How to Pray for Joy
This article is part of the How to Pray series.
Help in the Fight for Joy
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 often 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.”
When I Don't Desire God
In this 10th anniversary edition, Piper offers us practical encouragement for holding onto the only source of true and lasting joy: God himself. Redesigned with an updated cover and new preface.
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.1
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.
“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.2
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 we ought.
- Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (1758).
- George Croly, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart” (1854).
This article is adapted from When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy by John Piper.
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