Swaziland: Assessing Jabez, Part 1

12/20/2005: In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Michael Phillips provides a detailed account of the failure of Bruce Wilkinson’s orphanage project in Swaziland. Wilkinson–a prominent American preacher known for the fad book The Prayer of Jabez–calls the Swaziland debacle “one of the disappointments of my career.”

In fact, this failure–tragic as it is–represents a sad commentary on American evangelicalism. It also provides an opportunity to have an honest discussion about the fad of Jabez.

Assessing the Swaziland bust requires a revisitation of The Prayer of Jabez.

Jabez–an obscure character in Scripture–gains mention in I Chronicles 4:9-10, in the middle of a genealogy. He is noteworthy because more is said about him than for the others in the genealogy. We learn (1) he was more honorable than his brothers, (2) his birth was so tough on his mother that his name, Jabez, which literally means “pain”, is a reflection of those birth pains, and (3) he made a special request of God, which God–in turn–granted him.

Jabez’s prayer to God was fivefold: (1) that You would bless me indeed, (2) enlarge my territory, (3) that Your hand would be with me, (4) that You would keep me from evil, (5) that I might not cause pain.

Anyone who thinks Jabez was being selfish is forgetting the last part of his prayer: that I might not cause pain. This is a direct reference to his name: he did not wish for his legacy to be one that caused others pain. Jabez was honorable; he is one man who desired not to live up to his name!

That God gives Jabez so much attention in the middle of this genealogy is hardly trivial: while there are many other names in that genealogy, no one else in that genealogy has anything mentioned of his character. There is no record of any of the others crying out to God for anything. Jabez’ prayer is important against this backdrop: he is praying that his legacy be completely removed from the heritage of his name. Christians can learn from this to ask God to give them legacies completely removed from their worldly roots.

However, Wilkinson is pushing the limits of propriety by suggesting that everyone pray the prayer of Jabez every day. (He claims to have been praying it every day for thirty five years.) The Jabez prayer is hardly a formula for God’s blessing; after all, God’s blessing is not about formulas or pushing the right buttons or saying things the right way. God’s blessing is all about God’s goodness, and is not an entitlement. We should pray for God’s blessings, and we should pray that–by the grace of God–we may live lives that reflect God’s blessing. However, this is not about reciting two verses of Scripture every day. While God honored Jabez’s request, this is not the normative Biblical model for prayer.

The disciples–who had prayed in synagogue regularly since their childhoods–reached a point in their walk with Jesus that they realized they knew not the first thing about prayer. They asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. (That is Jabez-caliber humility.)

Jesus’ response was what we now call the Lord’s prayer. Not intended to be a “vain repetition”, Jesus’ prayer has only one thing in common with Jabez’ prayer: deliver us from evil.

Jesus’ prayer included proper relationship and reverence for God (Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name), acknowledgement of and prayer for God’s sovereign rule (Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, prayer for basic provisions (give us this day our daily bread), forgiveness and the grace to forgive others (forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors), protection from temptation and deliverance from evil (lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil), closing with further acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and glory (for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever, amen.)

The standard for prayer is the model Jesus gave to His disciples. Let us not forget that–in the midst of our obsession with Jabez’ prayer–Jabez’ complete spiritual life consisted of far more than a five-part prayer spanning one verse; in fact, his recorded prayer summarized the agonies and requests of a man whose life was devoted to God’s ways.

The starting point is humility: Jabez understood it. The disciples would need years before they truly grasped it. In Jabez’ case, God blessed him, gave him more territory, kept His hand on Jabez’ life, delivered him from evil, and gave him a legacy far removed from his name. The disciples? God only used them to turn the world upside down.

Devotion to God’s ways begins with knowing God. This requires a stout life of prayer and faith entrenched in obedience. Jesus’ model for prayer gives us the framework for a life from which will flow prayers like Jabez’, letters like Paul’s, and sermons like Stephen’s.

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