O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
This is the little prayer adapted from Psalm 51 that I’ve found helpful to pray on a daily basis, and this fourth and final petition here comes from verse 12. This one verse, verse 12, is going to be our focus this morning, but I want to just point out right away the kind of movement that has taken place in this prayer.
The first petition is from verse 15, which we looked at the first week, and we saw there that this petition recognizes the objective reality of God. God is outside of us, and he does not need our praise. God has created this world with a moral framework, not a psychological one — which means that we don’t create meaning ourselves, but meaning exists apart from us. God is worthy of praise, and he will praised, regardless of us — and yet, this is something we want to be part of, and so we ask God for that. God, let me get in on your praise. And then God, change me from the inside-out. And then God, don’t leave me. And then, in the final petition, today from verse 12: God, give me joy again.
And I want to just be clear from the start about what David is doing here. David is asking God for an experience. But it’s not just any experience, he asking for the experience of an emotion. And it’s not just any emotion; he’s asking for joy. David prays for joy. David is asking God for legitimate, bona fide, no-holds-barred joy in God.
And when we pray this little prayer, this petition for joy in verse 12 is where we land. We start with objective truth (God be praised), and we end with personal experience (give me joy).
Our Problem with Experience
And immediately, even as I say that, there is something a little bit uncomfortable about it. The whole topic of experience can raise some concerns, and for good reason. There is a fear that if we’re not careful, we might end up making our experience of God become the truth about God. We might confuse the objective with the subjective. Or in other words, we don’t want to reduce the truth about God (which is objective) down to however we experience that truth (which is subjective).
And this is more of a concern today than ever because we live in such a pluralistic society. And in a pluralistic society like ours, people think truth is relative — they think truth is however you perceive it — and when truth is however you perceive it, then religion becomes only experience. And when religion is “only experience,” then we’re not supposed to make any valuations of one religion over another, and when we do that it leads us to a misguided form of “tolerance” where disagreement is always considered bigotry.
That’s the world we live in, and it’s a mess. This is a big mess.
But here’s the thing — track with me — because we know this is a mess, what tends to happen is that we as Christians bunker down in our objective truths and severely minimize experience. And so the result is — because pluralism majors on experience, and we refuse to play that game — we end up tossing out experience altogether.
Back to the Bible
And this is why it’s so important to always come back to the Bible.
As Christians, we live in the world of the Bible, and in the Bible, experience matters. The word of God speaks boldly about experience because God is real. Experience doesn’t eclipse the realness of God, it’s only possible because of the realness of God.
And I’m starting here in this sermon because verse 12 is about experience and so we’re going to talk about it. But I don’t want you to think that us talking about experience means we’re getting sappy and sentimental. We’re not. We’re looking at the Bible. And we all want what David is asking for in Psalm 51, verse 12 — because every human wants what David is asking for in Psalm 51, verse 12. He’s asking for joy.
He is praying like a human: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
And when David prays that, and when we pray it after him, there is actually three things in particular about joy that we’re asking for, and these are the tree things we’re going to look at this morning. The kind of joy David prays for, and we pray for, is:
- Joy in God
- Joy restored
- Joy with purpose
1. Joy in God
So David prays for God to restore to him “the joy of your salvation.” And we need to probe a little more about what that means. What exactly does he mean by joy? What is God’s salvation? And what’s the relationship between the two?
What Is Joy?
When it comes to joy, we should be careful not to overdo the meaning. Because when David uses the word here, he basically means what you would imagine he means. He’s talking about real joy — happiness, rejoicing, gladness, cheerfulness — and when we hear those words, most likely some kind of an image comes into our minds. We probably think about someone smiling, or when imagine someone who is pleasant to be around — because joy is an emotion that we experience, and that others around us can see, and that’s what David is asking for.
And there are a couple clarifiers here that assure us this is what he’s talking about. First, there is verse 8. David uses the same word there for joy as he does in verse 12. In verse 8, he prays, “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” So he wants joy, and he wants the expression of joy.
And then check out the second clause in verse 12, which is also helpful. David prays first, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” — and then as a parallel he says — “and uphold me with a willing spirit.” And the phrase “willing spirit” is telling because the word translated “willing” means eager, bountiful, free, cheerful. And so David is asking for that to characterize his spirit. He wants that to be the vibe he gives off.
And this matters for us because we need to be clear that when David is talking about joy here, he’s not talking about joy on paper. He means real joy. He means lived-out joy. He’s talking about kind of joy that you can identify. He means I’m-five-years-old-and-its-Christmas-morning kind of joy; or my-team-just-won-the-World-Series kind of joy; or my-wife-and-I-are-out-for-dinner-and-it’s-going-to-be-a-good-night kind of joy.
David is asking for a real, palpable joy that is experienced. That’s what he wants.
But it’s not just that — it’s that in relation to God’s salvation.
What Is God’s Salvation?
And it’s clear in this passage that when David mentions salvation that he’s talking about spiritual salvation. God has saved him, rescued him, from physical enemies, and that is salvation — but here, David is talking about God rescuing him from himself.
Most of the time in the Psalms when God and salvation are mentioned together, the psalmist is talking about his own salvation that God has given him. So he’ll say things like “O God of my salvation” — meaning, the salvation that he possess which God has given to him. But there are just a few places when salvation is mentioned as the salvation of God:
Psalm 18:35 — “You have given me the shield of your salvation”
Psalm 69:13 — “At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your salvation.”
Psalm 85:7 — “Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.”
And what he learn here, and what we see in Psalm 51, is that God’s salvation — the salvation of God, that belongs to God — is basically a synonym for God’s love. Which means that David is not referring to a one-time event when he says “your salvation.” But he’s talking about something at the heart of God’s character. He’s talking about what it is in God that has caused David not to be hopeless when he has every reason to lose hope. David is talking about what moves God, at the most foundational level, to work for our redemption. He’s getting at why God shows mercy, and why God gives grace.
And it’s because God is the God of steadfast love. It’s because, as the Bible says in 1 John 4:18, “God is love.” And this love of God, in view of us, is the salvation of God. And because it is so essential to God, it is a love that will never change.
Back in 1657, the Puritan John Owen explained it like this,
On whom God fixes his love, it is immutable; it does not grow to eternity; it is not diminished at any time. It is an eternal love that had no beginning; that shall have no ending; that cannot be heightened by any act of ours, and that cannot be lessened by anything in us. (Communion with God, 120)
So God’s love, this love, is free and eternal and completely undeserved. It is a love of so much depth and greatness that we cannot comprehend it, which is why heaven will last forever.
The love of God, this salvation of God, if we understood it, is all we would ever need to experience the kind of joy David prays for.
David wants to have real joy, the experience of joy, and he wants it to be produced by God’s salvation. He wants real joy that comes from the love of God.
Because he had experienced it before, but now it was gone. That’s why he says the word “restore.”
2. Joy Restored
David begins verse 12 by asking God to “restore to me the joy of your salvation” which means that this joy is something he had experienced but loss, and now wanted to experience again. And I think this part is important for us to understand. We need to know that there is a loss of joy behind this prayer.
Because we’ve been there, haven’t we? We know what that’s like. Remember, this psalm is for humans like us, and we as humans know what it feels like when our affections for God to grow cold, or numb, or dull. We know what it’s like to miss the joy of God’s salvation.
And maybe the most frustrating thing about it is that we know, at least on paper, that there is enough about God’s salvation — enough about his love — that we should really never be anything but joyful. It’s not just that God commands our joy, it’s that he has provided us the unshakeable grounds to have joy — and we know that if we just saw him for who he is, and knew his love for what it is, then we would be full of joy all the time no matter what.
And yet, we still can’t seem to feel it. We’re still stuck. We’re still just blah. And you know what I mean.
Well when we find ourselves in this place, I think we learn from David that there are two actions we should take: we should, first, admit the loss of joy; and then second, we fight for it.
Admitting the Loss
So for this first action, when it comes to admitting that we’ve lost our joy in God, that’s not easy, okay. It’s much easier for us to just redefine what joy is. The easiest thing to do is to just make joy have a broad enough meaning to account for those times when we don’t really have it.
But see, if David would have done that, then he would not have felt loss of joy, and if he would not have felt the loss of joy then there’s nothing he would have wanted restored here.
So we need to get this: before we can pray this prayer after him we have to first recognize that we are not as glad in God as we should be, or maybe as we used to be.
And this loss of joy might be because of blatant sin (like it was in David’s case), or it might be because of intense suffering, or it might be because of physical illness, or it might be because of Satan’s attacks, or it might be because our technology has caused these unexpected side-effects, because we have this glut of information coming at us hot-n-ready, at our faces, in our pockets, on our wrists. It’s not that we’ve amused ourselves to death, yet, but we have shriveled up our imaginations by replacing the weighty with the ephemeral, or whatever it is that gets to us the fastest. And what’s happened is that this rush of words and images, and voices and videos, and sights and sounds, has scorched the taste buds of our souls so that we have no clue what it means to “Be still and know that he is God” (Psalm 46:10).
Email feels more practical. Facebook is more entertaining. YouTube makes the time go by real fast. And so we don’t know which came first: the loss of joy in God that made us run to these distractions, or all these distractions that made us lose our joy in God.
It was both.
And we’ve gotten so used to making these mud pies in the slums that we don’t even know what we’re missing out on, until we slow down and read words like Psalm 51, verse 12. And we don’t just read them, but we hear them; and David is not just praying, he’s crying: “God, restore to me the joy of your salvation.”
Oh, me too.
God, whatever it is that’s caused it. Me too. . . . I don’t love you like I want to. I don’t have the joy in you that I should. Will you bring it back?
Fighting for Joy
We admit the loss of joy and then we fight for it. And in this fight, we’re not alone. In fact, we’re in good company when we pray like David prays here because this is an ancient prayer, and it’s a human thing. The inconsistency of our affections has always been an issue.
Long before all the distractions we have today, John Owen, in the 17th century, understood this. [I’ve been reading a lot of Owen lately, so bear with me.] Owen explained that God’s love for us is like himself — it’s unchanging and constant; but our love for God is like ourselves — increasing and waning. Owen said God’s love is like the sun because it’s always the same in its light. But our love is like the moon because it’s always getting bigger and then smaller.
And then sometimes there are clouds. Sometimes God makes his love so manifest to us that it’s like the sunshine beaming down on us; other times it’s like he hides his face. Owen says,
Our Father will not always chastise, lest we be cast down; he does not always smile, lest we be full and neglect him; but yet, still his love in itself is the same. When for a little moment he hides his face, yet he gathers us with everlasting kindness. (Communion with God, 121)
And we should pray to taste that kindness. This is how we fight for the joy we miss. We ask God to feel his smile — knowing that even when we don’t, the very asking for joy is the seed of joy that will bloom again. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 43:5).
We will fight for joy, and God will give us joy to again. He will restore your joy. [And I have so much I want to say about this, but I don’t have time, so God willing, I’m going to write it for you.]
Here’s the last point.
3. Joy with Purpose
How many of you have ever heard of this guy named Wim Hof? Also known as the Iceman?
Well, basically, he’s this guy who has learned how to control his body temperature with his mind so that he’s able to withstand deadly cold conditions. I heard about him recently when I was listening to this podcast that had a story about eastern meditation. Basically he uses Buddhist breathing techniques and meditation to be able to sit in the snow at 30 degrees below zero without any clothes on.
And what’s interesting about that, I think, is indicative of Buddhist meditation in general. The quest for enlightenment is a quest for an experience, and then that eventually is supposed to lead to nirvana, which is like ultimate peace of mind and liberation from this world. That’s when people are supposed to be completely emptied and have no more desire. So in simple terms, that’s what Buddhism and other Eastern religions are about — it’s about a personal experience.
And so, we have to think, how is joy in God different? Is it also just about a personal experience?
Well, it doesn’t take long to see that, actually, joy in God, pursuing God, is the complete opposite of what Wim Hof is doing — because joy in God, the joy we want restored, is joy with a purpose. It’s joy that’s going somewhere. It has a goal in mind.
And it’s important that we’re clear about this. Your desire, and fight, for joy in God is not so that you can “soften the cushion” of your American comforts. The point is not just that you feel better, or that you have some personal, private experience and that’s all. That’s not what we’re doing here.
When it comes to this joy in God that we want restored, we should ask, restored for what? What’s the point? Because there is a point. There is a purpose, and it’s two-fold. First, our joy is about the glory of God. And then second, our joy is about the good of others.
For the Glory of God
And the glory of God is most important. When we have joy in God it magnifies the worth of God. Joy tends to do this all the time. Whenever you see someone with joy, the question is always why. Where’d that come from? Every joy has a cause — it has a source and an object — and eventually that is what becomes the focus, not the joy itself.
Here’s an example. You’re hanging out with a buddy, and he’s looking at his phone, and he’s laughing hysterically, and has a big smile, and just visibly has joy. What do you do? You want to see what he’s looking at. You want to get beside him and see what he sees because joy is always pointing away from itself to something else.
And when we have joy in God it’s the same way, but more so. Our joy in God glorifies God, whether anyone else is watching or not. Our joy in God is the exhibition of our faith. It’s a statement about God — that Yes, God, you are who you say you are. You are worthy of all praise. You are the all-satisfying treasure of my life. That’s the ultimate purpose of our joy in God. It glorifies God, and that’s enough.
We don’t need any other purpose, but there is more — because as it always goes in God’s economy, the vertical affects the horizontal. The Greatest Commandment is to love God with all that we are, and then the second is to love others (Matthew 22:37–40). And so when it comes to our joy in God, it’s for the purpose of God’s glory, mainly (the vertical), and then it spills over for the good of others (the horizontal).
For the Good of Others
Which again means your joy is not all about you. It’s not about you achieving some enlightened state of divine intimacy; it’s not supposed to end with you feeling good for feeling goodness sake. The experience of joy is not for the experience itself; but it’s meant to make your life a conduit of God’s grace; it’s meant to give you the freedom that propels you into self-sacrificing love so that through you the joy you have in God might be experienced by others, so that God is glorified more and more.
And David understood that. The very next verse after verse 12 — right after he prays for God to restore his joy — he says, “Then I will teach transgressors your way, and sinners will return to you.”
So he’s not just thinking about himself and forgetting everyone else. He doesn’t just want joy for his own peace of mind, but he wants others to know it too. He wants sinners like him, humans like him, to learn the ways of God and to experience joy in him. That’s what we’re about.
It’s joy in God — real joy in God’s salvation, in God’s love; and it’s joy restored — because our joy is not what it should be and we’re fighting to get it back; and it’s joy with a purpose — because it’s not about us, it’s for the glory of God and the good of others. And this is where we land in this little prayer. This is where this little prayer takes us.
God, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise — because you will be praised. You don’t need my mouth, you don’t need me at all, but you made me and I’m here, and I want to get in on the praise you’re so worthy of. And God, you know my heart needs to be changed. So please do in me what only you can do, and create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. And God, don’t leave me. Whatever comes, wherever you’re leading me, be with me. Be close to me, please. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. And give me joy, God. Give me the joy I’ve lost. Give me the joy of knowing your love. Make me glad in you, God, for your glory and the good of others. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit.
And now it’s time to start the day.
And this is what brings us to the Table. The servers can come forward. Let’s pray.
Father, you are not only our God, but also our good, our portion, our cup. You hold our lot. Our hearts were made for you to be our all-surpassing joy, so God, be who you are! And get your glory, in our lives and through our lives, in Jesus’s name, amen.