Here are the talk notes from today’s Faith Community. We were going to record it, but with my head cold, I thought I’d spare you the audio. Enjoy the read, and blessings!
I Didn’t Know I Could Ask For That
In Psalm 66, the psalmist says, “Come and listen, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me.” This feels especially apt this morning, as I’ve been thinking about some of the things that drew me towards Jesus in the year or so before I came to church.
If you go back to about fifteen years ago, my life was pretty rough: I was on the run from an abusive first marriage, living under an assumed name in a really mangy apartment. I’d been a practitioner and teacher of new-age spirituality for about ten years, but had all sorts of doubts because it didn’t seem to work, for me or for anybody I met.
I was sort of desperate in those days for spiritual encouragement, and so sometimes I go to the Christian Living section at Walmart, looking for some hope (because who doesn’t shop for hope at WalMart?) One day, I saw this little book called The Prayer of Jabez.
The book described this one-off character in a chapter of the Bible that’s mostly chronological family lineage. But in the midst of that, this guy Jabez gets a special paragraph, where we’re told, pretty much without context, this:
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. –1 Chronicles 4:9-10
I’d never looked that closely at the Bible, but I liked that story. I started praying the prayer every day – asking God to bless me, enlarge my territory (whatever that meant), and keep me from evil so I didn’t hurt anybody. It seemed nicely all-inclusive. I wasn’t praying for any specific thing in those days, because I kind of needed everything: Some days there might be a vague sense that if my “territory” was enlarged, I’d have some friends or people to do life with, or maybe a career of some sort, or an apartment that wasn’t just a couple steps up from camping. And around this time, my boyfriend completely forgot my birthday. No one else here in Boston even knew it was my birthday, which just felt horrible. It made me wonder, What am I doing here? I don’t even have anyone who knows me enough to say Happy Birthday? I had no “territory” to speak of – really all I had was my dog. This vague prayer fit my needs really well without forcing me to delineate, every day, every single thing I didn’t have.
Months later, I had this weird series of events lead me to a church, where I made a bunch of friends. And my birthday the next year was kind of incredible. I had a party, and about 35 or 40 people came. New friends wrote long notes of encouragement in thoughtful cards. A bunch of people made funny T-shirts to commemorate the occasion. It was such an experience of abundance, a stark contrast to all that lack from the year before. God had truly expanded my territory. And through those friends, God changed the trajectory of my life –
- I met my husband,
- I wrote a book about the experience that gave me a new career,
- Steve and I have lived in a variety of home, some nicer than others, but all better than that first place.
You’d think after an experience like that, I’d have been a Prayer of Jabez devotee. But the truth is, I didn’t really make the connection back then, and I lost track of the Prayer of Jabez in the years that followed.
This week, though, I was reminiscing a bit about these early days of my faith – before I was part of an official culture that was Christian, when I was just sort of bumping into whatever God put in front of me and responding to it. In remembering all of this, I thought back to this Prayer of Jabez experience, and morning last week, I looked it up in my Bible. There it was, in the middle of a long list of family lineage. And yet it read differently than I remembered:
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.
The last line seemed strange, asking God to keep you from harm so you’ll be free from pain? Could you even do that?
- To pray not to cause others pain, as I’d done before – That seemed humble and very “Christian.”
- To pray to be free from pain myself? That seemed kind of selfish.
I pulled out my computer and looked at different bible translations of this passage, thinking maybe my NIV had an unusual take on things. Here’s how Jabez’s words are recorded in the various translations:
NLT – “and keep me free from all trouble and pain!”
ESV – “keep me from harm [or evil] that it might not bring me pain!”
Amplified – “keep me from evil so it might not hurt me!”
The venerable King James – “keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me!”
I realized that the translation used by that little book I’d read – the New King James – is kind of an outlier in how it translates this verse from the original Hebrew. I don’t think it was “wrong,”per se. But it is eye-opening, at this point in my faith journey, to get this whole new way to approach this prayer. I mean, who wouldn’t want permission to pray, “God, keep me free from all trouble and pain, keep me from harm that it might not hurt me, from evil that it might not grieve me!”?
It sounds so selfish, and yet there it is in the Bible, suggesting not only that we pray for this, but that we expect God to respond, and to grant our request.
This messes a bit with how I think about things.
Until a couple of years ago, I’d always considered myself an outsider to most conversations about suffering. I didn’t see myself as qualifying to participate. I’d been through some things, certainly, but I’d gotten through them. Suffering seemed to have a quality to it that didn’t feel like I could claim, something long term and awful and inescapably terrible.
Then one summer, I shared with a family friend a couple of personal things that were hard for Steve and me around infertility. And she looked at me with the sweetest look of compassion, as if what I was telling her about our struggle was long term and awful and inescapably terrible. “That is such a heavy cross to bear,” she said.
I just sort of stared at her, unsure of what to say. I’d never thought of it like that.
As awful as this might sound, her assessment didn’t crush me. It was uplifting, actually, like a revelation. It was like, “Oh – this has a context in my faith life.” God used her observation to bring me peace. And since then, this cross is still there, and we notice it, but is lighter, and not a struggle to carry.
(I should pause here to say that this was a rare helpful moment in an ocean of unhelpful faith-based advice about the place where our faith & our suffering collided. PLEASE don’t leave here and use the phrase “that’s such a heavy cross to bear” on one another! I’ve learned that suffering is as personal as salvation – I think it’s something God “transacts” with each of us differently, individually, and personally. We can learn from others’ stories, but there’s a point past which we can only travel alone.)
One thing I can see in almost everyone I know who comes through pain and suffering well is that whatever “it” is does not define them. I think of the Apostle Paul– thorn in his side, jailed, beaten, fearing for his life and even stoned (possibly to death) on one occasion. And yet while these are colorful parts of his story, those aren’t the things we mention first about him. (Imagine if you were brought back from the dead – wouldn’t you build an entire career around that as the central event of your life?)
Instead, these incidents are secondary to the larger story of Paul: his travels; the people he reached and told about Jesus, the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit; how he changed direction on a dime in response to God’s leading from place to place. There is SO MUCH we talk about with regard to Paul that is way bigger than his suffering.
His suffering was real. But one gets the impression that the pain did not affect Paul the way you would expect. That somehow he did not feel pain, to put it Jabez terms. I don’t think this was numbness or oblivion, or even grim determination. I think it ties into what Jesus meant when he said, after telling his disciples of the grief they would soon suffer and how they’d all be scattered: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
What if part of what we can ask for as children of God is “Let your hand be with me and keep me from evil that I may not feel pain”?
What if this were our regular experience of life? That we would have trouble, but through Jesus, we have overcome the “everything” that brings that trouble, such that our experience is minimized enough that we are free to do the work and live the life God has for us?
We see this in other scenes in the Bible:
- When the apostles are flogged and then chained in prison, and they’re just hanging out singing happy songs to God.
- Or Stephen, being stoned and yet looking up at God happily, praying for God to forgive his murderers.
I always feel awful when I read these stories, because that is just so not me. I’m not that good or pious or holy. And I can’t even fake it all that well. None of us can (can’t you always see through the façade when a fellow believer is trying so very hard to be FINE, and to rejoice in our suffering under their own steam because THAT’S WHAT GOOD CHRISTIANS DO? I’ve been on both sides of this lie. It just makes us strained and strange to be around, all that fake, fine cheer.)
I think Jabez asked for, and received something else, something very different. I think we should ask for it too.
One final note: This brings to mind the question you hear sometimes in motivational circles: What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? or, What would you do if you had all the money you could ever need?
Those aren’t good questions. Any calling or dream you have will cost you more than you think you can afford, and it will include failure.
And yet I sense that what God might be saying here is that through Jesus, it’s possible for us not to feel the pain of our loss and lack in the same way – that rather than causing us to be stopped by the pain, it’s somehow more like the ‘burn’ of exercise that spurs us on because we know we’re accomplishing something good. (After all, if we’re being attacked by evil, it often means we’re getting somewhere for and with God.)
What I sense here is God saying that miraculously, mysteriously, through him, we can rise above these real experiences of hurt and heartbreak until they are only a footnote in a much larger, much better story.
Oh Lord, 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.”
In Jesus’ name, AMEN.