I’ve got nothing against the man who wrote The Prayer of Jabez.
People who examine the book and its ideas carefully are likely to get a more-or-less valid understanding of these verses. But people who search the Bible for each and every magic formula or guarantee of success make a serious mess of it.
Jabez’s story blips up in the middle of a long list of begatitudes in First Chronicles. In seminary, we used to say “Chronicles” was actually the Hebrew word for “Didn’t I already read this in 'Kings?'”
We don’t learn much about him. We know he was honored more than his brothers, his mother gave him a name that referred to her time of labor, he prayed to God and God granted what he asked. A lot of people today hold that his prayer is a way to get God to give them something. Some say it to get a specific blessing they want, while others say they want something but they leave the type and amount of the “something” up to God.
That idea overlooks important facts of Jabez’s life.
First of all, his name was not exactly a token of motherly affection. What she did was the same as a modern parent naming a child “He’s such a pain.” In their culture, names had a lot more meaning than in ours. You could make a good case Mama Jabez named her boy like she did in order to get back at him for all the suffering he caused her, because names could act like prophecies.
Jabez, then, wanted to be sure that his mother’s prophecy didn’t come true, so he prayed for release from it. “Keep me from hurt and harm,” he asked.
The wrinkle, of course, comes in the first part. “Bless me and enlarge my border.” Welcome to the minefield! Watch the tap-dancing, please.
Of course, we’re told, that means Jabez wants God to give him more stuff. What else could “enlarge my border” or “enlarge my territory” mean?
You think it might take into account that enlarged territory in Jabez’s time would also mean enlarged responsibility, because the more you owned the more you had to take care of? You think serious Christians praying this prayer actually ask God to give them more responsibility and more of his work to do? Get that noise out of here. You’re disturbing my prayers to Santa – I mean, God.
You can also take a hike if you think Jabez is asking God to define him instead of being defined by his culture and society. Sure, we pointed out that Mama Jabez hung a “loser” tag on her boy, naming him so no one would think he was fit for much of anything. And sure, his prayer asks for an enlarged territory and blessing his people would think he didn’t merit, which would be proof that God thought differently of him than they did.
But if I think about these questions, I can’t memorize the prayer and say it exactly the right way so God will have to do what it asks. Because that’s what this prayer stuff is all about, anyway. It’s not about God. It’s about me.
Or it’s not.
People talk to God all the time in the Bible. And they talk to him all kinds of ways. Sometimes they ask for things. But they also praise him, and they celebrate what he’s made, or what he’s done, or who he is.
Sometimes they even yell at him. The psalms have those kinds of prayers, as does the book of Job.
They never, though, seem to see prayer as the kind of spiritual transaction so many modern Christians seem to. We input prayer X and God outputs blessing Y. We put in more X, and God gives more Y.
Don’t get me wrong. They want a response. They don’t want to pray just to hear themselves talk. For them, a prayer to God is a part of a conversation and they want God’s response to continue the conversation. Jabez says to God, “I think I can do some more things,” and God says, “You do? Then let’s try this. And this. And this…”
We too should want our prayers to draw a response from God. A response like, “You did what? Excellent!” Or, “I know that must have hurt. Tell me more.” Or, “Well, you know I’m always here for you.” Or, “Well, it may seem scary, but I know you can do it if you let me stick with you.”
My life has enough transactions. So I’m thinking about picking up the conversation and see where it leads me.