– Desiring All Else Only Because We Desire God –
When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper
What do you do when you don’t desire the Word of God? Or when
you read it and don’t see anything that gives you joy? Or when your
joy is weak and disintegrates before the allurements of the world? What
do you do if you are not satisfied in the God of the Bible, but prefer the
pleasures of the world? Did Paul or the psalmists or the celebrated saints
of history ever struggle with this? Yes, they did. And we should take heart.
We all struggle with seasons of lukewarmness and spiritual numbness of
heart. There are times in the lives of the most godly people when spiritual
hunger becomes weak, and darkness threatens to consume the light,
and everything but the vaguely remembered taste of joy evaporates.
MARTIN LUTHER’S MISERY
For example, on the outside, to many, Martin Luther looked invulnerable.
But those close to him knew the affliction. He wrote to
Melanchthon from the Wartburg Castle on July 13, 1521, while he was
supposedly working feverishly on the translation of the New Testament:
I sit here at ease, hardened and unfeeling—alas! Praying little, grieving
little for the Church of God, burning rather in the fierce fires of my
untamed flesh. It comes to this: I should be afire in the spirit; in reality
I am afire in the flesh, with lust, laziness, idleness, sleepiness. It is perhaps
because you have all ceased praying for me that God has turned
away from me. . . . For the last eight days I have written nothing, nor
prayed nor studied, partly from self-indulgence, partly from another
vexatious handicap [constipation and piles (hemorrhoids), we find out
in another place]. . . . I really cannot stand it any longer; . . . Pray for
me, I beg you, for in my seclusion here I am submerged in sins.2
The spiritual sight of saints is not uniformly clear. Clouds set in, and
when the glory of Christ is obscured, the fires of affection may smolder.
We will say more about this in Chapter Twelve. Suffice it to say now that
these need not be wasted seasons in the life of faith. God has his wise
and holy purposes for bringing his loved ones to the brink of despair (see
2 Cor. 1:8-10).
But to go to the valley of darkness, or stay there, is never our aim.
The biblical command is, “Rejoice in the Lord.” And even when the
Bible commands, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter
be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (Jas. 4:9)—even then,
the aim is not to stay there. The next verse says, “Humble yourselves
before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” “For godly grief produces a
repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief
produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). The goal of brokenhearted repentance is
the blessing of humble, Christ-exalting joy.
How then do we fight for joy when our desires languish and we may
have no inclination for the Word of God? The answer we are focusing
on in this chapter is prayer. The key to joy in God is God’s omnipotent,
transforming grace, bought by his Son, applied by his Spirit, wakened
by the Word, and laid hold of by faith through prayer.
PRAYER: “THE OFFERING UP OF OUR DESIRES UNTO GOD”
How shall we define prayer so that we know what we are talking about?
B. B. Warfield recounts a story about D. L. Moody, the nineteenthcentury
evangelist, making a visit to Britain and learning about the value
of the Westminster Catechism in relation to prayer. He was staying with
a Scottish friend in London.
A young man had come to speak to Mr. Moody about religious things.
He was in difficulty about a number of points, among the rest about
prayer and natural laws. “What is prayer?,” he said, “I can’t tell what
you mean by it!” They were in the hall of a large London house. Before
Moody could answer, a child’s voice was heard singing on the stairs. It
was that of a little girl of nine or ten, the daughter of their host. She came
running down the stairs and paused as she saw strangers sitting in the
hall. “Come here, Jenny,” her father said, “and tell this gentleman ‘What
is prayer.’” Jenny did not know what had been going on, but she quite
understood that she was now called upon to say her Catechism. So she
drew herself up, and folded her hands in front of her, like a good little
girl who was going to “say her questions,” and she said in her clear
childish voice: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for
things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our
sins and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.” “Ah! That’s the
Catechism!” Moody said, “thank God for that Catechism.”3
The central definition of prayer in the Westminster Catechism is “an
offering up of our desires unto God.” Therefore prayer is the revealer
of the heart. What a person prays for shows the spiritual condition of
his heart. If we do not pray for spiritual things (like the glory of Christ,
and the hallowing of God’s name, and the salvation of sinners, and the
holiness of our hearts, and the advance of the gospel, and contrition for
sin, and the fullness of the Spirit, and the coming of the kingdom, and
the joy of knowing Christ), then probably it is because we do not desire
these things. Which is a devastating indictment of our hearts.
This is why J. I. Packer said, “I believe that prayer is the measure of
the man, spiritually, in a way that nothing else is, so that how we pray is as
important a question as we can ever face.”4 How we pray reveals the desires
of our hearts. And the desires of our hearts reveal what our treasure is. And
if our treasure is not Christ, we will perish. “Whoever loves father or
mother more than me,” Jesus said, “is not worthy of me, and whoever loves
son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37).
THE FIGHT FOR JOY: WORSHIPFUL, LOVING, SERIOUS, AND DANGEROUS
Therefore, the fight for joy with the weapon of prayer is very serious.
Ultimately the glory of God is at stake. This is true because God is most
glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. It is true also because
the joy of the Lord is our strength (Neh. 8:10) in the cause of mercy and
justice and missions. For when the light of Christ shines in these ways,
people see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matt.
5:16). Being more satisfied in God than in prosperity or the praise of
man makes you willing to be persecuted for the sake of Christ. So it was
said of the early Christians, “You joyfully accepted the plundering of
your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession
and an abiding one” (Heb. 10:34). That is what joy in God (not
earthly security) produces. Therefore praying for such liberating joy in
God is one of the most worshipful and loving things a person can do.
And it is very dangerous.5
Praying for joy is not the emotional pampering of joyless people. It
is preparation for sacrifice. What’s at stake in the fight for joy is the radiance
of the worth of Jesus made visible for the world to see in sacrifices
of love flowing from the joy of blood-bought, soul-satisfied, Christexalting
people. When Paul said to the Corinthians, “We work with you
for your joy” (2 Cor. 1:24), he was not saying, “We pamper you.” He
was saying, “We prepare you for radical, Christ-exalting sacrifices of
WHAT JOY DID IN MACEDONIA
You can see this as clear as day in 2 Corinthians 8:1-4. Paul celebrated
what happened to the Christians in Macedonia so that the Corinthians
would seek the same thing—namely, the grace of God, which led to joy
in God, which led to love. This is a pattern we see over and over again.
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been
given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction,
their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed
in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according
to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own
free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief
of the saints. (2 Cor. 8:1-4)
First, there was the power of grace. And Paul makes clear that this
power is available for the Corinthians, not just the Macedonians: “God
is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in
all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8).
Then, rising in the heart because of grace, there was “abundance of joy.”
This was not because of circumstances or prosperity. It was “in a severe
test of affliction,” and it was out of “extreme poverty.” This is not a
health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. The joy they had was in Christ,
not things. Then, after grace gave rise to abundant joy in Christ, love
overflowed. This joy “overflowed in a wealth of generosity” for the
poor. And this was not constrained, but free and lavish.
This is serious and dangerous. If you believe that joy is peripheral,
and what matters is generosity for the relief of the poor, whether you
feel like it or not, you are against the Word of God.6 In this same context
Paul says, with devastating clarity, “Each one must give as he has
made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves
a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). God does not delight in reluctant, disinclined
obedience. And we do not feel loved when we are served begrudgingly.
Therefore, to labor for a person’s joy in Christ is not pampering.
It is preparing him for the most dangerous deeds of love.
PRAYING FOR JOY AND PRAYING FOR ALL ELSE FOR THE SAKE OF JOY
Therefore, we want to follow such persons. So we ask, how did the early
Christians pray for joy? First, we may assume that they prayed the
prayers of the only Bible that they had, namely, the Old Testament. Thus
they would have prayed: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast
love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Ps. 90:14). “Let me
hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice” (Ps.
51:8). “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a
willing spirit” (Ps. 51:12). “Make us glad for as many days as you have
afflicted us” (Ps. 90:15). “Will you not revive us again, that your people
may rejoice in you?” (Ps. 85:6). Don’t miss how radical these prayers
are. They assume that we are unable to make ourselves satisfied in God.
And they assume that God has the right to do it, is able to do it, and
does it in answer to prayer.
Second, the early Christians prayed for joy in accord with the example
of the apostles. Paul prayed, “May the God of hope fill you with all
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joy and peace in believing” (Rom. 15:13), and “May you be strengthened
with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance
and patience with joy” (Col. 1:11). So the early church looked not only
to the Old Testament, but to the emerging New Testament for their mandate
to fight for joy by prayer.
Third, they took Jesus at his word when he said, “Until now you
have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy
may be full” (John 16:24). So they did all their asking in the name of
Jesus with a view to having full joy in him. Every prayer was based on
his blood-bought grace. When every prayer was attended with the
words, “In Jesus’ name, Amen,” it was not empty, worn-out Christian
jargon for them.
Paul explained why: “For all the promises of God find their Yes in
him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for
his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20). In other words, because Christ died in our place,
all of God’s wrath is averted from us, and only mercy comes to us from
heaven (Rom. 5:9; 8:32). That is the ground of all our prayers. They
were bought for us by the blood of Christ. Praying in Jesus’ name means
we believe that and lay claim to answers only because of Christ’s righteousness,
IN ALL PRAYER FOR HIS GIFTS WE ARE PRAYING FOR MORE OF GOD
So in obedience to Christ the early church prayed in Jesus’ name, and they
prayed with the aim Jesus told them to: “that your joy may be full.” Every
prayer, no matter what it was for, was a prayer for the fullness of joy in
Christ. They knew that Christ was not calling the church to exploit God’s
mercy for material gain. Prayer was for glorifying God and magnifying
his Son. “Whatever you ask in my name,” Jesus said, “this I will do, that
the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). The early church
knew that in the very act of praying, a person might make a lackey out
of God by not desiring God but only his gifts. “You ask and do not
receive,” James said, “because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions”
(Jas. 4:3). It is not wrong to want God’s gifts and ask for them.
Most prayers in the Bible are for the gifts of God. But ultimately every
gift should be desired because it shows us and brings us more of him.
Augustine put it like this in one of his prayers: “He loves thee too
little, who loves anything together with thee, which he loves not for thy
sake.”7 Every Christ-exalting prayer for the gifts of God is at root a
prayer for the glory of Christ. Christ is exalted when he is desired above
God’s gifts. “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will
praise you” (Ps. 63:3). If his love is better than life, it must be better than
all that life can give.
How else can we explain the words of Habakkuk 3:17-18, “Though
the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of
the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the
fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I
will take joy in the God of my salvation”? When this world totally fails,
the ground for joy remains. God. Therefore, surely every prayer for life
and health and home and family and job and ministry in this world is
secondary. And the great purpose of prayer is to ask that—in and
through all his gifts—God would be our joy.
WATCHING THE EARLY CHURCH PRAY FOR EVERYTHING FOR JOY
It is amazing to see this truth in action in the New Testament. Walk with
me for a few minutes among the prayers of the early Christians, and you
will see what they prayed for and how all of it was part of the fight for
joy in God.
1. The early Christians called on God to exalt his name in the
“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your
name’” (Matt. 6:9). This is a prayer for joy in two ways. First, to see
God’s name honored is the greatest joy of all who love God. Therefore
to pray that his name be honored is to pray for what we desire more than
anything. Second, since God is most glorified in us when we are most
satisfied in him, a prayer for his name to be hallowed (glorified) is a
prayer that we and millions of others would be more satisfied in him
than anything. The psalmists link the joy we have in God with the praise
we bring his name. “I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to
your name, O Most High” (Ps. 9:2).
2. The early Christians called on God to extend his kingdom in the
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”
(Matt. 6:10). At the arrival of God’s kingdom in the fullness of its glory,
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no
more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore”
(Rev. 21:4). Therefore, to pray for this kingdom to come is to pray for
the greatest possible joy to fill the creation.
But not only far in the future. The spiritual triumph of God’s kingdom
in the soul and in the church and here and there in the world today
is defined explicitly by the apostle Paul as “righteousness and peace and
joy.” “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but
of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
Therefore, to pray for God’s rule in someone’s life (including your own)
is to pray for joy.
3. The early Christians called on God for the fullness of the Holy
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your
children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit
to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13; see also Eph. 3:19). The uniform
experience of the early church was that the fullness of the Holy Spirit
resulted in joyful boldness in witness (Acts 4:31) and joyful freedom
in worship (Eph. 5:18-19). This is because “the fruit of the Holy Spirit
is . . . joy . . .” (Gal. 5:22).
4. The early Christians called on God to save unbelievers.
“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they
may be saved” (Rom. 10:1). This was a prayer for joy in two senses.
First, to be saved is to find the greatest treasure in the universe and joyfully
count everything else as secondary. “The kingdom of heaven is like
treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in
his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt. 13:44).
Second, when a sinner repents, there is “more joy in heaven than over
ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
Therefore, all who have the heart of heaven rejoice with those who
rejoice—especially the angels and God himself.
5. The early Christians called on God for healing.
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful?
Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders
of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the
name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick,
and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be
forgiven” (Jas. 5:13-15). We see what happened in Samaria when Philip
healed people there: “Many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.
So there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:7).
6. The early Christians called on God for strategic wisdom.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men
generously without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jas. 1:5; see also
Col. 1:9). In daily life, to live wisely is to achieve the God-centered goals
for which we were created, including the glory of God in the gladness
of our worship. Thus Paul describes the effect of being taught “in all wisdom”—
namely, “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with
thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
7. The early Christians called on God for unity and harmony in the
Jesus modeled this prayer for them: “I do not ask for these only, but
also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may
all be one; just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may
be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John
17:20-21). When Paul thought on this kind of unity, he said to the
Philippians, “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the
same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). The unity
of God’s people is a great joy to those who desire “that the world may
believe” God has sent Jesus Christ.
8. The early Christians called on God to help them know him better.
“[We have not ceased to pray for you to be] increasing in the knowledge
of God” (Col. 1:10; see also Eph. 1:17). Spiritually (not just intel-
lectually) knowing God is the foundation of all joy. That’s why Jesus said
the pure in heart are blessed (happy)—because they see God (Matt. 5:8).
9. The early Christians called on God to help them comprehend the
love of Christ.
“I bow my knees before the Father . . . that you may have strength
to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and
height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”
(Eph. 3:14, 18). The difference between whether or not the love
of Christ gives joy to the soul is whether we are able to comprehend
some measure of the incomprehensible. As long as the love of Christ
remains an idea, it does not move our hearts. But to pray for the power
to comprehend is to pray for the awakening of joy.
10. The early Christians called on God for a deeper sense of assured
“I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my
prayers . . . that you may know what is the hope to which he has called
you” (Eph. 1:16, 18). It is the universal experience of man and the
explicit witness of the apostles that joy flows from hope: “May the God
of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing” (Rom.15:13). “We
rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). “Rejoice in hope”
11. The early Christians called on God for strength and endurance.
“[We have not ceased to pray for you to be] strengthened with all
power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience
with joy” (Col. 1:11; see also Eph. 3:16). It’s not surprising that strength
and endurance should be linked with joy because Nehemiah 8:10
already taught that “the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
12. The early Christians called on God for their faith to be preserved.
First Jesus gave an example of this kind of prayer as he prayed for
Peter just before his three denials: “I have prayed for you that your faith
may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers”
(Luke 22:32). Jesus also instructs the disciples to pray for persevering
faith: “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” (Luke 21:36). Then Paul makes plain that
as he prays and works for the faith of the churches, he is explicitly working
for their joy. “I will remain and continue with you all, for your
progress and joy in the faith” (Phil. 1:25). “Not that we lord it over your
faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your
faith” (2 Cor. 1:24).
13. The early Christians called on God that they might not fall into
“Lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13). “Watch and pray that
you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). What is temptation?
It is always, in one way or another, the deception that something is more
to be desired than God and his ways. Therefore, the prayer for deliverance
is that we would not fall for that deception but always taste and
know that God and his ways are to be desired above all others.
14. The early Christians called on God to complete their resolves
and enable them to do good works.
“To this end we always pray for you, that our God may . . . fulfill
every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thess.
1:11). “[We have not ceased to pray for you that you will] walk in a
manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every
good work” (Col. 1:10). We know from experience and from the word
of Jesus in Acts 20:35 that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Therefore, when we pray for the enabling to give like this, we are praying
for a great and joyful blessedness.
15. The early Christians called on God for forgiveness for their sins.
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt.
6:12). This is a plea for the ongoing application and enjoyment of the
great verdict rendered over us in Jesus Christ: Justified! This standing in
Christ that assures us of God’s favor is the foundation of all our joys.
16. The early Christians called on God for protection from the evil one.
“Deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). The devil is the great deceiver,
and the aim of all his deception, as with temptation, is that we desire
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anything—even good, safe, wholesome things—above God. He offers a
thousand substitutes and threatens us with a thousand miseries in this
world. When we pray for deliverance from him, we mean: Never let us
be attracted by the substitutes, and never let us infer from our miseries
that God is not our all-satisfying Friend.
Everything the early church prayed for was part of their fight for joy
in God. If this were not true, prayer would have been mercenary. They
would have been making God into a genie and prayer into Aladdin’s
lamp. But when Jesus said, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may
be full” (John 16:24), he meant, “In all your asking look for the fullness
of joy in me. In this way all your asking will glorify me.” So let us fight
for joy by asking for it earnestly from God, and let us fight for joy by
asking for everything else with this one great goal: in and through all his
gifts to see more and taste more of Christ.
PRAYER AND MEDITATION ARE AS INSEPARABLE AS GOD’S WORD AND SPIRIT
It may seem strange, in this chapter and the next, to put so much emphasis
on prayer after two chapters on the utterly indispensable role of the
Word of God. The reason is that prayer and meditation are inseparable
in the fight for joy. This inseparability is rooted in God’s design to make
the Spirit of God and the Word of God inseparable. His purpose for our
lives is that the work of his Spirit happen through his Word, and that
the work of his Word happen through his Spirit. The Spirit and the Word
are inseparable in wakening and sustaining joy, from the first act of
regeneration to the final act of glorification. God works by the Spirit
through his Word to glorify his Son and satisfy his people.
Prayer and meditation correspond to God’s Spirit and God’s Word.
Prayer is our response to God in reliance on his Spirit; and meditation
is our response to God in reliance on his Word.
In prayer we praise the perfections of God through his Spirit, we
thank God for what he has done by his Spirit, we confess our failures to
trust the promise of his Spirit, and we ask for the help of his Spirit—all
in Jesus’ name. Prayer is the human expression of treasuring and trusting
the Spirit of God.
In meditation, as the counterpart to prayer, we hear and ponder
148 = When I Don’t Desire GOD
and prize the Word of God. Meditation means reading the Bible and
chewing on it to get the sweetness and the nourishment from it that
God designs to give. It should involve memorizing the Word so that
you can chew on it and be strengthened by it day and night. The
essence of meditation is to think your way into the very mind of the
inspired writers who were granted by inspiration to think the thoughts
of God (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:21). Think and mull and ponder
and chew until you see God the way they see God—namely, as precious
and valuable and beautiful and desirable. This is how the Word
Thus, even as the Spirit and the Word are inseparable in our lives,
so prayer and meditation are inseparable. The fight for joy always
involves both. Prayer without meditation on the Word of God will disintegrate
into humanistic spirituality. It will simply reflect our own fallen
ideas and feelings—not God’s. And meditation, without the humility of
desperate prayer, will create proud legalism or hopeless despair.
Without prayer we will try to fulfill the Word in our own strength
and think we are succeeding and so become proud Pharisees; or we will
realize we are not succeeding and will give up in despair. Those are the
only alternatives for those who try to live the Word of God without the
Spirit of God—that is, those who try to separate the discipline of meditation
from the dependence of prayer.
THE SPIRIT WAKENS JOY WHERE THE WORD EXALTS CHRIST
There is a crucial, Christ-exalting reason why the Spirit creates and sustains
God-centered joy only through the Word of God. The reason is
this: The Spirit binds his saving, joy-producing work to the Christcentered
Word of God so that Jesus Christ will be glorified through the
joy that the Spirit inspires. The Spirit has been given, Jesus said, to glorify
the Son of God (John 16:14). Therefore, he works through the Word
that exalts the Son. And therefore prayer, which seeks for his work, is
inseparable from meditation, which savors his Word.
Let me illustrate. In Luke 2:10-11 we hear a word from God to the
shepherds: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy
that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city
of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Now what was the aim of
this word? The aim was, at least, to produce joy. “We bring you good
news of a great joy.” In other words, the truth about Jesus—that he is
a Savior and Messiah and Lord, and that he was born in the prophesied
city of David—all this truth was meant to inspire great joy. And when
it did, who got the glory? Jesus did. Why? Because the Spirit used news
about him to inspire the joy. He is Savior, Christ, Lord.
But suppose the shepherds were out in the fields keeping watch over
their flocks by night, and suddenly the Holy Spirit came upon them,
unidentified, and filled them with great joy but used no news at all to do
it. No word. No revelation. Only the Spirit-created feeling of joy—like
a euphoria that you might feel when you take a drug. Who, then, would
be glorified for that? There is no word about Christ, and the Spirit
remains incognito. The answer is, nobody would be glorified for this joy,
except maybe the shepherds, for seeming so resilient against the cold
How would it glorify Christ if the Spirit created in us all kinds of
good feelings with no reference to Jesus and his cross and resurrection?
It wouldn’t. So the way the Spirit inspires and sustains joy in our lives
is by humbly and quietly enabling us to see the beauty of Christ in the
Word. Then our joy consciously arises from the truth about Christ, and
he is glorified, but the Spirit remains the behind-the-scenes power that
opened the eyes of our hearts. Thus we pray earnestly for the indispensable
work of the Spirit, but we look earnestly to the indispensable
Word of God.
HOW THIS WORKS IN MY EXPERIENCE
Very practically what this means for the fight for joy is that every day
we must not just go to the Word, but pray over the Word—indeed before
we even get to the Word, lest he fail to come. I close this chapter with
the way this works in my own experience.
Almost every day I pray early in the morning that God would give
me desires for him and his Word, because the desires I ought to have are
absent or weak. In fact, I follow the acronym myself that I have given to
many people to help them fight for joy. The acronym is I O U S. It is very
limited and focused. It’s not all we should pray for. But this book (and
most of my life) is about the fight for joy. And that is what I O U S focuses
on. Here’s the way I pray over the Word in my fight for joy.
I—(Incline!) The first thing my soul needs is an inclination
toward God and his Word. Without that, nothing else will happen of
any value in my life. I must want to know God and read his Word
and draw near to him. Where does that “want to” come from? It
comes from God. So Psalm 119:36 teaches us to pray, “Incline my
heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” Very simply we
ask God to take our hearts, which are more inclined to breakfast and
the newspaper, and change that inclination. We are asking that God
create desires that are not there.
O—(Open!) Next I need to have the eyes of my heart opened so
that when my inclination leads me to the Word, I see what is really
there, and not just my own ideas. Who opens the eyes of the heart?
God does. So Psalm 119:18 teaches us to pray, “Open my eyes, that
I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” So many times we
read the Bible and see nothing wonderful. Its reading does not produce
joy. So what can we do? We can cry to God: “Open the eyes of
my heart, O Lord, to see what it says about you as wonderful.”
U—(Unite!) Then I am concerned that my heart is badly fragmented.
Parts of it are inclined, and parts of it are not. Parts see wonder,
and parts say, “That’s not so wonderful.” What I long for is a
united heart where all the parts say a joyful Yes! to what God reveals
in his Word. Where does that wholeness and unity come from? It
comes from God. So Psalm 86:11 teaches us to pray, “Unite my heart
to fear your name.” Don’t stumble over the word fear when you
thought we were seeking joy. The fear of the Lord is a joyful experience
when you renounce all sin. A thunderstorm can be a trembling
joy when you know you can’t be destroyed by lightning. “O Lord, let
your ear be attentive to . . . the prayer of your servants who delight
to fear your name” (Neh. 1:11). “His delight shall be in the fear of
the LORD” (Isa. 11:3). Therefore pray that God would unite your
heart to joyfully fear the Lord.
S—(Satisfy!) What I really want from all this engagement with
the Word of God and the work of his Spirit in answer to my prayers
is for my heart to be satisfied with God and not with the world.
Where does that satisfaction come from? It comes from God. So
Psalm 90:14 teaches us to pray, “Satisfy us in the morning with your
steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”
I O U S ADMITS GOD IS OUR ONLY HOPE FOR JOY
This acronym has served me well for years. This is frontline warfare for
me. I know the agonizing experience of Robert Robinson’s hymn
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” What makes this hymn so relevant
for me is that it acknowledges God’s absolute right to bind my
heart to himself, and then it turns that right into a prayer.
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.8
“Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.” A
“fetter” is a chain. I pray this—oh, how I pray this with all my wandering
heart—“Grant me, O God, to see the surpassing value of your
goodness so that it binds me, as with a chain, to you.” It’s the same
prayer that George Croly (1780-1860) prayed in his well-known hymn,
“Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.”
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art,
And make me love Thee as I ought to love.9
I have heard people object to that last line. They say love should be free,
not forced. True. But there are two kinds of forcing. One is against our
will. The other is by changing our will. The first results in coerced action.
The second results in free action. My own suspicion is that those who
object to this prayer have never seriously confronted their own hardness
of heart. They have not taken seriously enough the biblical diagnosis of
our condition found in the word cannot in Romans 8:7-8: “The mind
that is set on the flesh . . . does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” And I wonder, have
those who object to this hymn ever come to terms with why the psalmist
prays so urgently and repeatedly, “Incline my heart” (Ps. 119: 36, 112;
141:4)? For my part, the only hope I have to love God as I ought is that
he would overcome all my disinclination and bind my heart to himself
in love. That is the grace I must have to be a Christian and to live in joy.
Hence I pray to God repeatedly: Incline my heart! Open the eyes of
my heart! Unite my heart! Satisfy my heart! Prayer is, therefore, not only
the measure of our hearts, revealing what we really desire; it is also the
indispensable remedy for our hearts when we do not desire God the way
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing.
1 T H E S S A L O N I A N S 5 : 1 6 – 1 7
When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went
to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open
toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day
and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.
D A N I E L 6 : 1 0
My practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an
habitual thing, to give myself to prayer, after having dressed
myself in the morning. Now . . . the first thing I did, after having
asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon His precious
word, was, to begin to meditate on the word of God, searching,
as it were, into every verse, to get blessing out of it. . . . The
result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very
few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving,
or to intercession, or to supplication; so that, though I
did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet
it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer. When
thus I have been for awhile making confession, or intercession,
or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words
or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others,
as the Word may lead to it.
G E O R G E MU E L L E R
A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Mueller1