I FIRST heard about the prayer while visiting family in another state. I had stopped in to see a friend from college who now operates a Christian bookstore.
“You have to read this book! We can’t keep it in the store!” he told me enthusiastically.
The title was “The Prayer of Jabez”, written by Bruce Wilkinson and taken from a little known passage in 1 Chronicles 4:10. The prayer is simple: “Oh, that you would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that your hand would be with me, that you would keep me from evil, and that I might not cause pain.”
I returned home, not having read the book (my friend had sold out of them), only to encounter three people that very week who mentioned the book. I went out and bought a copy. It is a small book, 92 pages, and I read it over lunch. It was at times inspiring, and at other times convicting.
When I am reading books on the spiritual life, I try not to be too analytical or critical. I have learned that those tendencies can be a way of avoiding something God might be saying to me. And yet, in reading “The Prayer of Jabez”, and in saying the words prayerfully, I had the sense that something essential was missing.
A few weeks later, I was able to begin making sense out of my emerging response to this book. By now it had sold 4 million copies. I thought about the good fortune of my college friend, selling all of those thin volumes for US$8 to US$10 each. I also imagined folks being genuinely helped by the commentary on the prayer. Still, there had to be more. Something was missing.
What was missing became apparent to me as I concluded a year of helping to teach Disciple Bible Study. At the end of the course there is a focus on relationship with God. This relationship is established through a covenant and remembered in Holy Communion. Within the closing service are the following words:
“I give myself completely to you, God. Assign me to my place in your creation. Let me suffer for you. Give me the work you would have me do. Give me many tasks, or have me step aside while you call others. Put me forward or humble me. Give me riches or let me live in poverty. I freely give all that I am and all that I have to you …”
These words are taken from the Covenant Renewal Service in the Wesleyan Tradition. They were published in 1753 by John Wesley, and can be traced to a puritan text written almost 100 years earlier. The first covenant service in the Methodist movement was probably celebrated in 1755, according to The United Methodist Book of Worship. The service has been a popular one on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and on the first Sunday of a new year.
These words of the covenant prayer have been part of our devotional life for almost 250 years. With the advent of Disciple, they have been introduced to more than one million Methodists meeting in small groups. In saying the words at the conclusion of Disciple, I realised that our spiritual birthright, as people called Methodists, was not in “The Prayer of Jabez”. Our spiritual heritage is captured in the words of the covenant prayer. They are profoundly biblical and express a radical dependence on God and submission to God’s will. They are almost a commentary on a briefer prayer of our Lord: “not what I want, but what you want”. – Matthew 26:39.
Reading the words of the prayer of Jabez (and Wilkinson’s commentary on it) alongside the covenant prayer presents starkly contrasting visions of the Christian life: one is about self-fulfillment, the other self-denial; one is about changing God’s mind, the other about submitting to God’s purpose; one is personal, the other is corporate; one is in harmony with a culture of acquisition and consumption, the other is in conflict with expanding markets and egos.
By grace, God welcomes all of our prayers. “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:26. God takes the inadequacy of all of our prayers, hears our true intentions and responds. Paradoxically, God did expand the territory of a group of disciples who were shaped by a prayer that asked for nothing other than to be of service to God’s will and purpose.
My appeal to Methodists is to recover another prayer that has been practised for 250 years, a prayer that has been transformative to millions of believers across the generations, many of whom know the fulfillment of the covenant prayer’s concluding petition: “May this covenant made on earth continue for all eternity.” – Witness. This article is reprinted with permission.
OUR SPIRITUAL HERITAGE
‘ … I realised that our spiritual birthright, as people called Methodists, was not in “The Prayer of Jabez”. Our spiritual heritage is captured in the words of the covenant prayer. They are profoundly biblical and express a radical dependence on God and submission to God’s will. They are almost a commentary on a briefer prayer of our Lord: “not what I want, but what you want”. – Matthew 26:39.’
— The Rev Ken Carter.
The Rev Ken Carter is Senior Pastor of Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and author of “The Gifted Pastor: Finding and Using Your Spiritual Gifts”, published by Abingdon.