~ The Prayer of Jabez Revisited ~
While a pious and humble man of God sat in reverential silence in a darkened, empty church, a distraught woman quietly joined him. Like the "sorrowful unto the point of death" Jesus in Gethsamene, the "place of the oil-press," she longed for someone to keep watch with her.
"Dear woman, why are you crying, if I may ask?"
"My daughter is very sick and in pain. The doctor doesn't know how to treat her."
"When I was a boy, I, too, suffered from an illness. My mother sacrificed the treasured cross her mother gave her, placing it on the altar of this same church, and recited a special prayer. I became well very quickly. So I continue to visit our Lord here and thank Him year after year."
"Oh, please, sir, tell me that prayer and I will do the same."
"My dear woman," the man kindly responded, "I don't want to sin by leading you to place your faith in anything but the heart of our Lord. I will not tell you that prayer and suggest you don't offer your cross to the altar. Please understand. See, my mother never heard this story, so God heard her. My mother was the story, and so you must become your own story."
Partly due to a very popular book and the trinkets of retailers marked with the name of Jabez, like those of the WWJD? fad that is now waning, that wonderful short story in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 known as "The Prayer of Jabez" is being reduced to the level of a magical incantation.
Jabez' short prayer, which has the same elements as the prayer model taught by our Lord Christ, seems to have been given more prominence in the evangelical culture than that of our Lord's.
Part of its apparent "specialness" is that Jabez' prayer interrupted the flow of a long genealogy. This practice, however, was very common in Near Eastern genealogical records where short historical notes were inserted. This was done to a lesser extent in Biblical genealogies, but it was done as exampled in Genesis 4:19-24 and 10:8-12.
Part of the intrigue is due to the mystery of who Jabez was. We know he "was more honorable than his brothers," but that tells us little since we don't know how honorable were his brothers. Jabez' name was significant, however, since it means "pain." Evidently he had a difficult birth and his mother, uncharitably, endowed her son with a lifelong reminder of her pain instead of honoring his life with a name that would generate respect. As Jabez mentioned the pain in his prayer, it seems reasonable to conjecture that his name brought him suffering. It follows, then, that Jabez' suffering may have served a sanctification process that resulted in his being more honorable than his brothers.
Jabez asked God for His blessing, that his territory or borders would expand (presumably regarding his influence or work, but we don't know), that God's hand would be upon him, that he would be kept from harm and free from pain. God granted him his request. Jabez prayed simply and earnestly.
Kings, missionaries, churches, and God's people of all walks prayed for the same things throughout the centuries, without ever hearing of the story of Jabez. What, then, is behind the popular movement that is elevating this prayer to the status of ritual and power?
I'm suspecting the "marketing" of Jabez' prayer, and the accompanying key chains, pencils and the like, have been caught in the wave of the proliferation of a gospel of health, wealth and prosperity: a gospel more characteristic of the New Age world view than of our Suffering Servant Christ.
The first of two major observations supporting this contention is the abundance of anecdotal success stories attributed to the recitation of this prayer. Anecdotes best testify to the power of prayer, not to the power of one set of prayer phrases over another. More dangerous is the implied or explicit assertion that one recited prayer or variation thereof fosters greater results than the simple, heartful words by the consciously sinful man in the back of the temple, quietly repeating "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Jesus Himself held this man up as an example of authentic prayer.
The other observation is the formulization of this prayer. Proponents challenge us to "test" the prayer for ourselves by committing to saying it every day for 30 days for a specific intention, and recording the progression of results on a calendar format. This smacks of the profanity of magical incantation and brings to mind Jesus' words to Satan, "It is written you shall not tempt [test] the Lord our God."
Anecdotes or testimonies of successful prayer are, by nature, exclusive, for they are silent about the times it didn't "work." A few months ago a very large Christian ministry conducted a board of directors meeting and stepped out on faith into new ministry territory invoking the prayer of Jabez. "God told them to" and there were tears of joy and exclamations of anticipated victory. Recently the ministry's CEO appealed to his radio audience for financial support because the quarterly audit revealed the most serious drop in revenue in 25 years. The host mentioned the ambitious "Jabez Initiative" to which the director responded, "We know God spoke to us, but if He wants us to cut our outreach by half, that's His will." When a person says, "God spoke to me," the alert flags go up and the caution filter in my brain activates. When someone says, "God told me, but if He wants something else…," the person loses all credibility. Best he remain silent and just do what he believes God is directing him to do. God may still bless that ministry with great growth. I hope, however, they rename their venture in faith "The Jesus Initiative" and leave Jabez out of it.
Some of the anecdotes of answered prayer in the name of Jabez raise serious concerns. If a jet-set famous preacher is late for his flight to an "important speaking engagement" and prays for his departure time to be delayed, isn't he telling God to delay the other 100 passengers' also important engagements so he won't miss his? Is this not a mixture of judgment and arrogance? Perhaps, instead, the preacher should leave earlier and be on time for his flight like the others. Or if the delay is unavoidable, how about asking God to replace him with someone even more qualified than he?
When I was young I would sometimes ask God for a white Christmas. As I matured, I stopped. Snowy Christmases hinders people's travels to loved ones and often causes tragic car accidents and death. I don't want my pleasure to hurt others. Prayers affect others also, and I must always evaluate how prayers on my behalf impact others, then pray or not pray accordingly.
Once I heard a preacher express annoyance over loud fire truck sirens blaring past the church right during his sermon. Since he had already been interrupted, he could have prolonged it a little longer with a pause for prayer for whatever need there was to which the rescue workers were responding, and for their safety as well. The pain and suffering or crises being announced by the annoying sirens, and that of Christ who feels our pain, were dismissed as an intrusion into a lesson on spiritual living!
The words of a prayer are not magical. They fall to the ground instead of rising into the heavenly realm when their source is a proud, self-important heart. Of the Beatitudes in Matthew, chapter 5, only the first and last are in the present tense, and the blessing for both are the same: "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The first is for the "poor in spirit" (their spirits, not God's); the last for those "persecuted for righteous sake." The connection between the two is critical, for persecution leads to spiritual poverty, leaving the heart empty to receive heavenly treasures.
In that case, let's look again at the man Jesus pointed out. "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner! I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God" (Luke 18:13-14a, NIV). Luke writes that Jesus was speaking in a parable. Regardless, Jesus was speaking truth. Unlike Jabez, this man was not honorable, which is why Jesus assigned him the despised trade of tax collecting. The man was humble, however, and asked only for mercy, which is translated from the Greek word meaning "be satisfied or appeased." Jesus said the man was "justified" or imparted the holy righteousness of God, as was the crucified thief later hanging next to Jesus, who just asked to be remembered.
To me, these humble prayers of dejected, dishonorable men are the most beautiful, powerful and Spirit-moving of all. So why don't people write books about their prayers? Perhaps books (and Reflections) about spiritual poverty and the sanctification of suffering are not attractive and don't fit into the false gospel of instant success and worldly prosperity. They won't sell very well. What would sell even less are t-shirts and key chains with "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" printed on them. That is just too humbling.
We already have Jesus' birth connected to Santa Claus and His resurrection connected to the Easter bunny. Let's not connect Jesus or Jabez to the wish fairy. Recall the mother of the man introduced at the beginning of this Reflection. She was the story. We all are God's unique stories, and though all different, they all begin with the same simple, humble, contrite words: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © December 1, 2001
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