Wednesday, May 12, 2010

True Blessings

True Blessings
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 12 May 2010

“When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:3)

MAIN POINT: We pray for blessings equal to our willingness to BE a blessing. 

Before the Millennium, a young seminary student was searching for answers, for some sense of direction in an uncertain future. He turned to a relatively obscure verse in 1 Chronicles 4, where there was a little genealogy of the Judah tribe.

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. (1 Chronicles 4:9-10)

Out of his misery, he prayed this same prayer, now famously known as the "Prayer of Jabez (POJz)" This prayer was written and published in 2000. The following year, it became a bestseller, with more than 9 million copies sold, and it won prizes in the Christian publishing industry. Bruce Wilkinson became an overnight star. Now there are versions of the POJz for others, like teens, for women, for children, for adults etc. I have heard of Wilkinson since the days of “Walk Thru the Bible.” Then there is the “Dream Giver” (read my review here) which is a compelling narrative about how we need to seek God to learn about his dream for us. These pale in comparison to the success of the POJz.

A) What is the ‘Prayer of Jabez?’
It is a prayer that promises to help one ‘break through to the blessed life.’ In other words, one’s potential can be realized via seeking God with a little prayer, that potentially releases God’s immense pleasure through favor, power, protection and all kinds of ‘blessings.’ Small price, big rewards seem to be the overarching theme of the book. As I reflect on such a formula, no wonder the book is a resounding hit! Who would not like to pay a little bit, and receive a whole bunch? It is tempting to go overboard. In our value-conscious economy, we can be tempted to bring in commercial methods into our spiritual domain.
  • Buy one, get two free;
  • Three for the price of one;
  • Small price, big rewards;
  • Why pay when we can pray?
The problem comes when we ask for blessings with an intention to HOARD them. When this happens, it neutralizes the benefits of the POJz.

B) The Problem with the POJz
In many Christian circles, the word ‘blessing’ is synonymous with material providence. It is increasingly linked to financial numbers as well. A businessman says that the LORD has ‘blessed’ him with a car. A sales executive can say that God has blessed her with a greater number of customers that month. A CEO says that he has been blessed with new business growth and they are recognized by the Board of Directors for a good performance that year. Modern use of ‘blessings’ have this common element. The majority uses of ‘blessings’ almost always revolve around the receiving of material stuff. The more one receives ‘stuff’ the more one uses the word ‘blessings.’ Such a view I think will devalue the meaning of ‘blessing.’

As I read Genesis, there is a strong sense of God wanting to bless the surrounding nations through Abraham and his descendents. Genesis can be read broadly in two chunks. The first chunk is a macroscopic view from the beginning of time to the death of Terah (Gen 1-11). The second chunk is a microscopic view of a particular family in Israel, namely Abram’s. Just like the LORD speaking the world into being in Genesis 1, the LORD outlines Abram’s purpose in life in three crisp verses (Gen 12:1-3). Studying these three verses will yield up a remarkable use of the word ‘bless’ or ‘blessing.’
  • And I will bless you. . . . And so you shall be a blessing (Gen 12:2)
  • And I will bless those who bless you” (Gen 12:3a)
  • And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (12:3b)
C) Blessed to BE a blessing
One way to understand blessing in a broader context is to see it in terms of being blessed for a reason. In other words, when we pray, and when we receive, we must also pray for the wisdom to steward what has been given to us. The LORD speaks to Abram and emphasizes this twice! In Gen 12:2, Abram is blessed to be a blessing.

I believe that when we pray, we do not simply ask God to give us stuff. Those things are important. Mature believers will learn to go beyond asking and receiving. Note Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Matthew 7.7-8 and we see a general progression. Ask and we shall receive. Seek and we shall find. Knock and the door will be opened to us. Mature believers will seek out ways to use what they have received in order to find God’s will for our gifts and talents. As a young child, we ASK and we receive. As we grow into young people, we SEEK out opportunities to please God, and these opportunities will be found. As we become adults, we gather up courage to KNOCK on doors asking others if we can bless them, if we can do things for them, or help them. The opportunities will surely open. That is God’s promise. However, if we were to stubbornly apply our 1-Dimensional Christianity all the time, we will never grow. We will look inward, become self-conscious, and gradually live our lives expecting the whole world to revolve around us.

We must break out of our egoistical mold. We need to pray that God will help us move beyond selfish asking toward selfless seeking out opportunities to give. When we pray, ‘Bless me,’ remember to pray ‘Help me to bless others’ as well. It is like a lock and key combination. When God gives us a ‘lock,’ and we receive it with open hands and glad hearts, ask God for the ‘key’ as well, which is the purpose of such a gift.

Abram receives this Word from the LORD, that when he is blessed, he is to become a blessing to others as well. I do not want to be overly critical of the POJz. Wilkinson has also talked about the enlarging of one’s life so that one can become a ‘greater impact’ for God. In this sense, I credit Wilkinson for being aware that this prayer can become too self-focused.

D) One Way Traffic
As I contrast the Prayer of Jabez with the Prayer of Jesus, I cannot help but feel that Wilkinson’s POJz is  too single-traffic minded. ‘Blessings’ seem to be associated with the gospel of more-and-more. Is God restricted to bless a person only with maximum capacities? If so, a person receiving 1 jacket is less blessed than a person receiving 100 jackets? No! If the POJz leads people to think of blessings in terms of ‘enlarging,’ ‘supersizing,’ ‘increasing’ and material extensions, we would have unwittingly limited God.

When we pray to God, we need to be willing to let God bless us with plenty, as well as with little. Sometimes, the best blessing God can ever give to us is NOT to answer our prayers. I personally believe that whenever we pray, we make it a 2-pronged prayer: the PETITION as well as the PURPOSE.

E) Prayer of Jesus
The Prayer of Jabez has encouraged many people. Wilkinson should be applauded for providing an encouragement for Christians to pray and to seek God. For all its merit, we must not forget a much better prayer example in Jesus. We are not followers of Jabez, but disciples of Jesus. Hence, given our benefit of having the entire Old and New Testaments available in our hands, we need to learn to pray more like Jesus, with the POJz as a supplement. Be careful not to reverse it. The table below contrasts Jabez and Jesus.

DIFFERENCESPrayer of JabezPrayer of Jesus
FrequencyJust one verse in 1 ChroniclesAll over the gospels, and NT
RequestPrayer for ‘increase’Prayer regardless of ‘increase’
Requestor ConditionJabez ‘more honorable’ than his brothersJesus ‘perfect and holy’ than any other human
Final AnswerGod granted his request.God did not take his cup of suffering away

Remember that God gives us so that we can BE a blessing to others. There is only so much that we can consume. If we hoard our things, they will decay and collect dust. Why not learn to seek out opportunities to give away what God has given us? Better still, when we ask for blessing, pray for the willingness and enthusiasm to bless others with what God gives.

Let me leave you with the words of Etiene de Grellet, a 19th Century Quaker missionary,
“I shall pass through this life but once.
Any good, therefore, that I can do
Or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature,
Let me do it now.
Let me not defer or neglect it,
For I shall not pass this way again.”

Thought: Sometimes we tend to wait to be ‘blessed’ before we attempt to bless others. Perhaps, we have ALREADY been blessed (given the lock), and greater blessings will not come, until we exercise what we have (exercising being the ‘key’) to bless others.


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