A National Sensation
The Prayer of Jabez (cf. 1 Chronicles 4:9-10) was a little book that became a big deal in many Christian circles about twenty years ago. It chronicled the prayer (the word is not actually used) of a mysterious man named Jabez, and this prayer was said to be a model that modern Christians could use to gain God’s blessing and improve their lives.
I was in seminary at the time, and I decided that I needed to read the book. One reason for my decision was that I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The book had been heartily recommended by some and roundly condemned by others.
There was, however, a second reason for my decision. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit it now, but I was looking for some help with my prayer life. I had been praying earnestly for some things that were very important to me, but my prayers had not been answered. Frankly, I was looking for an edge in my prayer life, something that would help me get God’s attention and win God’s favor.
A Hermeneutical Dilemma
As I read the book, I found practical guidance for prayer that made sense. The author laid out his ideas in a clear and logical format, and he explained their significance for contemporary followers of Jesus in simple and relevant ways. Still, there was a question that kept bothering me; it just wouldn’t go away. Why should we think that this man’s prayer is an example that we ought to emulate?
There are a couple of clues that might suggest that Jabez is an appropriate model for imitation. For one thing, the story of his prayer occurs in a long series of genealogies. Its location immediately causes the read to wonder, “Why is this here?” For another thing, Jabez is described as “more honorable” (NIV, NASB) , “honored more” (NRSV, CSB, CJB), “better known” (NJB), “more esteemed” (TNK), or “most distinguished” (NAB) than his brothers. If the NIV and NASB are right in taking this to mean that he was more worthy of honor, then the narrator would be giving us a clue that this Jabez fellow is someone to whom we ought to pay attention.
These narrative clues, however, may not be as decisive in determining the answer to our question as they at first appear. For one thing, the majority of English translations prefer a rendering of the Hebrew that emphasizes the fact that Jabez was “honored” or “esteemed” more than his brothers without necessarily commenting on whether he deserve that honor. For another, the narrative structure of 1 Chronicles 1-4 is a bit chaotic. Our text is only a brief aside in that larger unit, and the unit as a whole is sometimes difficult to follow. In other words, it may not be as hermeneutically significant as we think that there is a prayer stuck in the middle of a list of genealogies.
Then there is the problem of the reader’s social location and psychological makeup. As Americans, we have an unfortunate tendency to read religious texts for how they might benefit us (materially and in other ways). Indeed, certain theological movements encourage us to do so. Such reading strategies tend to exaggerate or even distort the meaning of Scripture.
Having said all of this, I still think that it is interesting, and perhaps important, that we are told about Jabez and his prayer. We should not let our allergic reaction to the “health and wealth gospel” (well-founded though it is) to prejudice our reading of this text. Nevertheless, we should not allow our desires for material and other blessings to over-emphasize the importance of this text for our own practice of prayer.
One important point that I think we can make about this text is that Jabez prayed in ways that made sense given his family’s experience and his culture’s values. His own narrative had been imprinted with the pain he caused his mother, and at least one of his ultimate goals was to escape that narrative of pain.
Jabez’ cry for release from the pain of his family story is one with which we all can resonate. Indeed, Peter Scazzero argues (in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality) that we all must come to terms with the havoc that is caused by our family of origin and its ways of doing things. Prayer can be an important part of that process.
A second point to observe is that Jabez prayed with another ultimate goal in mind, that he might avoid harm. This, too, is a prayer with which we can identify. As we have pointed out on the blog many times, suffering is an indispensable tool for building mature christians. Nevertheless, it is not an unmitigated good. It is not something for which we ought to strive. In fact, one way to interpret the so-called “model prayer” of the Sermon on the Mount is that we are supposed to ask God to deliver us from the trials that so often cause us pain.
A third observation has to do with Jabez’ territorial ambitions. I readily confess that this part of his prayer makes me nervous. We are not supposed to be people that are obsessed with our own power, and even if we reframe this request in terms of other kinds of success, it still seems to me to be misdirected. Nevertheless, God granted Jabez’ request. Are there times that we should pray for material, professional, or other kinds of success? Are there times that we should give voice to our “territorial” aspirations? I may not be comfortable with the fact that we have such aspirations, but most of us do. And if we do, then we need to bring them to the Lord in prayer, even if it is simply for the purpose of letting God change our hearts.
Jabez should not be our only, or even our primary, example of how to pray. There are others who are better examples (as we will see in a few weeks) because they reflect the character of God in their prayers. Moreover, I think that we err greatly when we look for patterns or mantras that we can recite in order to achieve the results we desire.
With these caveats in mind, I think that we can learn some things about prayer from this strange story. What do you think? Share your insights in the “Comments” section below. And stay with us for the next few weeks as we continue to think and talk about examples of prayer in the Bible.