Thursday, January 28, 2016

Do You Remember Jabez?

About 15 years ago, it seemed everyone was talking about Jabez, a fellow mentioned only once in the entire Bible. Dr. Bruce Wilkinson had written a little book called The Prayer of Jabez, based on 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, which states:
“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.”

That’s it – two verses, just over 60 words, but for a time people throughout evangelical Christianity took to praying “the prayer of Jabez.” This obscure character isn’t cited elsewhere in the Scriptures. He’s not in Hebrews chapter 11’s “hall of faith.” Jesus never said anything about him. We don’t even know why he was considered “more honorable than his brothers.” But for quite a while, lots of people found Jabez fascinating.

My first encounter with Jabez (other than as a random name in the Bible) came in the early ‘80s, when I heard Wilkinson speak about him at a couple of conferences. Like folks years later, this little account of the guy with the odd name captured my attention. But for a different reason than many.

In 2000, when the book was published, many of the readers inserted American cultural values into this biblical anecdote. In reading Jabez’s request that God “would bless me and enlarge my territory,” they interpreted “blessing” in materialistic terms – money, luxury cars, nicer, bigger houses, stuff like that.

It’s true the Lord can – and frequently does – provide tangible blessings for His children. That might even mean a much-desired job, necessary funds to get out of debt, or resources for some special purpose. But when I heard Wilkinson speak and later read his book, I never understood Jabez’s prayer and God’s response in that way.

Having been a follower of Jesus for only a few years when I first heard about Jabez, I had great appreciation for people who had invested in my spiritual growth. I had a desire to “pay it forward,” giving some of my time and energy to help other new believers grow as well. So when Wilkinson talked about “enlarging our territory” or “expanding our borders” as another translation puts it, that meant having an impact on people and the world around me, one that could reach into eternity.

So when I prayed for God to enlarge my territory, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a bank account or things in a store or showroom. I asked Him to bring just one man into my life that I could start to disciple, in keeping with Jesus’ Great Commission to “go and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:19). I thought it would be wonderful to have a positive influence for the Lord even in one life.

God answered my prayer. In fact, within six months He had introduced me to two different men, with whom I met individually every week for more than two years. I remain in regular contact with one of them, more than 30 years later.

But when I asked God to enlarge my territory, in effect He said, “I can do better than that.” He also took my goal of one day writing a book and multiplied it. I’ve since had the privilege of writing, editing and co-authoring more than 20 books. A weekly workplace meditation I started writing and editing in 1998, “Monday Manna,” today is being translated – through no doing of mine – into more than 20 languages and is distributed via email around the world, reaching countless thousands of readers.

This blog, which I began in 2008, is re-published on an online newspaper, and a couple of months ago I received an email from someone in the Middle East who had been reading it, telling me how much he appreciated my spiritual perspectives. When God promises “to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), He’s not kidding.

I’m not writing this to pat myself on the back. Far from it. Much of the above resulted simply from God opening doors and my having enough sense to step through them. I offer this only as an example of how God can answer a simple prayer to bless us and “enlarge our territory.” The one condition: That our motivation be to honor Him and give Him glory, using whatever He has entrusted to us and taking advantage of opportunities He provides.

So I admit to being fond of Jabez. Who knows why, in the midst of a long list of Israelite lineage, God chose to single out this guy and expound on him briefly? Maybe, as Wilkinson suggested in his book, it’s because the Lord wants us to know we have His permission to pray for personal blessings – as long as our hearts are in the right place. How might God be willing to enlarge your territory – if you’d just ask Him to do so?

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