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Help! The Prayer that Calms

Maybe you have heard about the book called The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. It is extremely popular, breaking all kinds of records for a religious book in the secular market. On Amazon.com there were 307 reviews of the book, some glowingly positive and some extremely critical. The book begins like this: "Dear Reader, I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers." That's my least favorite part of the whole book because it sounds a little like one of these formulaic, put in your coin in the slot machine and you'll get out your answer to prayer. But that big promise has attracted a lot of readers. USA Today carried this review of the book:

Is Jabez for the needy or greedy? The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life, by Bruce Wilkinson, is one of the hottest selling books this season. But it's also making some readers hot under the collar. The slim non-fiction volume has sold 4.9 million copies [And I think since then it's something like seven million] since it was published in April 2000. Bible classes are studying The Prayer of Jabez. Ministers are preaching on it. Churches have incorporated the prayer into their services. Many people are writing testimonials about how it has changed their lives. But critics charge that Jabez encourages prayer for material gain and other selfish reasons. The book focuses on a little known character of the Bible whose brief story is found in 1 Chronicles 4. Wilkinson, who has a doctorate in divinity, says:
"Asking the Lord to bless you is not self-centered. Why not make it a lifelong commitment to ask God every day to bless you, and while he's at it to bless you a lot? God's bounty is limited only by us, not by his resources, power, or willingness to give. So does that mean you can pray for a mansion, luxury cars, and designer clothes? I think God doesn't want you praying for a pink Cadillac, but he may not say no if you say I need a new car. I ask the Lord for what I would like and trust his judgment because he can easily say no."
Wilkinson, who has said the prayer for 30 years, is the founder of Walk Through the Bible Ministries, an international publishing and training organization, but The Prayer of Jabez is raising concern among some Christians. Phyllis Tickle, contributing editor in religion for Publisher's Weekly says as a publishing professional she's overjoyed to see a religion book do that well, but as a Christian she is afraid people may read it and think that praying is some divine insurance policy so that they get everything they want: "There is a self-centeredness in the prayer that is alarming. It smacks of something close to magic."

Jabez Asks Not to be a Source of Pain

This prayer comes in one of those long sections of genealogy.

The sons of Helah: Zereth, Zohar, Ethnan, and Koz who was the father of Anub and Hazzobebah and the clans of Aharhel son of a Harum. Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, "I gave birth to him in pain." Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, "Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." And God granted his request (1 Chronicles 4:9-10).

I normally really like the New International Version, but there's a problem with the line translated "Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." A better translation is the New King James Version, the one Wilkinson uses in his book. It begins the same with a long list of so and so begat so and so. Then it reads:

Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, "Because I bore him in pain." And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!"

Do you see that difference? To me, the line "that I may not cause pain" is the most interesting line in the whole prayer.

Hebrew literature loves puns and words that sound alike. Jabez sounds like the ancient Hebrew word for pain. In a sense, his mother names him pain. Imagine if you had a child, and you named him cramp or itch.

You get a name like this and you have to live with it. Poor Jabez, what was his mother thinking? We don't know if she means the physical pain of childbirth, or if she means headache or some emotional pain or whatever. But poor Jabez has to carry this name with him. In a sense, he's calling out to God to give him an identity other than the one his mother gave him. He says, "Oh, that you would bless me indeed."

What I love about this prayer is that it is right and good to ask God to bless you. God wants to bless you. God is by nature generous and good and kind. When you ask him to bless you he doesn't say, "Please don't bother me with that." He responds generously. He responds with a heart that wants to bless us. It's okay to ask for things for yourself.

Jabez says, "Bless me." He says, "Enlarge my territory." He says, "Let your hand be with me." All three of these are various ways of saying help me to be successful. Help the things I'm doing to go better.

It's Okay to Ask God for Blessing

When you're in trouble, it's okay to ask God for help. You don't need to earn it. You don't need to deserve it. You simply rely on the fact that God is a loving, kind, compassionate, generous, good, and warmhearted being. This is how you originally became a Christian—by understanding that you couldn't earn God's blessing, that you received him by grace as a free gift through faith. Jesus reinforced this again and again in his teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says:

Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, "What shall we eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?" For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them (Matthew 6:28-32).

Jesus says you can ask God to bless you with food and clothing. God cares. There's no request too small or too trivial or even too selfish. You can bring your needs to God.

But Jesus' teaching doesn't stop there. It's linked to the following sentence. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).

When we read righteousness we tend to think of something very religious, but what it means is justice in the sense that the world would be the way God wants it to be. Seek that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and all these other things will be given to you as well.

It's okay to bring our requests and our desires to God. But the ultimate purpose is not just for our blessing. There is a bigger picture that we should keep in view. It's not just your blessing and your territory and your wants and needs and dreams, but God's kingdom, God's territory, God's justice, the way the world should be according to God. We seek that and these other things come into place.

The Blessing Shouldn't Stop with You

That brings us back to the translation issue. The translation that puts it "Keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain" misses the little play on words, that his mother called him pain. It's not that he has pain; it's that he's caused pain. The translation, "Keep me from evil that I may not cause pain" is better. The petition leads us to say, God, bless me, enlarge my territory, let your hand be on me, help me succeed in all that I do, and let that happen so that I won't be a pain to others but instead I'll be a blessing to others. I don't want to be a pain to others. I want to be changed.

It's good to ask God to bless you. It's good to ask God to enlarge your territory, and to keep you from harm; and it's even better to remember that the purpose of being blessed doesn't stop with you. This goes back to one of the most primal, essential passages in the whole Bible, the calling of Abraham.

The Lord had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on Earth will be blessed through you." So Abraham left as the Lord had told him (Genesis 12:1-4).

Bless me, not just so I can be blessed, but so I can be a blessing. Heal me, not just so I can be healed, but so that I can be a healer and bring healing to others. Provide for me, not just so I can be comfortable, but so that I can overflow and provide for others and bring comfort to others. Bless me so that I will not be a pain to others anymore, but I will be a blessing to them instead. God wants to bless you, but he doesn't want you to be the end user of his blessing. He wants to bless you so you can be a blessing. He wants to you pay it forward, and pass on the blessings you receive.

You need money? Ask God. God, I need money, but not just for myself, God. I want to receive money so that I can give money to help your work and help others.

You need a car? Ask God. God, I need a car. I don't want a car just to enhance my status and increase my miles per gallon. I want a car so I can use it in your service and to serve others.

God, there's a skill I need to improve. I need to get better at something for my own blessing, but I also want to use that skill to better serve you and others.

God, I need a home, but I want that home not only for my blessing but so I can open that home in hospitality to others.

God, I need a better job, not just for my own provision, but through that job I want to serve you and serve others. I want to be blessed, Lord, so I can be a blessing.

I'm not at all trying to discourage you from asking God for blessing. I'm encouraging you to do so. In fact, I'm telling you that you have a moral responsibility to do so. Let me explain.

Anxiety Distracts Us from Important Things

The Catholic author, John Powell, had this fascinating statement that's stayed with me. He said, "It's very hard to love others when you have a toothache." Do you see what he's saying? When you have a toothache you aren't thinking about anybody else. You're totally absorbed with that side of your face that's causing you agony. Something happens when you're preoccupied with what you need and want. You stop thinking about other people. You're just focusing on your wants and your needs. You don't think about God. You don't think about others. You just think about what it is that you want and you need.

In fact, there's a great sign that you need to practice petition. Here it is—anxiety. When you feel anxiety it means you have some wants or some needs that have not been articulated and expressed to God. Don't be anxious about anything, but in every situation where you feel anxiety rise, take your anxiety and turn it into a petition, make a request for your wants and your needs. Bring them to God. When you do that your anxiety will dissipate. God's peace will be like a good governor who comes into your heart and takes control and banishes all the anxiety, stops the crime wave of anxiety. Then you can be focused on the things that really matter, let your mind focus on what's really important.

You have a responsibility to learn petition. Ask for blessings—not so that you can turn God into your genie, your personal butler or your personal assistant, not so God can serve you—but so that you can have your wants and needs taken care and can get on with serving others, seeking first God's kingdom, God's justice, and God's dream for the world as it should be.

Bruce Wilkinson acknowledges this in his book when he talks about the phrase "enlarge my territory." He uses that to say, "God, enlarge my influence for you in this world." That's a beautiful prayer to say, "God, one of the blessings I want most from you is that I can have an influence for you. In my family, in my job, in my neighborhood, in my social settings I can be an influence for you. Let that increase, Lord. I can help other people get closer to you. I can help other people learn more about you. I can help other people come into a relationship with you and live more the way you want them to live."

For many years I've kept a journal. A journal really helps me to pray. It helps me to write down my prayers, because when I try to pray my mind is all over the place. I'll start the day and say, "Lord, you know I want to serve you and walk with you today. I need to meet with so and so today. Help me be a blessing to them." Oh boy, my car's almost on empty. Come to think of it, I'll probably be late. And then I'm thinking about where I'll stop for gas. And 10 minutes later I get back to, Oh yeah, I was praying, wasn't I? So writing down my prayers helps me to focus. You may be way beyond that, but if you're at my level this might help you too.

Petition isn't always the number one thing on my mind. Some days my prayers are primarily thanksgiving, and other days they're confession. But some days it's petition. When I feel anxiety in my heart it's going to be primarily petition. So at the top of the page in my journal I write "Big things," and halfway down the page I write "Little things." Then I think, what are all the big things on my mind that I feel anxiety about? Maybe I'll be concerned about something related to my wife, and so I'll write a prayer for Grace. And then I'll think about each of my kids. These are big concerns in my life. Then there might be some things related to the church that I'm really concerned about. These are the big things. Once I feel I've got all the big things out, then I think, what are the little things? Sometimes these are the ones that get you. It's not the vulture that's flying overhead, it's the mosquito that's buzzing in your ear. I've got these five little things on my to-do list that are bugging me, and I don't get them done. Lord, help me get these things done. I put them in your hands. Help me with these.

Prayer Can Re-shape Our Identity

After I've done the big things and the little things, at the bottom of the page I might write eternal things.

I became committed to Christ in high school. Paul and I went to school together, and he had become a committed Christian about the same time I did. Almost every day, he would get to my house a few minutes early. Before we walked to the bus stop together, we'd go down to the basement, take out our Bibles and read the same two chapters. We read Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 13. Romans 12 talks about commitment, and 1 Corinthians 13 talks about love. Day after day we read these same chapters. I think because I read 1 Corinthians 13 every day it became my constant prayer, "God, help me be a more loving person. Help me be a more loving person." That's an eternal thing, and that continues to be my prayer today.

Then one day, when I was a student at the University of Maryland, it was between classes, and I had a little time. I had most of my homework done, and I was hanging out on a sunny October day, watching people throw Frisbees. I started to pray, and I remember for the first time in my life thinking, God, I've been asking you to help me be a loving person and I still need that, but starting today I'm going to ask you to help me to be a wise person. I really need wisdom. So I just started making that my prayer day after day after day, "God, I want to be a wise person."

Perhaps that's helpful for you to think about the big things causing you anxiety and the little things causing you anxiety, and to try to keep some eternal things on the screen of what you're asking God for. For you, I think you'll find what I find—that when I practice petition I feel calmer. I'm not so driven by unexpressed wants and needs. They have a way of making you anxious and driven. But once I've put them in God's hands, entrusted them to God so it's not all up to me, and I'm in partnership with God, I'm not so driven. And I put a name on it.

I'm not driven by the labels and nicknames I might give myself or that others have given me. If your mother named you pain, you would go through life with a certain attitude. Remember the old Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue? It affects you. But there are other ways we give ourselves names. I'm a failure. I'm behind. I've wasted a lot of time. I start things and don't finish them. I'm always at the back of the line. There are ways that we name ourselves something like Jabez, and it's formed an identity in us. There's something that happens when we realize we don't have to be stuck in that identity, that vicious cycle of self-condemnation. We say, God, I have been one who's been named pain. I don't want to cause anybody any pain, so bless me so that I can be a blessing to other people instead of a pain to other people.

Petition is asking God to bless you. Think about the phrases in that prayer.

Oh, that you would bless me indeed.
Oh, that you would enlarge my territory. Help me have a greater influence for good.
Oh, that your hand would be with me, that I would feel I'm walking hand in hand with you and that you're touching me with your empowerment.
Oh, that you would keep me from evil, from causing harm and pain to other people.
Oh, that I may not cause pain. Change my identity from the pain causer to a source of blessing to others.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________

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Sermon Outline:


Jabez' prayer for blessing was born out of his negative identity.

I. It's okay to ask God for blessings.

II. God's blessings don't end with us.

III. Christians have a moral responsibility to ask for God's blessing.


Asking for God's blessing helps us to regain our identity in him.