Search Term Friday: The Prayer of Jabez Made Me Sad

Recently these search terms brought someone to the blog:
the prayer of jabez made me sad
I thought that was a pretty funny search term.

Did the book The Prayer of Jabez make this person sad? Or was it the actual prayer of Jabez in 1 Chronicles?

Anyway, that search term linked to this blog because last autumn I wrote a post about the prayer of Jabez as I taught it during my Monday night bible study out at the prison.

If references to the prayer of Jabez make you cringe, I hope you'll find these reflections from the men in prison to be both poignant and profound.


In the prison bible study we were working through 1 Chronicles and we came to the prayer of Jabez:
1 Chronicles 4.9-10 (NKJV)
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!”

So God granted him what he requested.
A lot of you, when you hear "the prayer of Jabez," think about the best-selling Christian book The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life by Bruce Wilkinson. The Prayer of Jabez took the evangelical world by storm in 2000 when it was first published. But it also drew a fair amount of criticism.

Specifically, some felt that Wilkinson took the phrase in the prayer "Bless me, and enlarge my territory" in a prosperity gospel direction. You pray the "prayer of Jabez" so that God might bring you success and good things in life--the expansion of your "territory."

But that's not how the men in the prison study heard the prayer of Jabez. They heard something quite different.

The men didn't focus at all on the "expand my territory" line. Rather, they were drawn to the fact that Jabez means pain (or sounds like pain in Hebrew).

A child named pain.

Apparently named so because of the pain he caused his mother in childbirth: "His mother called his name Jabez, saying, 'Because I bore him in pain.'"

Given the life histories of the men in the study, they could identify with a child named pain.

And the child named pain grows up to pray a prayer about pain. A prayer that he might be protected from pain or that he might not be the cause of any more pain.

There appears to be some interpretive ambiguity on this point. Most translations have the prayer being a request for protection from pain and harm:
that you would keep me from hurt and harm

that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain

keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain 
That seems to be the consensus view, that the one named pain requests to be protected from pain.

But for some reason, the New King James Version goes against the flow and gives a different meaning:
that I may not cause pain
That might be a bad translation, but most of the guys in the study carry the NKJV so that was the line that most of them read in the prayer of Jabez. And that was the line that most affected them. Most profoundly affected them.

A prayer that I might not cause any more pain.

Because these men have caused a lot of pain. A lot of pain. A pain that goes on and on. In the lives of their victims. In the lives of their loved ones and families. In their own lives.

More, it's a daily struggle not to cause more pain. To not add pain upon pain.

Such a great, sad, awful, soul-crushing weight of pain.

These men, their name could be Jabez. Their name is Jabez.

So the prayer of Jabez that night in the prison was not "expand my territory." The prayer of Jabez was something different. Something full of sadness, loss, shame, regret, guilt and sorrow.

I pray, Dear God, that I might not cause any more pain.

This was the prayer of these children of pain.

This was the prayer of Jabez.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

15 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: The Prayer of Jabez Made Me Sad”

  1. I think there is something divine and mysterious about getting older that allows us to see the pain we have caused in a person's eyes more than when it happened years ago. In the story, The Color Purple, Celie's husband, Albert, in his old age felt the pain he had inflicted on her years before. This was more than just a good turn of the story, but a witnessing of the softening of the soul that transcends mere bodily existence.

    I have a brother one who is institutionalized for the rest of his life. He is Paranoid schizophrenic; years ago he killed a person who tried to help him. My parents, who had not seem him in months, found out about the killing while watching the evening news. Can you imagine?

    When my brother takes his medication, his letters are a couple of pages long, somewhat readable. When he refuses his meds, his letters are six to eight pages of run on, no breaks in sentences or paragraphs, no punctuation. Totally, unreadable. At first when i could read his letters I would wonder why he never seemed remorseful of the victim and her family. But I began to see in each of his readable letters how he would mention the pain that our parents went through over the years. He has never said "I'm sorry", nor has he even mentioned what he did; but our parent's pain, in one form or another, is in practically every letter.

    Considering his illness, maybe that is the best he can do. But even then, I believe I see a tenderness that lifts him above his illness, that allows him to still experience being human, a grand particle of God.

  2. This is great. You should put together all your posts about your experience leading this bible study in prison and release it as an ebook. Very powerful. I'm a big fan of the blog and your book. Thank you.

  3. Thanks! I've had the same idea. I'm been kicking around the idea of a book collecting the stories from the prison and my life at Freedom Fellowship interwoven with some theological reflections.

  4. This is beautiful. I cherish opportunities like this to experience God's Word from a perspective entirely alien from my own. The Word is living, indeed.

  5. The Hebrew word translated "cause pain" is the verb עצב, which can mean to rebuke, hurt, to be worried, to grieve, to hurt oneself, to hurt someone's feelings, to be displeased, to be distressed, etc.

  6. Sometimes if the scripture reads strangely, I check the Septuagint, since it is a more ancient rendering, the one quoted in the NT, and often portrays God as much more merciful. This is Brenton's translation:

    "9 And Igabes was more famous than his brethren; and his mother called his name Igabes, saying, I have born as a sorrowful one. 10 And
    Igabes called on the God of Israel, saying, O that thou wouldest indeed
    bless me, and enlarge my coasts, and that thy hand might be with me,
    and that thou wouldest make me know that thou wilt not grieve me! And
    God granted him all that he asked."

    It's rendered a little differently in the NETS:

    "And Igabes called on the God of Israel, saying, 'If blessing you will bless me and enlarge my borders and your hand be with me, you shall also produce knowledge so as not to humble me."

    In both places it seems like Jabez is afraid God will cause him pain. This is consonant with what you expressed in the OP, Richard. (It also reminds me how hard it is to translate the Hebrew well.)

    I think a book on the prison studies would be wonderful.


  7. Thing is, I don't hold anything back writing-wise. It's all here on the blog. So any thoughts or stories I have I've shared here already, it's all on the sidebar. Books are handy however. I've thought about an ebook, but then again, it's here for free on the blog.

    And while I've posted material on the blog before and later pulled it to include in a book, I don't know how I feel about that practice. I like just giving this away for free. I have a job, so I don't really need to sell books. And yet, people like things pulled together and integrated into a book.

    So I wobble back and forth about books.

  8. I have to admit, when I saw "prayer of Jabez" I cringed. But this was good.

  9. Thank you Richard for bringing this side of the Jabez story to light. I've not considered it. The prison experience resonates deeply with me.

    And thank you, John, for sharing a piece of your story. I too have a brother institutionalized who is paranoid schizophrenic. Many years ago, he had an altercation with law enforcement in the town I attended college. I heard about it on the local news. It was devastating. I can only imagine your parent's grief.

    My brother is 61 now and his adult life has been spent in and out of hospital prisons. In the occasional readable letters he writes, there is a sense of remorse for the pain he has caused to our parents, to me and my siblings. There is a tenderness in some of his writings that transcends the illness, that only comes from the heart of God. This is my hope. When off his meds his letters are incoherent.

  10. Yeah, I hear you. That makes sense. Maybe you could compile your blog posts, add some additional unpublished reflections to tie it together....and release it as a free ebook. Ask your publisher to help could be a good promotional tool. Just a thought. Either way, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  11. This was exactly my response to the passage when I first read it, and the book. Much of my life I have been concerned with trying to protect the universe from myself.

  12. I worked for the publisher that produced The Prayer of Jabez. Jabez and Bruce took a lot of flack for that book.

    In July of 2011, we were out east approving the first print run for the four color Jabez. The printer's rep and I walked by the World Trade Center. I do not know if it was a Border's or Barnes and Noble anymore (I think B and N), but Jabez lined the windows. Without going in, I can tell you the books were on endcaps and also located by the cash registers. Jabez was everywhere. The spring and summer of 2011, people living and working near the World Trade Center, had Jabez calling to them each day as they walked by those book shop windows.

    I believe when the planes struck those towers that many many hearts cried out to God the simple prayer of Jabez. And that Jabez's prayer created the faith within people that they could pray anything and God would hear them. I believe it with everything in me. I do not have answers to the "why" of that day, but I believe hearts called out to God and He heard them and brought them home - whether or not they had ever said the "sinners prayer".

    As for Bruce, he continued to write books. He took his earnings and his family and moved to Africa. From what I've read, his ministry there struggled, but he spent his efforts and earnings in Africa. How many of us are willing to do that?

  13. Wow, this is so powerful - i am definitely a hater of Prayer of Jabez misused theology and when you read how people read it as a mantra or good luck charm then i think that can be easily understood, but the way it impacted the men you are working with and maybe just the fact that you are in the middle of some 'when i was in prison, you visited me' Matthew 25 in action, but this moved me deeply. thank you for sharing

    love brett fish

Leave a Reply