Understanding the I.O.U.S. Prayer

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This post is part of the series “Rethinking Bible Reading”

  1. Rethinking Bible Reading

  2. Understanding the I.O.U.S. Prayer 👈 you are here

  3. How to Read the Bible

A couple of years ago, as I was reading John Piper’s book When I Don’t Desire God, I was struck by a prayer he finds helpful before reading Scripture. It’s based on four verses from the psalms, and it follows the acronym I.O.U.S.:

  • Incline my heart to your testimonies (Psalm 119:36)
  • Open my eyes to see wonderful things (Psalm 119:18)
  • Unite my heart to fear your name (Psalm 86:11)
  • Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love (Psalm 90:14)

I love acronyms1. They’re incredibly helpful for memorizing otherwise-unrelated series. How many of these have you encountered?

  • King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti (for Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species, the order of the taxonomic ranks in biology). I remember this perfectly, and I haven’t taken a biology class in seventeen years.
  • My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizza Pies (for Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto2, the order of the planets outward from the Sun). I think “Pies” was in there to fit some tune.
  • Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally (for Parentheses Exponents Multiplication Division Addition Subtraction, the arithmetic order of operations).

I.O.U.S. is nice and short. It guides us into four ways we should see the day, and four ways we might see Scripture. These verses, straight from the mind of God, remind us of our reasons for reading the Bible and what we hope see as we do.

They teach our hearts, our eyes, our minds, our souls, what to expect as we go, so that no matter what we are reading—genealogies or gospels, preaching or prophecy, aphorisms or apocalypse, histories or hymns—we have our heart set on the living Word of God. On the active Spirit of God working in our hearts as the Word works on our eyes.

Let’s look at each verse in turn.

Incline My Heart To Your Testimonies

Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!
—Psalm 119:36 ESV

We start with focus.

“Incline” is an odd word for the translators to use here. I think of the incline of a hill, like my heart is going to tumble down the side of the Scriptures like a rock down a mountain, crashing through the trees and brush.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what they meant.

“Incline” here is more like an inclination—a direction, a purpose, a desire. Point my heart, God, toward your testimony; make your story the purpose of my heart; grant me the grace of wanting to hear what you have to say.

The psalmist expresses not just the positive end of this prayer—not just the movement toward God’s word—but also the negative, the temptation he wishes to avoid. In this case, it is the powerful “selfish gain.”

I confess that I often read the Bible wondering what’s in it for me. Wondering what I’ll get out of it this time. We use this language without even recognizing how dangerous it is. “How to get the most out of your Bible reading” sounds like an blog post or a book title I’ve seen more than once. Like we’re going in to the Bible to extract something out of it, as if it were a self-help book and not the living, breathing, story of our Lord and Savior.

But what is the real goal of reading the Bible? It can be nothing other than the goal of all of creation: glorifying its creator. And while God surely seeks our good, that isn’t what we should seek when we approach his living Word.

So we ask for help to stay away from those false motives for reading. We ask God to remove from us, at least for this time, the desire to magnify or improve ourselves, and replace it with a sheer delight in the expression of God in the words of the Bible.

If I’m having a bad day for focus, I’ll expand on this prayer:

Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain or false motive, or the notes I’m taking, or my worries about the day to come, or that argument with my wife, or what I’m going to talk about at Bible study, or the dog next door that apparently woke up with a need to tell his life’s story to the neighborhood. Again.

Focus my heart solely on you as my eyes focus on your word, and let the world fall away so I can spend this time with you, to get to know you better. Put my mind wholly in your Word, and let it settle wherever you want it to, not on all the distractions of life around me that creep in and try to steal my attention from your eternal glory.

I highly recommend this practice. It lets you honestly name the doubts and demons that you already know are prowling around, and ask for divine help against them. It acts like a mini-confession, too: “God, I’m sitting down with the aim of spending time in your presence, but I know I’m concerned about something else. I know I’m putting my worry about that thing above my desire for you. Forgive me, and turn my heart away from that thing and back to you.”

My heart is already settled writing about this verse, and we’re just getting started.

Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain or false motive.

Open My Eyes to Behold Wondrous Things

Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.
—Psalm 119:18

After focus, after we have set a shield against our hearts lest they stray from God’s purpose, we turn to sight. Distraction will keep you from seeing what God has to say, but just as surely, blindness will, too.

As I pray this prayer, I have just woken up, and my eyes are technically open, but in the morning we have two sets of eyes. The eyes that let us see the world, and the eyes that let us see God.

The coffee helps with the first. The discipline and prayer help with the second. The Word is a miraculous eye-opener, but only if you expect it to be. If the eyes of your heart are shut tight, the Word of God is… just words. Pray that you may have eyes to see and ears to hear the mystery of Jesus.

We pray that our eyes may be opened because we see so many people, both in Scripture and in history and in our world and our lives, whose eyes are screwed shut against the possibility of God breaking in. Even in the morning as we prepare for our time with God, we are those people—we are not better than they are. We are exactly those sinners, and the only difference is that today we are asking, begging God to let us see, to heal our blindness which, at least for me, steals in every day, starting as soon as I put down my devotional. If I read and write and pray from 7:30 to 8:30, 8:31 sees my heart begin to cool, my eyes begin to close, my brain begin to wander.

So every day I once again pray, Open my eyes, that I may behold the wondrous things I know, I believe, I proclaim, are there.

This purpose is important! What are we hoping for with these supernaturally open eyes? To see the beauty we know is in the Scriptures.

Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain or false motive.
Open my eyes to see wonderful, beautiful things out of your law.

Unite My Heart to Fear Your Name

Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name.
—Psalm 86:11

“To fear.”

To honor. To praise. To love. To adore. To preach. To be in awe of. To respect. To focus on. To lift up. To make famous. To hallow.

For many, “fear” is the word that trips them up, because we have attached so many negative emotions to it over the years. But it means all of these things and more. When Jesus says in the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be Thy name”, He means the same thing by “hallowed” that the psalmist does by “fear” when he writes, “Unite my heart to fear your name.”

Don’t be afraid of “fear.”

After we learn to welcome this “fear,” there is still more to see here! I spent a year praying this prayer before my daily devotional, believing the psalmist’s words were good, before I really figured out what he meant.

He meant, So focus my heart on God that it has neither the time nor the capacity to focus on anything else. He meant, Protect me from idols, O Lord, and make yourself first in my heart. So, to help me remember this new understanding, I added a few words to what I pray:

Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain or false motive.
Open my eyes to see wonderful, beautiful things out of your law.
Unite my heart to fear your name and nothing else.

Satisfy Me With Your Steadfast Love

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
—Psalm 90:14

Every word of this verse speaks to me and requires my attention.

Satisfy. That means to be done seeking. To look nowhere else. To know that you have what you need. Just like “unite,” “satisfy” means God is enough for us.

Me. That means that God’s particular promises are fulfilled for Jerry. And for you, the reader. Not vaguely for the saints, but specifically for you.

This morning. Not tomorrow or yesterday or eventually, but right now today. Or if you’re reading after lunch, “satisfy me this afternoon.” Or at night: “this evening.” Right now, God, you are present with me, and you can and will give me everything I need here in this word of yours. And tomorrow I will ask again, just as Jesus taught us to pray regarding daily bread, not storehouses of it. So we go back to God for sustenance, not to our own resources. (I’m not sure what a storehouse of satisfaction looks like, but don’t build one anyway.)

With your steadfast love. The love of God is bigger than could be written with oceans of ink on a scroll the size of the sky. And yet we are seeking it in these words on these pages in this book. And I promise it’s there. More importantly, God promises it’s there.

And it is steadfast. It doesn’t leave, it doesn’t fail, it doesn’t abandon, it doesn’t waver, it doesn’t flee, it doesn’t wonder, it doesn’t wander. It is steadfast and eternal and loyal. God wrote a sixty-six book love letter to his people throughout all of time and space and culture, and He does not turn away. Don’t you turn away, either.

That I may rejoice. Rejoice! When was the last time written words made you want to jump up and praise God? This is the reaction you should expect from Scripture, and so we pray for it. We ask for it. We know it’s there, if only our eyes were open and our hearts prepared, we would sing out in praise at every word of the Lord.

And be glad. It’s possible that the author just meant to intensify his “rejoice”, but I take it this way: rejoicing is for the moment you see the wondrous things. Being glad is for the rest of the day when the Word is not literally open on your lap and you need the satisfaction that began this verse.

Being glad does not imply the absence of other emotions. Jesus wept. Paul mourned. Moses got angry. And these were all holy emotions. But it does mean that behind and within and above whatever else is going on, we are glad. There is a happiness, a joy, a satisfaction that is based on God’s existence, God’s promises, God’s Word. Which we are about to enter, which is why we pray.

All my days. Wait, didn’t we just say “this morning”? And now we are praying for the rest of our lives? Yes. In fact, I skipped a piece before. After “this morning,” I add “and every morning” for this reason: not that I want today’s reading to last me forever (God willing, I’ll be back tomorrow), but that I know it might have to. I want today’s experience in the Word to sustain my entire life. Just like yesterday’s and just like tomorrow’s. In other words, this part of the prayer is for the faithfulness of God. We just proclaimed that His love is steadfast, and now we pray that it stay that way.

(This feels like a good time to mention that prayer is not a great way of changing God’s mind, but it is a great way of changing your heart.)

Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain or false motive.
Open my eyes to see wonderful, beautiful things out of your law.
Unite my heart to fear your name and nothing else.
Satisfy me this morning and every morning with your steadfast love, that I may rejoice and be glad all my days.

All Together Now

IOUS. Incline my heart. Open my eyes. Unite my soul. Satisfy me.

Finally, we are ready to open our Bibles and begin.

And then we should expect great things. If we believe that all Scripture is God-breathed for a purpose, and we believe that God sits beside us when we read, and we follow Paul’s instructions to “consider what I say” and to “work to show yourself approved before God”, then just like we should expect the mountain to jump into the sea, we should expect the Word to produce in us the same kind of tectonic shift.

And it begins, every time, with prayer.

  1. Don’t get me started on on the difference between acronyms (pronounceable) and initialisms (not). Actually, that was easy. 

  2. I don’t feel that old, but when I learned this, Pluto was still a planet. Feel free to substitute “Served Us Nachos”. Or “Nutella”. Thanks, @plutokiller

This post is part of the series “Rethinking Bible Reading”

  1. Rethinking Bible Reading

  2. Understanding the I.O.U.S. Prayer 👈 you are here

  3. How to Read the Bible