Nugget of gold

Jabez prays a bigger prayer than meets the eye

Issue: "Keep the faith," June 23, 2001

A great discovery has been made in our time, and the rumor is it's sweeping the land. It is an insight-packaged in a little beige and sepia book the size of Kahlil Gibran's sayings, whose very look and feel promise the secrets of Aladdin's cave of wonders, and whose publishing has stormed the bestseller lists and spawned study groups-and the insight is this: God answers prayer.

That's the good news. The bad news is that when a book like that succeeds, it probably means we were in big trouble. One thinks of the earth tremors that shook Europe when a monk named Luther wrested Germany from the dark ages with 95 Theses nailed to the Wittenberg door in 1517, and one imagines a replay now in 2001 America-but this time without good reason.

Never mind all that. Praise the Lord that Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez has got us reading the Bible (two verses, at least) and praying again. Who knows where this will lead? Rather than merely praying 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 every day for decades, as the author has done and recommends, a fellow might branch out to other worthy prayers in Scripture, like Exodus 33:15-16, or 2 Samuel 7:18-29, or 1 Kings 18:36-37, or 2 Chronicles 20:6-12. or Psalm 5, or "the Lord's prayer." Or someone might even dare to pray through the book of Ephesians.

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For this is the nugget of gold that Mr. Wilkinson has mined from obscurity in a ponderous genealogy that most of us skim on our way to the juicier stories of David and Solomon: Prayer really "works"-which is a good description as long as the verb "to work" includes flogging, stoning, shipwreck, sleeplessness, hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness (2 Corinthians 11), perplexity, pressure, persecution (2 Corinthians 4), insult (1 Thessalonians 1), and dying daily (1 Corinthians 15). As for the promise of "a fuller Christian life," it's like young Shasta learned in Lewis's The Horse and his Boy: "... if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and a harder and better one."

Jabez prays a bigger prayer than meets the eye; and though the immensity of it escaped me at first, it would not have been lost on a 5th-century B.C. Israelite. For in a culture where names were things of meaning and power, the cursed clansman of Judah had been christened with the moniker "he causes sorrow" (Jabez and pain have the same letters in Hebrew). From Ichabod to Nabal, name has always been destiny. A lesser man wouldn't even have prayed about it but just groaned under its burden all his live long days, resigned to some universally acknowledged kind of predestination.

A lesser man than, say, Jacob, who wrestled with the Almighty and had the impertinence to say, "I will not let you go unless you bless me" (Genesis 32:26). A lesser man than old blind Bartimaeus, who cried out to the itinerant preacher in Jericho and would not be dissuaded-not for embarrassment nor for ridicule-but shouted all the louder, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me" (Mark 10). A lesser man than the widow of parable, who would not suffer rejection but kept "bothering" the judge (Luke 18). Jabez, a wrestler with God, "cries out to the God of Israel" regarding a matter that is considered a dead issue, and God grants his request, calling him "more honorable than his brothers," to boot.

It is as if the Lord, stunned to delight by such importunate faith, comes quickly with succor, exulting over the rare jewel of "such great faith in Israel." It is as if, pretending to withhold blessing from the Sidonian woman, he listens with pure joy to her refusal to be refused: "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted" (Matthew 15).

But there is a deeper level still. The Chronicler's Jabez comment may be short but it is not an afterthought. It is the answer to a legitimate question raised by a discouraged nation just emerging from well-deserved exile for a history of rebellion: "Now what? Does God still love me?" It signals unheard-of reversal of judgments that the Lord himself had pronounced (Jeremiah 18:7-8), and the rolling back of a worse curse than Jabez's. It speaks of a more impressive miracle and name change-from "Lo-Ammi" ("not my people") to "sons of the living God" (Hosea 1).

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