Transcendent Joy: Rising Above Every Other Joy in Prayer


Scripture provides us with a pathway to "go down into the recreating silences, into the inner world of contemplation" (Richard Foster), where we find that God is building an Inner Sanctuary for us to know him more. 

These past weeks, the Novo / CRM blog has been offering prompts to look into our own "inner worlds," deep places of the soul. These exercises are meant to free us and move us toward deeper communion with God.

Many scriptures also point to the practice of learning to look beyond ourselves, to Christ:  

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him (Ps 34:8).

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).

God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (Ep. 2:6).

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).

We are invited by explicit biblical mandates to experience the "immanent transcendence" of God—to experience that the God who is infinitely above and beyond us is also inextricably near and personal. What a paradox! What a mystery! The God who lives in unapproachable light (1Tim 6:16), who has come near in Jesus by his Spirit, invites us now to know him as he is, on his terms!

The Psalmist David captured “immanent transcendence” powerfully in Psalm 139.

For David, this was not just an abstract, theoretical collection of thoughts on the omniscience and omnipresence of God, but an intensely passionate expression of his intensely personal knowledge of the immanently transcendent God:

"You surround me, protect, restrain and empower me in ways that I can only begin to fathom. It's too much, and at the same time I can't get enough! The knowledge I do have of You is too much to contain. And I am certainly not capable of the kind of knowledge You have. I am both thrilled and intimidated by the intimate depths of knowledge You have about me, and yet You still love me!" (my paraphrase of Ps 139:4-6)   

This verbal prayer by David serves as an inspired pattern in scripture for us to know God in the same way!

Let's consider how we can experience that same kind of personal knowledge of God.

I want to invite you to explore a unique style of contemplative prayer that has been helpful in my own journey to knowing God in an intimate way. This prayer practice is inspired by a quote by Evagrius Pontus* from his Chapters on Prayer:

153. When you give yourself to prayer, rise above every other joy—then you will find true prayer.

Evagrius is primarily referring to the elements of what he calls "true prayer," but he also hints at a method of journeying toward it.

One way to open ourselves up to experiencing God’s immanent transcendence is to utilize Evagrius’s image of “rising above every other joy.” This form of contemplative prayer may be unfamiliar and stretching for some of us. It requires us to use our imaginations and focus our thoughts on specific joys we have received from the Lord, letting the Holy Spirit lead us from one joy to the next.

Like David, we'll start with what we do know and experience of God, and let him take us from there. Here are a few points that might be helpful as you approach this time of prayer.

  1. Imagine each of the following joys that are yours as gifts from God.

  2. It might help to actually have these items or representations of them on hand to pick up and put down as you rise from one joy to another.

  3. A verse has been supplied and other passages suggested that support this direction of relating to God.

  4. Receive each one as expressions of his love for you to enjoy.

  5. Then direct your joy to him as its source and focus, or simply enjoy his joy with him, and “rise” to the next!

If at any point you feel stuck, or simply that this is as far as you can go at present, just focus on the last joy and connecting with God in that place. There’s no pressure to do “all or nothing.” The Lord may lead you to come back to this exercise another time.

Rising Above Every Other Joy (Prayer Exercise)

  • Picture first some simple nourishing good thing like the enjoyment of food, or a hot cup of tea or coffee or cocoa, a massage, or a warm blanket by a fire.

    • "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights" (Jas 1:17).

  • Then “rise above” that to imagine other physical joys of running, winning, or climbing or dancing.

    • "He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights." "You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy" (Ps 18:33; Ps 30:11).

  • Then let your heart “rise” to more aesthetic joys of beauty in nature or any form of art, including music.

    • "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Ps 19:1, see Ps 148 & 150).  

  • Then “rise” to the intellectual joys of truth, justice, and virtue.

    • "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" "Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (Rom 11:33; 1Cor 1:24).

  • Then bring before your heart and mind your relational joys: the laughter of a child in your arms, the kindred bond of a true friend, the embrace of a lover, a spouse.

    • "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Matt 7:11; see Isa 62:5Jer 3:1933:11Jn 3:29).

  • Rise now to the redemptive joys of knowing salvation in Jesus: forgiveness, freedom from sin, grace, rebirth, new creation, adoption, freedom in the Spirit.

  • Finally, as you are able, “rise” to spiritual joys: the self-esteem of being a child of God, the self-worth of being an image-bearer, the spiritual authority of a spiritual gifting, the peace of God that passes all understanding, the love of God that is beyond comprehension.

  • Then as God allows, let go of your imaginings by “rising above every other joy” to enter into the calm depths and glorious fellowship of his joy."

Lord God, thank you for taking me by the hand in this exercise, and for helping me by your Spirit to "rise above every other joy," in order to behold you, to enjoy you, and to reflect the glory of your love both in my life and to a world dying to know you.

*Evagrius (also Evagrios) Pontus was a 4th century disciple of the theologians in the Council of Nicea, and later became a 'Desert Father' who shaped Christian spirituality on topics of prayer, spiritual warfare, monasticism, etc.


Bill O’Byrne is the co-founder and ministry director of the Novo ChurchNEXT community of spiritual formation ministry called Imago Christi. If you want to take additional steps to expand your communion with God, check out their spiritual formation Discovery events.