– Morning, Noon, and Evening Without Ceasing –
When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper
To be as practically helpful as possible, I would like to look at the
question, how then do we pray for joy? By “how” I mean the nittygritty
questions of when, and where, and what wording? I hope that
these thoughts will feel like empowering encouragements rather than
THE SOURCE OF THE FRUIT-BEARING LIFE OF LOVE
Let’s begin by considering the simple words of 1 Thessalonians 5:17,
“Pray without ceasing.” The words might seem to dangle in a string of
commands. But there is a flow of thought here that makes this admonition
relevant to the fight for joy—and the love that flows from it. It
is a flow of thought much like the flow we saw in the previous chapter
from 2 Corinthians 8:1-3, and like the flow of thought in Psalm 1,
where delighting in the law of the Lord day and night makes you like
a tree that bears nourishing fruit even in drought. Here is the relevant
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted,
help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one
repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another
and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks
in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
(1 Thess. 5:14-18)
Admonishing, encouraging, helping, being patient, not repaying evil for
evil, seeking to do good to all—this is a fruit-bearing life. He is telling
us to be like trees planted by streams of water that bring forth fruit. This
is the effect of delighting in the Word of God in Psalm 1:3. Look at all
these needy people draining you. The “idle” are provoking you; the
“fainthearted” are leaning on you; the “weak” are depleting you. But
you are called to encourage and help and be patient and not return evil
for evil. In other words, you are called to have spiritual resources that
can be durable and fruitful and nourishing when others are idle and
fainthearted and weak and mean-spirited.
How? Where do we get the resources to love like that? Verse 16
answers, “Rejoice always.” That corresponds to “delight” in Psalm 1.
Presumably, this rejoicing is not primarily based on circumstances, but
on God and his promises, because the people around us are idle and
fainthearted and weak and antagonistic. This would make an ordinary
person angry, sullen, and discouraged. But we are supposed to have our
roots planted somewhere other than circumstance. The roots of our lives
are supposed to be drawing up the nutriments of joy from a source that
cannot be depleted—the river of God and his Word. The one who
delights in the Lord is “like a tree planted by streams of water.”
What then is the key to this rejoicing, or this delight, which sustains
the life of fruit-bearing love? Verse 17 says, “Pray without ceasing.” And
verse 18 says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” So the answer seems
to be that continual prayer and thanksgiving is a key to joy in God that
makes a person durable and fruitful in relation to all kinds of people.2
Therefore one biblical key to maintaining joy in God and his Word is to
pray without ceasing.
WHAT DOES “PRAY WITHOUT CEASING” MEAN?
If we are going to be fruit-bearing people, and not wither under the pressures
of idle, fainthearted, weak, and hurtful people, then we must fight,
as 1 Thessalonians 5:16 says, to “rejoice always” or to “delight . . . in
the word of the LORD . . . day and night” (Ps. 1:2). And to do that, as
verse 17 says, we need to “pray without ceasing.” Which leads to the
question of what that means.
Praying without ceasing means at least three things. First, it means
that there is a spirit of dependence that should permeate all we do. This
is the very spirit and essence of prayer. So, even when we are not speaking
consciously to God, there is a deep, abiding dependence on him that
is woven into the heart of faith. In that sense, we “pray” or have the
spirit of prayer continuously.
Second—and I think this is what Paul has in mind most immediately—
praying without ceasing means praying repeatedly and often.
I base this on the use of the word “without ceasing” (adialeiptøs) in
Romans 1:9, where Paul says, “For God is my witness, whom I serve
with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing [adialeiptos]
I mention you.” Now we can be sure that Paul did not mention
the Romans every minute of his waking life, or even every
minute of his prayers. He prayed about many other things. But he
mentioned them over and over, and often. So “without ceasing”
doesn’t mean that, verbally or mentally, we have to be speaking
prayers every minute of the day in the fight for joy. It means we
should pray over and over, and often. Our default mental state should
be: “O God, help . . .”
Third, praying without ceasing means not giving up on prayer.
Don’t ever come to a point in your life where you cease to pray at all.
Don’t abandon the God of hope and say, “There’s no use praying.”
Jesus is very jealous for us to learn this lesson. One of his parables is
introduced by the words, “And he told them a parable to the effect that
they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). He knew
our experience in prayer would tempt us to quit altogether. So he, along
with the apostle Paul, says, Never lose heart. Go on praying. Don’t
So from the context of 1 Thessalonians 5 I say that the key to
“rejoice always” is to “pray without ceasing.” Lean on God all the time
for the miracle of joy in your life. Never give up looking to him for help.
Come to him repeatedly during the day and often. Make your default
mental state a Godward longing for all that you need, especially for spiritual
CEASELESS PRAYER AND PERSISTENT DISCIPLINE
In Chapter Eight we made the case that continual communion with God
in his Word is important. The upright man of Psalm 1 meditates on the
law of the Lord “day and night.” We might have said “meditates without
ceasing.” But then we made the case that this continual, spontaneous
communion with God by his Word depends in part on plan and discipline.
In other words, if there are no set and disciplined times of Bible
reading and meditation and memorization, the spontaneity and continual
communion will dry up. The plants of spontaneous communion grow
in the well-tended garden of disciplined Bible-reading and memorization.
So it is with prayer. We are told to pray “without ceasing.” We may
do it anywhere, anytime. It is the air we breathe. But that will cease to
be the case if there are no disciplined times set aside for prayer and a plan
to keep them. If you want to have a vital hour-by-hour, spontaneous
walk with God, you must also have disciplined regular meetings with
God for prayer. A husband who says he never has special times alone
with his wife because the daily air is charged with intimacy will not long
breathe that air. The plants of ceaseless prayer grow in the garden of persistent
DANIEL’S DEFIANT DISCIPLINE IN PRAYER
The prophet Daniel is a good example. He had a remarkable relationship
with God, especially when it was critically needed. But what did
that continual relationship grow out of? It was the disciplined regularity
of his prayer life. Darius, the king, issued a decree that no one should
pray to any god but only to the king himself (Dan. 6:7-9). The penalty
for disobedience would be death.
What did Daniel do? He reveals to us the discipline from which his
spiritual power flowed. According to Daniel 6:10, “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.” Daniel’s daily custom was to pray in
the same place three times a day.
The point is not that three times a day is the ideal number. Others
have prayed more often: “Seven times a day I praise you for your righ-
teous rules” (Ps. 119:164). The point is this: If we hope to fight for joy
day and night by praying without ceasing, we will need to develop disciplined
times of prayer.3
HOW IMPORTANT IS EARLY-MORNING PRAYER?
The example of Jesus and the testimony of lovers of Christ throughout
the centuries points us to early-morning prayer as decisively important.
“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he [Jesus]
departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark
1:35). I commend the early morning as one crucial time for a disciplined,
regular meeting with God over the Word and prayer.
First, it signals to our conscience that this is of first importance in
the day. That witness from our action to our conscience has a joyful
effect on the Christian mind. Second, early-morning prayer strikes the
first blow in the battle of the day, instead of waiting till we are besieged
from all sides. Third, what we do daily and do early shapes the spirit of
our minds and brings us into a disposition of humility and trust that will
bear better fruit than anxiety or self-reliance. Fourth, since beginning the
day with the Word of God is crucial (as we saw in Chapter Eight), therefore
prayer is equally crucial since the Word will not open its best wonders
to us without prayer: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous
things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18). Fifth, it is uncanny how Satan can
use even good things to squeeze prayer out of our schedule if we miss
the early-morning hour. I have seen it again and again. If I say to myself,
“I will give some time to prayer later,” it generally does not happen.
William Law (1686-1761), who is famous mainly for his classic A
Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, argues vigorously for “daily
early prayer in the morning.” “His own day, which began at 5 a.m., was
carefully planned to allow time for reading, writing, and works of charity,
as well as prayer.”4 His main argument is that the discipline of early
rising for prayer and the Word cultivated and demonstrated a spiritual
condition that glorified Christ and gratified the soul.
If our blessed Lord used to pray early before day; if He spent whole
nights in prayer; if the devout Anna was day and night in the temple;
if St. Paul and Silas at midnight sang praises unto God; if the primitive
Christians, for several hundred years, besides their hours of
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prayers in the daytime, met publicly in the churches at midnight, to
join in psalms and prayers; is it not certain that these practices
showed the state of their heart? Are they not so many plain proofs of
the whole turn of their minds?5
Law was persuaded that “sleep is . . . a dull, stupid state of existence”
and that “prayer is the nearest approach to God, and the highest enjoyment
of Him that we are capable of in this life.”6 Therefore, his book
overflows with the benefits of early-morning prayer.
If you were to rise early every morning as an instance of self-denial,
as a method of renouncing indulgence, as a means of redeeming your
time and fitting your spirit for prayer, you would find mighty advantages
from it. This method, though it seems such a small circumstance
of life, would in all probability be a means of great piety. It
would keep it constantly in your head that softness and idleness were
to be avoided, that self-denial was a part of Christianity. It would
teach you to exercise power over yourself, and make you able by
degrees to renounce other pleasures and tempers that war against the
soul. . . .
But, above all, one certain benefit from this method you will be
sure of having; it will best fit and prepare you for the reception of
the Holy Spirit. When you thus begin the day in the spirit of religion,
renouncing sleep, because you are to renounce softness and redeem
your time; this disposition, as it puts your heart into a good state so
it will procure the assistance of the Holy Spirit; what is so planted
and watered will certainly have an increase from God. You will then
speak from your heart, your soul will be awake, your prayers will
refresh you like meat and drink, you will feel what you say, and
begin to know what saints and holy men have meant by fervors of
PLANNED MEETINGS WITH GOD LATER IN THE DAY
I do not want to give the impression that the early-morning hour is the
only time for regular, planned meetings with God in prayer. The fight
for joy is too relentless for that. Daniel kept his appointments with God
three times a day. I would commend a longer time in focused prayer and
meditation early in the morning, perhaps an hour (the length will vary
160 = When I Don’t Desire GOD
with your situation in life), and then two or three other short times later
in the day, roughly corresponding to lunch, dinner, and bedtime. These
may be no more than a few minutes. What matters more than the length
is the intensity of the focus.
In these later times of prayer, I am not referring to the thoughts
directed Godward as you walk back to work from the cafeteria or as you
run to the car. These are good. They are part of praying without ceasing.
Rather I am referring to a few minutes of very focused stillness and
solitude, with the Bible open in front of you—or the memory serving up
some nourishing text on the tongue of your soul. The aim is to call to
mind a few verses and to pray that God would now satisfy your heart
in him for the next part of the day and free you from sinful desires, so
that you exalt Christ and love people. In this way each segment of the
day (and then the night before you go to bed) is consciously dedicated
to God by an act of consecration in focused prayer. It is amazing how
just a few minutes over the Word at midday and mid-evening can bring
spiritual clarity and power and peaceful joy to the next few hours, even
in the midst of much pressure.
PLAN THE TIME BEFORE IT COMES
I have assumed that these times of prayer, especially the early-morning
time, have their own special place and time. I urge you to plan for this.
Think ahead what the time will be. Win that victory the night before,
not in the morning. Decide the evening before when the alarm will call
you from sleep to prayer.
The discipline to rise early is not as difficult as the discipline of going
to bed. This did not used to be so. Before electricity and radio and television
and the Internet, going to bed soon after dark was not so difficult.
There wasn’t much to do. Today the strongest allurements to stay
up and be entertained are against us. Therefore, the battle against
weariness, which makes us drowsy as soon as we open our Bible in the
morning, has to be fought in the evening, not just in the morning. When
you have decided when the alarm will call you to prayer, then decide
when you must go to bed so that you are not exhausted when the alarm
goes off. If you need caffeine to keep you awake in the morning, I will
leave that with your conscience. Maybe that’s why God created it.
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Staying awake to pray is certainly a better use of caffeine than staying
awake for almost anything else.
THINK CREATIVELY ABOUT THE PLACE YOU PRAY
In the evening decide beforehand not only when but where you will pray
and read when you get up in the morning. There needs to be a measure
of privacy so that you are not distracted and are able to read and sing
and cry. If complete seclusion is not possible, create the best situation
you can, explaining to spouse or children or roommates that when you
are in that chair at that hour you would like to be undisturbed.
I would suggest that you think creatively about the place of prayer.
I have often wondered why Christians build houses with a room designated
for play (called a den) and for food (called a kitchen) and for sleep
(called a bedroom) and for cleaning (called a bathroom) and for clothes
(called a closet), but do not build a room for the solitude of prayer and
meditation. But if we gave thought to this, could we not find or create
such a space? The reason we don’t do it is mainly that nobody thinks of
it. But now I have caused you to think of it. Where could you create such
a space? Is there a space under the stairs that could have a kneeling mat
and a prayer bench and a light?
In 1975, when we bought our first home, I built a prayer bench with
a place for my elbows in a kneeling posture, and a place for my Bible to
lie, and a shelf underneath for the Bible or other books and a notepad.
It has been with me ever since in three different houses. For the last
twenty-one years we have lived in the same house, and there has a been
a nook in my study, created by positioning filing cabinets to block it off
from the rest of the space. There the prayer bench welcomes me every
morning and several times during the day. God alone knows the tears
and songs that have mingled there. I urge you to think creatively.
Seriously consider building a place of prayer, even if it is just the rearrangement
of furniture or the cleaning out of an unused storage space.
GOING OUTSIDE MAY BE BEST OF ALL
Of course, living in a cold climate, as I do, I don’t naturally think of praying
and meditating out of doors. But surely that is a good idea for some.
George Mueller, the nineteenth-century pastor and lover of orphans in
Bristol, England, has been a great help to me in the counsel he has given
about the fight for joy through prayer and meditation. He is unabashed
in saying that the fight for joy is paramount:
According to my judgement the most important point to be attended
to is this: above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the
Lord. Other things may press upon you, the Lord’s work may even
have urgent claims upon your attention, but I deliberately repeat, it
is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above
all things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself! Day by day
seek to make this the most important business of your life.8
Mueller discovered that walking early in the morning with a New
Testament in hand was an excellent way of fighting for joy.
I find it very beneficial to my health to walk thus for meditation before
breakfast, and am now so in the habit of using the time for that purpose,
that when I get into the open air, I generally take out a New
Testament of good sized type which I carry with me for that purpose.
. . . I find it very profitable, not only to my body, but also to my
Whether outdoors or indoors, places are not sacred intrinsically. But we
make them sacred by what we do there. In the battle for joy, small places
indoors or open spaces outdoors can become powerfully strategic.
PLAN YOUR METHOD OF PRAYER
When a place and time are settled, move toward settling a method of
prayer that will intensify your fight for joy. I don’t mean anything like a
straitjacket that hinders spontaneity. I mean simple, planned structures
that keep us from mental wandering and rambling and empty phrases
and worldly desires.
THE GREAT BENEFITS OF PRAYING THE WORD OF GOD
The main method of prayer in the fight for joy is to pray the Word of
God. That is, to read or recite the Word and turn it into prayer as you
go. Most people (certainly including me) do not have the power of mind
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to look at nothing and yet offer up to God significant spiritual desires
for any length of time. I suspect this has always been the case. To pray
for longer than a few minutes in a God-centered, Christ-exalting way
requires the help of God’s Spirit, and the Spirit loves to help by the Word
This difficulty of focusing the mind and staying on track accounts,
in part, for the fact that so many of the Psalms, even though they are
prayers, are permeated with the history of redemption that had been
recorded in Scripture (e.g., Ps. 77; 99; 103:6-8; 104; 105; 106). It also
accounts for why the glimpse we get into the prayers of the early church
reveals that they were, at least sometimes, built out of Scripture.
They lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord,
who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in
them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said
by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot
in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were
gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.’ . . .
Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue
to speak your word with all boldness.” (Acts 4:24-26, 29)
GEORGE MUELLER’S DISCOVERY ABOUT THE WORD AND PRAYER
It was a great encouragement to me over twenty years ago to read the
testimony of George Mueller, that he leaned heavily on the Word in
order to keep his focus while praying. It took him ten years of faltering
prayer before he learned this lesson. Perhaps his story can spare you such
a struggle. Mueller wrote this in May 1841 when he was thirty-five years
old. He had been converted when he was twenty.
The difference then between my former practice and my present one
is this. Formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible. . . .
But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half
an hour, or even an hour on my knees, before being conscious to
myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, humbling of soul,
&c.; and often, after having suffered much from wandering of mind
for the first ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour, or even half an
hour, I only then began really to pray. I scarcely ever suffer now in
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.10
This is the central method of prayer that I believe most earnest
Christians have discovered: “to meditate on the word of God . . . turning
all, as I go, into prayer.” Someone may ask, “How can I spend an
hour in prayer? I’m done asking for what I need in five or ten minutes.”
I answer: Take a passage of Scripture, and start reading it slowly. After
each sentence, pause and go back and turn what you read into prayer.
In this way you can pray as long as you can read. You may pray all day.
DO YOU PRAY THE WAY AN UNBELIEVER WOULD?
There are more benefits to praying over the Word in this way than the
fact that it helps us stay focused. It also has the effect of shaping our
minds and hearts, so that we desire what the Word encourages us to
desire, and not just what we desire by nature. That is why the prayers
of Bible-saturated people sound so different. Most people, before their
prayers are soaked in Scripture, simply bring their natural desires to
God. In other words, they pray the way an unbeliever would pray who
is convinced that God might give him what he wants: health, a better
job, safe journeys, a prosperous portfolio, successful children, plenty of
food, a happy marriage, a car that works, a comfortable retirement, etc.
None of these is evil. They’re just natural. You don’t have to be born
again to want any of these. Desiring them—even from God—is no evi-
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dence of saving faith. So if these are all you pray for, there is a deep problem.
Your desires have not yet been changed to put the glory of Christ
at the center.
But when you saturate your mind with the Christ-exalting Word of
God and turn it into prayer, your desires and your prayers become spiritual.
That is, they are shaped by the Holy Spirit into God-centered,
Christ-exalting prayers. The glory of Christ, and the name of God, and
the spiritual well-being of people, and the delight you have in knowing
Jesus—these become your dominant concerns and your constant
requests. You still pray for health and marriage and job and journeys,
but now what you want to happen is that, in all these, Christ will be
exalted. This changes the pattern and passion of your prayers. Your
prayer for a journey is not merely that it be safe, but that all along the
way your joy would be in God and that he would shine through you.
Your prayer for your job is not merely that it be stable and peaceful and
prosperous, but that it truly serves the needs of society and that in all
your labor and all your relationships your joy in Christ and your love
for people would make a name for Jesus.11
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO PRAY IN THE HOLY SPIRIT?
Another advantage of praying the Word of God is that this is part of
what it means to “pray in the Holy Spirit,” and praying in the Spirit is
how we “keep ourselves in the love of God.” I get these two phrases
from the book of Jude. There the brother of the Lord Jesus commands
us, “Beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the
Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God” (vv. 20-21). Literally,
the first two commands are participles and tell us how to keep ourselves
in the love of God: “Beloved, [by] building yourselves up in your most
holy faith, [and by] praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the
love of God.”
Don’t think that keeping yourself in the love of God hangs decisively
on us. The book of Jude begins and ends with the opposite truth. It
begins with the words, “To those who are called, beloved in God the
Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (v. 1). Here Christians are identified
with three words: called, loved, and kept. And the keeping is done by
God, not us.
Then the book of Jude ends with the words, “Now to him who is
able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before
the presence of his glory with great joy” (v. 24). Again it is God who is
keeping. Therefore when Jude says that by “praying in the Holy Spirit”
we are to keep ourselves in the love of God, we know he means that
prayer is one of God’s instruments for keeping us in his love. Beware of
the cynical mind-set that says, “If God is the decisive keeper of my soul
(vv. 1, 24), then I don’t need to ‘keep myself in the love of God’” (v. 20).
That would be like saying, since God is the decisive giver of life, then I
don’t need to breathe.12
PRAYING THE WORD AND PRAYING IN THE SPIRIT
Now how does praying the Word of God the way Mueller suggests relate
to praying in the Holy Spirit? The best brief statement I have found of
what it means to pray in the Holy Spirit goes like this: It means “so to
pray that the Holy Spirit is the moving and guiding power.”13 In other
words, when you pray in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God is “moving”
you to pray. That is, his power motivates, enables, and energizes your
prayer. And when you pray in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God is “guiding”
how you pray and what you pray for. So to pray in the Holy Spirit
is to be moved and guided by the Holy Spirit. We pray by his power and
according to his direction.
These two—the Spirit’s power and direction—correspond to two
ways that the Word of God functions in our prayer. The power of the
Spirit is offered in the promises of God’s Word, and we experience it by
faith in the promise. The direction of the Spirit is embodied in the wisdom
of God’s Word, and we experience it by being saturated with that
wisdom. So if we would “pray in the Holy Spirit” we should, like
Mueller, pray the Word of God, trusting the promises and absorbing the
STAYING IN THE LOVE OF GOD IS JOY UNSPEAKABLE
So when we follow Mueller’s advice and turn the Scriptures into prayer
as we read, we will be helped to “pray in the Holy Spirit.” The Scriptures
will awaken faith in the Spirit’s power to help us pray (Rom. 8:26), and
the Scriptures will shape our minds to pray in the direction of the Spirit’s
The Practice of Prayer in the Fight for Joy < 167
will. When Christ’s words dwell in us richly, he abides in us powerfully
(Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:18). And when we thus “pray in the Holy Spirit,” we
will, as Jude says, “keep yourselves in the love of God” (v. 21). And as
our precious position in the love of God becomes more and more real
to us,14 we will rejoice with joy unspeakable. Therefore, praying the
Word of God is a crucial strategy in the fight for joy.
SOMETHING FIXED AND SOMETHING FREE
William Law adds this counsel to increase the benefit of our regular
times of prayer: “At all stated hours of prayer it will be a great benefit
to you to have something fixed and something at liberty in your devotions.”
15 He means more than having the fixed Word of God as your
guide in meditation and prayer. He means that in the fight for joy, it helps
to have a focused center to your praying, and it helps to have some written,
Bible-saturated prayers to keep you from sinking to a low level of
CENTERING ON GOD WITH THE LORD’S PRAYER
I have found over several decades that the first three petitions of the
Lord’s prayer help me keep God at the center of my desires in prayer:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9-10). According
to Jesus’ instruction the first burden we should bring to God in prayer
is that the name of God be “hallowed.” In the Lord’s prayer we are asking
that God would do whatever he must do so that his name is revered
and esteemed and cherished in the world.16 We are asking that his spiritual
kingdom come in the hearts of people, and that the in-breaking of
his final, glorious kingdom move toward consummation. We are asking
that world events, and the progress of missions, would move quickly
toward the time when all those who are left on earth would do the will
of God the way the angels do it in heaven.
If these three petitions become the lodestar in the constellation of
our prayers, all other requests will have their proper place. These three
will shine in and through them all, so that every request, even for daily
bread, is really a concrete way of asking that God’s name and will and
kingdom take the supreme place in our hearts and in history.
HELPING US BE SOBER AND SERIOUS BEFORE GOD IN PRAYER
In the modern, developed world, our minds are permeated with superficial
entertainment. Coming to God in prayer with reverence and awe is
not natural. Feeling the utter seriousness of the fight for joy in God is foreign
to us. We need help. William Law suggests that we regularly use some
fixed form such as the following when we come to God with requests.
O Savior of the world, God of God, Light of Light, Thou that art The
Brightness of Thy Father’s glory, and the express Image of his person;
Thou that art the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and End of all
things; Thou that hast destroyed the power of the devil, that hast
overcome death; Thou that art entered into the Holy of Holies, that
sittest at the right hand of the Father, that art high above all thrones
and principalities, that makest intercession for all the world; Thou
that art the judge of the quick and the dead; Thou that wilt speedily
come down in Thy Father’s glory to reward all men according to their
works, be Thou my light and my peace, etc.17
The point of such a formal beginning to prayer—which is full of
descriptions of Jesus—Law says, is that these descriptions “are not only
proper acts of adoration, but will, if they are repeated with attention,
fill our hearts with the highest fervors of true devotion.”18
It may be that some of you are naturally inclined and able to tell the
Lord Jesus how great and wonderful he is as you begin your prayers. But
most of us are prone to bluster into the throne room of heaven—as into
a hardware store with a broken piece of plumbing—rather than with
joyful wonder that we are admitted here only by the blood of Christ and
that we come to the greatest Being in the universe. Therefore, it is helpful
that some “fixed form”—at least from time to time—remind us that
adoration is a fitting approach.
The other form that William Law suggests as a beginning to our plea
for help is the following—as a way of wakening our hope of being heard
O Holy Jesus, Son of the most high God, Thou that wert scourged at
a pillar, stretched and nailed upon a cross for the sins of the world,
unite me to Thy cross, and fill my soul with Thy holy, humble, and
suffering spirit. O Fountain of Mercy, Thou that didst save the thief
upon the cross, save me from the guilt of a sinful life; Thou that didst
cast seven devils out of Mary Magdalene, cast out of my heart all evil
thoughts and wicked tempers. O Giver of Life, Thou that didst raise
Lazarus from the dead, raise up my soul from the death and darkness
of sin. Thou that didst give to Thy Apostles power over unclean spirits,
give me power over mine own heart. Thou that didst appear unto
Thy disciples when the doors were shut, do Thou appear to me in the
secret apartment of my heart. Thou that didst cleanse the lepers, heal
the sick, and give sight to the blind, cleanse my heart, heal the disorders
of my soul, and fill me with heavenly light.19
The point here is that often when we come to pray, our minds are
filled with ordinary earthly things and the potential and power of what
the world can do for us, if we try harder. The poet William Wordsworth
describes our unfitness for Nature’s gifts the way I would describe our
unfitness for God’s gifts as we come to pray.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!20
We do not naturally or easily shift from the mind-set of “getting and
spending” into a mind-set that sees Jesus as more desirable than the
“sordid boon” of this world. We need—at least sometimes—“something
fixed” to remind us, from Christ’s own life and death, that surely he will
hear our cries for help and become our all-satisfying treasure.21
When we look at the “sordid boon” that the world offers, the fight
for joy is to see that it will not satisfy. Prayer is an essential strategy in
seeing the world this way. We must ask God “without ceasing” that our
eyes be open to the insufficiency of worldly pleasures, even the innocent
ones. And we must plead that the taste buds of our souls be ever alive
to the beauty of Christ.
FASTING, THE HUMBLE HANDMAIDEN OF PRAYER
Two additional strategies in the fight for faith can intensify the earnestness
of this kind of praying. The first is fasting. I won’t say much here,
because I have written an entire book on fasting called A Hunger for
God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer.22 But the essence of
fasting is so relevant in the fight for joy, I should at least mention it. Jesus
said, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your
fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:17-18).
The reward is ultimately God himself. Therefore fasting is an expression
of hunger for God.
In another place Jesus referred to himself as a bridegroom and his
disciples as the wedding guests and said, “Can the wedding guests
mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come
when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast”
(Matt. 9:15). We live in the days when the Bridegroom has been taken
away (between the first and second coming of Christ). The meaning of
fasting in these days is that we long to have the Bridegroom back.
So in both these texts the point of fasting is to express longing for
Christ and all that God is for us in him. Fasting is the hungry handmaid
of prayer. Like prayer she both reveals and remedies. She reveals the
measure of food’s mastery over us—or television or computers or whatever
we submit to again and again to conceal the weakness of our hunger
for God. And she remedies by intensifying the earnestness of our prayer
and saying with our whole body what prayer says with the heart: I long
to be satisfied in God alone!
Is eating then evil? No. Paul said that false teachers will arise who
“forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created
to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the
truth” (1 Tim. 4:3). How then do the goodness of eating and the goodness
of fasting fit together? I will try to answer with some brief excerpts
from A Hunger for God.
Bread magnifies Christ in two ways: by being eaten with gratitude for
his goodness, and by being forfeited out of hunger for God himself.
When we eat, we taste the emblem of our heavenly food—the Bread
of Life. And when we fast we say, “I love the Reality above the
emblem.” In the heart of the saint both eating and fasting are worship.
Both magnify Christ. Both send the heart—grateful and yearning—
to the Giver. Each has its appointed place and each has its
danger. The danger of eating is that we fall in love with the gift; the
danger of fasting is that we belittle the gift and glory in our
willpower. . . .
My aim and my prayer in writing this book is that it might
awaken a hunger for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy
of all peoples. Fasting proves the presence, and fans the flame, of that
hunger. It is an intensifier of spiritual desire. It is a faithful enemy of
fatal bondage to innocent things. It is the physical exclamation point
at the end of the sentence: “This much, O God, I long for you and for
the manifestation of your glory in the world!” . . .
If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory
of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It
is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your
soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.23
God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it
can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food
and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast: “This
much, O God, I want you.”24
As with many difficult things in life, fasting is meant to help us in
the fight for joy. William Law put it like this:
Although these abstinences give some pain to the body, yet they so
lessen the power of bodily appetites and passions, and so increase our
taste of spiritual joys, that even these severities of religion, when practiced
with discretion, add much to the comfortable enjoyment of our
WHEN MY PRAYERS ARE ANSWERED BY THE PRAYERS OF OTHERS
I will mention one more strategy for intensifying the power of prayer in
the fight for joy—namely, the importance of having other people pray
with you and for you. After telling us to call for the elders to pray for
us when we are sick, James says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one
another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer
of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (Jas. 5:16). The
implication here for the fight for joy is that we should involve other
Christians in our fight. We should confess to them our struggles, and we
should ask them to pray that we would be “healed” from our halfhearted
love for Jesus.
God has his reasons why the prayers of others might lift my darkness
when my own prayers didn’t. But be careful here. Don’t assume that
all your praying was in vain. It may be that your own praying was used
by God to make you willing to seek the prayers of others. It may be that
your prayers were answered in the blessing that came in answer to their
prayers. One of God’s reasons for calling us to corporate prayer is given
in 2 Corinthians 1:11. Paul asks for prayer for himself and gives his reason:
“You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on
our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”
When people are involved in each other’s lives, more thanksgiving rises
to God when any of them is blessed.
In other words, everything I have written in these chapters about
praying for joy will be multiplied in its effectiveness when we think of
it corporately. The fight for joy is a battle to be fought alongside comrades.
We do not fight alone. To be a Christian is to be a part of the Body
of Christ. We are meant to help each other fight for joy. This was the
apostle’s life: “We work with you for your joy” (2 Cor. 1:24). And
prayer for each other26 is at the heart of this camaraderie.
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be
rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by
the word of God and prayer.
1 T I M O T H Y 4 : 4 – 5
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
P S A L M 1 9 : 1
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining
outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came
a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the
specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the
place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the
beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved so that the beam fell
on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw
no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in
the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving
on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million
miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking
at the beam are very different experiences.
C . S . L E W I S
“ME D I T A T I O N I N A T O O L S H E D ”
God in the Dock1