The Prayer of Jabez revisited
When I first encountered the Prayer of Jabez in the Hebrew scriptures, I misunderstood it. In fact, I was 180 degrees wrong. I mistakenly remembered Jabez praying that God would keep him from hurting or harming another. And so, for a long while, that became my prayer. Especially when I would enter my car to drive, I would pray a silent prayer that God would inspire me to drive with kindness and to keep me from hurting or harming another. When I thought of staffs which I supervised or people over whom I had some authority, my prayer was always to do no harm to another. When another would intend harm to me, I would pray for strength not to respond in kind, but to respond in kindness, to turn the other cheek, to speak well of those who might seek to undermine me, and to seek the highest and best interest of those who might dislike me. Wasn’t that the essence of Jabez’s prayer? Well, actually, no.
A review of the prayer shows that the prayer actually says what it says, and it’s all about me, not others. Bless me. Enlarge my territory. Give me more responsibility, more power, more of everything that goes with an enlarged territory. Be with me. Keep me from hurt and harm. I suppose we all pray for ourselves and ask for God’s blessings, but where is the Jabez-style prayer for others? This prayer sounds remarkably familiar. It sounds like a cornerstone of the prosperity gospel: give me more. With careers, an enlarged territory usually comes with more rewards: more income, more benefits, more opportunity, more power, more respect, more authority, more status, more enhanced working conditions. Notice the word more. When any of us seek career advancement, are not those rewards a part of our seeking? And hey, did not the scripture say that “God granted what he asked”? Does this mean if we ask God for new opportunities and we don’t get them, it was God who didn’t grant it? In the world of work, there are many who submit sloppy resumes, fail to prepare for job interviews, or who have less skill or experience than others competing for the same opportunity. Will God get the blame for unrealized opportunities or coming in second?
I could imagine a televangelist making hay while the sun shines with this kind of theology. Perhaps in exchange for larger donations or a pledge to tithe, a prayer is offered to have God bless you, enlarge your territory, expand your opportunities, have God’s hand with you, and keep you from hurt and harm. It’s right there in the Bible. All Jabez had to do was ask for it and God granted what he asked.
While so much of the Bible tells about how God is with us and blesses us, there are other-directed reminders to us to look outward: “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4). “Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:4). The classic peace prayer associated with St. Francis encourages us in our prayer that it’s not all about me:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”[i]
It is not for you or me to rewrite the Bible to make it say what we wished it said, but we can take the Prayer of Jabez and make it a springboard for our own prayer: “I call upon you, O God, as I think of victims of injustice and those hurt by life, and ask that you would bless them, enlarge their opportunities to bloom and to enjoy the abundance of life, that they might know that your hand is with them, and that you would keep them from further hurt and harm. And please, Dear God, keep me from saying or doing anything to cause hurt or harm to another. Amen.”
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
[i] While the prayer is often popularly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, it first appeared in the early 20th century: