Prayer: the Power of Christian Hedonism
Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
Christian Hedonists are sometimes asked, Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God? That is, are you willing to surrender all joy if by this God would be more glorified? The point of the question is to hang Christian Hedonists on one horn or the other of a dilemma. If we say, no, we are not willing to be damned for the glory of God, then we seem to put our happiness above God's glory. If we say, yes, we are willing to be damned for the glory of God, then presumably we cease to be Christian Hedonists, because we have stopped pursuing joy.
Unbiblical Assumptions About Hell and God
But this attack on Christian Hedonism fails because the question it poses assumes two things that are not true: one about hell, and the other about God. When the critic asks, "Are you willing to go to hell for the glory of God?" he fails to see that if we answer yes to this question, it means that our deepest longing is to see God glorified through our life and death. Therefore, if we had to go to hell in order for God to be glorified, hell would be the means of satisfying our deepest longing. But then hell is no longer hell. Biblically, hell means total, irreversible misery with no satisfaction at all. And so the critic's question is built on an unbiblical assumption about hell.
It is also built on an unbiblical assumption about God. The question assumes that God could damn a person who is willing to be damned for God's glory. But this is an utterly unbiblical assumption. God's righteous commitment to uphold the value of his glory means that he will also uphold those who value his glory above all things. The God of the Bible cannot damn a person who loves his glory enough to be damned. And therefore the very question, "Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God?" is an offense against the righteousness of God. It forces us to entertain a possibility which God would be unrighteous to perform. It dare not be asked because the view of hell and the view of God which it assumes are both contrary to biblical revelation.
Our Interest and God's Glory Are One
And besides that, Christian Hedonism is really not the enemy the critic is after. He is after people who put their interests before God's interest, and who put their happiness above God's glory. But Christian Hedonism most emphatically does not do this. To be sure, we Christian Hedonists pursue our interest and our happiness with all our might; but we have learned from the Bible that God's interest is to magnify his glory by spilling over in mercy to us. Therefore, the pursuit of our real interest and our true 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. 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 grace is magnified and the longing of our soul is satisfied. In God's wisdom and by God's grace our interest and his glory are one. Christian Hedonists are not idolaters when they pursue them both together.
One of the clearest demonstrations that the pursuit of our joy and the pursuit of God's glory are meant to be one and the same pursuit is the teaching of Jesus on prayer in the gospel of John. The two key sayings are 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, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." In John 16:24 he says, "Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full." The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. And the chief act of man by which the unity of these two goals is preserved is prayer. Therefore, Christian Hedonists who pursue in God's glory the fullness of their own joy will above all be people of prayer. Just like the thirsty deer buckles down to drink at the brook, so the characteristic posture of the Christian Hedonist is on his knees.
If you are like me, the change of pace last summer and the sudden burst of activity this fall have probably done a lot of damage to the discipline of your prayer life. Probably all you need is someone to remind you of its importance and you will be back in the happy groove of early rising or midday meditation or late night prayer. We need points throughout the year where we take our bearings and re-adjust our course. I hope today is one of those points in your life of prayer.
Prayer as the Pursuit of God's Glory
Let's look more closely at prayer as the pursuit of God's glory, and prayer and the pursuit of our joy, in that order. In John 14:13 Jesus says, "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." Suppose that you are totally paralyzed and can do nothing for yourself but talk. And suppose that 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? You could say, "Friend, please come lift me up and put a pillow behind me so I can look at my guest. And would you please put my glasses on?" 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. He who 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 thing (Romans 7:18). But God wills that we bear fruit—that we love people into the kingdom. So he promises to do for us (as a strong and reliable friend) what we can't do for ourselves. And how 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 will and it shall be done for you." We pray. We ask God to do for us through Christ what we can't do for ourselves—to make us bear fruit. Then verse 8 gives the result we're after: "By this is my Father 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.
Another text in John that shows how prayer glorifies God is John 4:9–10. Jesus had asked a woman for a drink of water:
The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of 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."
If you were a sailor severely afflicted with scurvy, and a very generous man came aboard your 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 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 to push his bus out of a rut by himself because he doesn't know Clark Kent is on the bus. "If you knew, you would ask." A prayerless Christian is like having your room wallpapered with Dayton's gift certificates but always shopping at Rag Stock 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.
Prayer as the Pursuit of Our Joy
But the chief end of man is also to enjoy God forever. And that brings us back to John 16:24, "Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full." Is this not an invitation to Christian Hedonism? Pursue the fullness of your joy! PRAY! From this sacred word and from experience we can draw out a simple rule: Among professing Christians prayerlessness always produces joylessness. Why? Why is it that a deep life of prayer leads to fullness of joy and a shallow life of prayerlessness produces joylessness? Jesus gives at least two reasons.
One is given in John 16:20–21. 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 be turned to joy. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you." What is the source of the disciples' joy? Answer: the presence of Jesus. "I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice." No Christian can have fullness of joy without a vital fellowship with Jesus Christ. Knowledge about him will not do, and 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 this that our joy may be full" (1 John 1:4). 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 here. And in the stillness of those sacred times we listen to his thoughts and we pour out to him our longings. Perhaps John 15:7 is the best summary of this two-sided fellowship: "If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it shall be done for you." When the 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.
The other reason prayer produces fullness of joy is that prayer 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." 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, because it is more blessed to give than to receive. 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.
In summary: 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 by asking questions like, "Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God?" 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 from John's gospel is that prayer, perhaps more clearly than anything else, embodies 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 reservoir of hope. 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."
Plan for Prayer
I close 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 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 you know as well as I that the opposite of planning is not a contagious 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: I urge you to take ten minutes this afternoon to rethink your 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. I've had to do this myself because I got caught off guard by the stress of these busy days. We all need mid-course corrections. Make this a great day of turning to prayer—for the glory of God and for the fullness of your joy.