“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” If that is true, then prayer, like everything else we do (1 Corinthians 10:31), is first and foremost a pursuit of our satisfaction in God. Unlike everything else we do, though, prayer is an especially vital and precious means God has given us to grow our joy in him.
Why do I say this? Because in prayer, we go straight to God — the one who is not only the source of “every good gift and every perfect gift” (James 1:17) but is himself our “exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4). We see this beautifully expressed in one of David’s prayers:
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)
When we pray, we are pursuing a fuller joy, a deeper pleasure, a more abundant life in God. We want to glorify him all the more in all we do, so we ask him to satisfy us all the more with himself. We pray to see more of his glory, to experience more of his strength and help, to feel more joy in God.
Root and Goal of Every Prayer
So, prayer is an especially vital and precious means God has provided us to pursue our joy in him. That does not mean our experience of prayer, if done right, will always leave us feeling more satisfied with God, or that it will produce satisfying results relatively quickly. That is not what the Bible teaches us, and Psalm 16 isn’t the only kind of prayer we find in the Bible.
“Prayer is an especially vital and precious means God has given us to grow our joy in him.”
The prayers of Scripture are amazingly diverse. They cover the spectrum of human experience. Along with sweet expressions of adoration, strong declarations of faith, and songs of exultant joy, there are prayers of perplexity over God’s ways, groaning in suffering, confession of sin, and deep laments. But could even these more difficult prayers — prayers that help us voice our anguish and confusion in painful seasons — also be means of pursuing joy in God?
I believe they are. At root in both sweet, savoring prayers and in the troubled prayers of the afflicted is a pursuit of God as the source of the petitioners’ satisfaction. We tend to see this more explicitly in the former, and sometimes only implicitly in the latter, but God, our exceeding joy, is the goal that unifies them. Look with me at several examples from the Bible’s inspired prayer book, the Psalms.
My Soul Faints for You
When we think of a prayerful pursuit of God-satisfaction, most of us likely think of prayers, like Psalm 63, that sweetly savor God:
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips. (Psalm 63:3–5)
Or we think of prayers that communicate a deep longing for God:
My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God. (Psalm 84:2)
Or we think of prayers that rejoice in God’s deliverance:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure. . . .
May all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, “Great is the Lord!” (Psalm 40:1–2, 16)
In these prayers (and many more like them), we hear the pray-ers explicitly delighting themselves in the Lord (Psalm 37:4). Their joy in him is palpable, and they long for more.
Revive Our Joy in You
But when biblical prayers express repentance, anguish, or sorrow, they are still pursuing joy in God. When Israel was under the discipline of the Lord due to sin, for instance, the Sons of Korah prayed,
Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation. (Psalm 85:6–7)
What do they really want? For the people of Israel, who are experiencing God’s indignation (Psalm 85:4), to once again experience joy in God.
When David, as an individual, had grievously sinned against God, he poured out this prayer of deep repentance:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin. . . .
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:1–2, 12)
David, in his repentant grief and regret, is still seeking satisfaction in God. He’s not only asking for forgiveness and cleansing, but amazingly dares, despite what he has done, to ask God to restore his joy.
Why Have You Forsaken Me?
But what about the desperate prayer of someone in severe affliction?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1–2)
“Prayer, at heart, is a pursuit of our exceeding joy: God.”
This prayer was uttered first by David, and then later by the crucified Jesus (Matthew 27:46). We’ve seen how David sought God as his supreme satisfaction, his “exceeding joy,” and the writer of Hebrews tells us Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). Are there any clues, though, that this prayer itself really is a pursuit of joy in God? We read further down:
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever! (Psalm 22:26)
Though the afflicted one has not yet received his answer, he’s tasting joy in the future hope that he and others who seek God will not only be rescued, but they will be satisfied in the God they seek.
Even in Our Darkness
But what about Psalm 88, perhaps the most desolate prayer in Scripture? It is a bewildered cry of one in the agony of deep depression, and it almost seems devoid of hope. But it’s not completely devoid of hope. We can hear a flicker in the prayer’s opening words:
O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry! (Psalm 88:1–2)
This psalm likely gives voice to the experience of some reading this. I know something of this kind of desolation. Can we say such an anguished prayer is even remotely a pursuit of joy in God? I believe we can, even if it is remote — even if it is only implicit.
The very fact that the petitioner, though in great misery, turns to God in prayer, and looks to God as the source of his salvation, implies that he sees God as the source of the joy he so desperately longs for — not unlike David pleading with God to restore the joy of his salvation. I think that’s why God included this prayer in the Bible: we glorify him when we seek him as our satisfaction, even in our deepest darkness.
If you are in a Psalm 88 season, John Piper’s booklet When the Darkness Will Not Lift: Doing What We Can While We Wait for God — and Joy is a wonderful resource, full of wise, seasoned, gentle, biblical counsel.
At All Times
When we speak of prayer as a primary means God has provided us to pursue our satisfaction — our joy — in him, we do not at all mean to be reductionistic. The prayers of the Bible are very diverse and pursue joy in a wide variety of ways.
“The prayers of Scripture are amazingly diverse. They cover the spectrum of human experience.”
In their diversity, the prayers in Scripture show us how to pray “at all times” (Ephesians 6:18). God has provided these for us so that whether we are in seasons of praise or lament, adoration or confession, we might know how to seek deeper satisfaction in him. It is God who has the power, the authority, the wisdom, the grace, the goodness, the righteousness, the mercy, the wealth, and anything else that is needed, and it is God alone who is the source of the joy the pray-ers ultimately seek. Each pray-er looks to God as the source of fulfillment and the spring of satisfaction.
Prayer, at heart, is a pursuit of our exceeding joy: God (Psalm 43:4). And that’s by design. Because “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”