God’s glory and our joy. In fact, it forbids us to
choose. And what we have seen in this chapter is that prayer, perhaps more
clearly than anything else, preserves the unity of these two pursuits.
Prayer pursues joy in fellowship with Jesus and in the power to share His life with others. And prayer pursues God’s glory by treating Him as the inexhaustible reservoir of hope and help. In prayer we admit our poverty and God’s prosperity, our bankruptcy and His bounty, our misery and His mercy. Therefore, prayer highly exalts and glorifies God precisely by pursuing everything we long for in Him, and not in ourselves. “Ask, and you will receive…that the Father may be glorified in the Son and…that your joy may be full.”
I close this chapter with an earnest exhortation. Unless I’m badly mistaken,
one of the main reasons so many of God’s children don’t have a significant life of
prayer is not so much that we don’t want to, but that we don’t plan to. If you
want to take a four-week vacation, you don’t just get up one summer morning
15. J. Edwin Orr, The Light of the Nations (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965), 103–5.
and say, “Hey, let’s go today!” You won’t have anything ready. You won’t know
where to go. Nothing has been planned.
But that is how many of us treat prayer. We get up day after day and realize
that significant times of prayer should be a part of our life, but nothing’s ever
ready. We don’t know where to go. Nothing has been planned. No time. No
place. No procedure. And we all know that the opposite of planning is not a
wonderful flow of deep, spontaneous experiences in prayer. The opposite of
planning is the rut. If you don’t plan a vacation, you will probably stay home
and watch TV. The natural, unplanned flow of spiritual life sinks to the lowest
ebb of vitality. There is a race to be run and a fight to be fought. If you want
renewal in your life of prayer, you must plan to see it.
Therefore, my simple exhortation is this: Let us take time this very day to
rethink our priorities and how prayer fits in. Make some new resolve. Try some
new venture with God. Set a time. Set a place. Choose a portion of Scripture to
guide you. Don’t be tyrannized by the press of busy days. We all need midcourse
corrections. Make this a day of turning to prayer—for the glory of God and for
the fullness of your joy.
“Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old.”
“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it
fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”