If you were in any way connected with evangelical Christian culture in the early 2000s, you probably heard about the Prayer of Jabez. This was the title of a much-admired and also much-maligned book by Bruce Wilkinson, based on a tiny obscure scriptural passage found in 1 Chronicles 4:10 —
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. (NKJV)
Wilkinson suggested in the book (which launched numerous spin-offs, imitations, vilifications, parodies and criticisms) that Christians should pray this prayer, word for word, for thirty days. He guaranteed, based on his own experience, that by the end of that time they would see incredible results in terms of God “enlarging their territory” — which he interpreted to mean their area of service for Him, not their actual acreage.
One of the popular misuses and thus one of the most scathing criticisms of the Jabez prayer (apart from the whole idea of using a particular prayer as a kind of magical formula) was that it was very easy to conflate it with the “prosperity gospel” in which we ask God to give us material blessings and he showers lots of big homes and new cars and flatscreen TVs upon us, because He loves us. But I never got the impression from the Jabez book (yes, I did read it, and I think I still have a copy around here somewhere) that this was what Wilkinson was suggesting at all. At least, the message I heard was that if you have a desire to do bigger things for God, to have your service and your ministry impact more people, then praying this prayer might just make that happen.
As with most things, how I interpreted the “Jabez” message probably had a lot to do with where I was at the time. In the late 90s and early 2000s, I was taking a break from teaching in order to have and raise babies, and I was very actively involved in our church’s high-school-aged youth ministry. For a few years there, we had a great group of kids who were very motivated, high-energy, interested in taking on leadership and service opportunities, and really on-fire for the Lord (as we evangelicals tend to say).
I had great dreams and visions for this youth ministry. I saw it growing and expanding, taking in more kids, reaching out to the community. I visualized myself working with young people, no longer within the narrow confines of a high-school teaching job but meeting young people where they really were, talking with them about the real issues of their lives, helping God in the work of transforming lives. I really believed this was possible, and I wanted it so badly that I was willing to try anything — even the prayer of Jabez, with a sort of “Well, it can’t hurt to try” attitude.
I doubt I was actually organized enough to pray it every day for 30 days, but I did pray it, and I did seriously entreat God to make the ministry I was involved with grow so that I could influence more young people for Him.
What actually happened within a year or so was that most of the key young people in our group left — two families moved away, and several of the older youth went off to college. At that point Jason and I had a baby and a toddler, and we needed to be free to take them to Cradle Roll Sabbath School. We saw that the biggest need for us in church in the next few years would be in children’s ministry, where we could help and lead out in the programs that our own children needed, rather than working with other people’s teenagers. And with the demographic shift that saw most of “our” teenagers moving out of the youth group, it seemed like a good time to make that change.
This wasn’t easy for me. Much as I wanted to be there for my own children and be involved with them, children’s ministry has never attracted me the way youth ministry does. I’ve never felt the same enjoyment and appeal working with younger kids; it’s more like work and less like play for me than working with teenagers and young adults is. Still, sometime around 2000-2001 we made that move, and the youth ministry we had been involved with basically shut down, and I felt that my dreams and prayers for youth work were going to go unrealized.
Fast-forward to 2008. I’m still up to my neck in children’s programs at church, still feeling like it’s not my true calling, but managing to enjoy it pretty well most of the time. Meanwhile, for the last four years I’ve been back to paid work, doing a job that’s absolutely nothing like the kind of cutting-edge church youth ministry I’d imagined, but that excites and inspires me in all the same ways youth ministry did, and goes so far beyond it I can’t even explain.
At work every day, I get to work with young people who are in real, serious need, at a time in their lives when they are open to change and really looking for help. I’m not coming to them as a “professional Christian” and I’m not preaching about Jesus (although I often have the opportunity to talk about what I believe about God, if and when students ask me about that). I’m dealing with kids that a church-based youth program would probably never see and never meet, and I am constantly awed and humbled and grateful that I have the opportunity to be part of their lives.
Every desire and need I had when I prayed the prayer of Jabez was answered — in ways I could not have imagined. I did not dream that my greatest opportunities for ministry and service would happen outside my church setting, in an organization originally founding by a Catholic lay order. I did not imagine that I would find opportunities for ministry by returning to classroom teaching, which in 2000 I believed was behind me forever. I didn’t guess that someday kids with addictions, poverty, mental health issues and all kinds of lifestyle concerns would be showing up on in my room everyday, and that I would somehow have the knowledge and the resources to help them a little.
In short, God did indeed enlarge my territory, in ways I had never dreamed possible.
What does this tell me about prayer, and how it works? To tell the truth, I’m still not sure. I don’t particularly believe in mantras, novenas, and magical prayer formulas — and yet, who am I to say they don’t have some power that I can’t fully understand? I definitely believe there is deep spiritual truth in the saying: “You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.” I believe that prayer — and let me be heretical here for a minute and say that I also think this applies to what my less-theistic friends refer to as “putting things out into the universe,” or whatever, because I believe there is only one Power out there in the universe and its rules are not my rules — works. But I think the ways in which it works nearly always surprise us, and are rarely what we might have expected.