Dave made me sick. He made me so sick that I’ve been unable to forget his rude, selfish and obnoxious remarks 24 years later. It was Labor Day 1981 and I was with Dave and four other teens from my youth group boating in the clear blue waters of the Atlantic off the Miami coast. We were swimming and waterskiing off the back end of a pretty impressive boat that belonged to Dave’s father. When it was Dave’s turn to ski, I went to the back of the boat to slide him the skis while he dove into the water. When he came up out of the water, he leaned back and let out a comfortable, mocking and self-righteous sigh. “Ahhhh,” he said. “I wonder what the poor people are doing today?” I couldn’t believe it.
My disgust with Dave didn’t last very long as my mind began processing his statement and the attitude that was its source. I quickly realized that his horrible words had probably captured the essence of how I was living my own life. If I was going to be mad, I was going to have to be mad at myself. If I was going to be sickened, it was because of the realization that Dave had verbalized not my own consciously held belief system (after all, I believe in Christ-like compassion), but my own everyday embodied worldview. How could I effectively challenge Dave to love the poor when the man in my mirror was more or less living Dave’s sickening statement?
In the years since that eye-opening encounter, I’ve continued to think a lot about selfishness and self-centeredness and how they continue to manifest themselves in my life, our culture, the church and our kids. When it comes to money and possessions, we’ve had so much for so long that we don’t even realize how much we really have. But as actor Brad Pitt recently told Diane Sawyer as she was interviewing him about his relief efforts in Africa, if we are blessed to be born in America, we’ve “hit the lottery” and there’s great responsibility that goes along with that.
Sadly, we followers of Jesus who should be leading the cultural charge against self-centered materialism are prone to follow the lead of the culture rather than Christ on this matter. When it comes to integrating our Christian faith into the material and financial part of our lives, we’re having difficulty. Kenneth Kantzer says, “the most serious problem facing the church today is materialism—materialism not as a philosophical theory, but as a way of life.” I agree. Materialism is the least-recognized and most-unaddressed sin of the American church and its members—of which I am one. Perhaps Dave and the following generations of Christian teens have learned well from us adults who, as Tom Sine says, “all seem to be trying to live the ‘American Dream’ with a little Jesus overlay. We talk about the Lordship of Jesus, but our career comes first. Our house in the ‘burbs comes first. Then, with what’s left, we try to follow Jesus.” Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if we see a selfish reflection of ourselves in the mirror of today’s youth culture.
Five years ago the volume on these issues was turned up in my head once again by the release and immediate popularity of Bruce Wilkinson’s little book, The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through To The Blessed Life. No doubt, most of you are probably already very familiar with this bestseller that expounds on two verses found in the middle of nine full chapters of genealogies contained in First Chronicles. If you haven’t heard of it, you’ve either been asleep or you’ve failed to interact with one of the millions of Christians whose fervor for Jabez and his prayer has led them to lay out millions of dollars to purchase the various versions of The Prayer of Jabez and other Jabez memorabilia and yes, even “kitsch” sold in bookstores, “Christian” and otherwise. Almost immediately, many of my more thoughtful and Biblically literate friends humbly expressed disbelief at how quickly “Jabez fever” was sweeping through the church as everywhere you turned someone else was telling you with “Amway-like” enthusiasm about how they were embracing the prayer (“and you should, too!”), praying it daily (“and you should, too!”), and expecting God to release great blessings into their life (“and you should, too!”). Christians who had never before read a book on prayer were devouring The Prayer of Jabez.
I wasn’t surprised at all. While I’m guessing Wilkinson’s intent was otherwise and I’m sure not everyone who embraced the prayer prayed it in this way, it seemed that asking the Lord to “bless me and enlarge my territory!” and to “let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain” was a new and popular way for many to ask God for more stuff and an easier life. Could it be that an obscure Old Testament passage was being marketed (yes, marketed—and effectively!) to a 21st century American church that was eager to find Biblical justification to have more? Perhaps the Jabez phenomenon and its rapid embrace as a mechanized and magical mantra is the greatest indicator of how self-centered and materialistic we’ve become. It plays well in our wealthy, market-driven, consumer-oriented, narcissistic North American Christian culture. In many ways, the prayer of Jabez has become a formulaic and convenient prayer that we’ve lifted out of its biblical context (author Gary Gilley recognizes this in his book “I Just Wanted More Land” – Jabez) and twisted to cater to our skewed values in order to further our desires, redeem our materialism, and justify our greed—all without even knowing that’s what we’ve done. After all, praying more earnestly and regularly is a good thing, isn’t it?
Let me admit that if I had prayed the prayer of Jabez myself, I would be prone to ask God to do “my will” rather than “thy will.” I see and know the ugly reality of my heart. For that reason, I couldn’t pray the prayer. Yes, I ask God for blessing and protection every day. But while I oftentimes catch myself wanting more stuff, the fact is that I already have far more material “territory” than I need. Somehow, stating these reasons to many of my Jabez-loving friends made me less spiritual in their eyes. But the wonderful reality of life—both in Bible times and today—is that God often blesses us most deeply when the very things that we erroneously equate with His blessings are withheld, thereby gifting us with an opportunity to experience the blessing of living our lives under His reign and rule with complete dependence on Him. Oh, we may say we live that way already. But why, then, is it that third-world Christians who scrape for food, clothing and shelter while living in material poverty have a fervor, joy, selfless depth and richness to their faith that puts us (and I include myself here in this critique) to shame, while we walk around prone to dissatisfaction with what we already have, desiring more, and consumed with wanting to live a life free from God’s gift of pain?
The sad result of our prosperity and desire for even more is that we’ve become even more prosperous and desiring of even more. All the while, we fool ourselves into believing that we are entitled to it all and that we are walking the path of discipleship. This is why more is said in the New Testament about money and wealth than about heaven and hell combined. This is why five times more is said about money than about prayer. This is why 16 out of Christ’s 38 parables deal with money. This is why Jesus said, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). It’s because of the dangerous and consuming grip this reality puts on us that Jesus said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). This is why the Apostle Paul warned, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (I Timothy 6:9-10). This is why Ron Sider, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, says, “The gospel of individual self-fulfillment now reigns” and “by their daily behavior, most Christians regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex and self-fulfillment.”
Sadly, our current generation of children and teens are choosing to follow in our self-centered and materialistic footsteps. Contrary to the opinion of some, the emerging generations haven’t turned their backs on the materialism of their parents. Instead, they’re embracing it. I remember how optimistic many of the culture-watchers were back at the end of the ‘80s. They believed that the end of the “me-decade” and Reaganomics would be accompanied by a parallel demise of greed and materialism among children and teens. In the ‘90s, generational researchers picked up on this trend, predicting that the Millennial Generation would forsake materialism for social activism. While I wish I could have been anything but skeptical about those predictions, skepticism—or more accurately “realism”—was in order. Young hearts that long to be filled by God continue to embrace money and the things money buys believing that “more” leads to more joy and more fulfillment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, young (and old) hearts that profess to be filled by God continue to embrace the same lies, sometimes reducing the infinite and awesome God of the universe to a personal genie who takes our wishes and turns them into his commands.
A few months ago I saw the fruit of our culture’s systemic materialism when I attended the “Kid Power 2005” marketing conference. Three hundred and fifty marketers—along with one curious outsider who did nothing but listen, for once!—spent a few intense days sharing secrets on how to market to kids. Their definition of “kids?” Two to 12-year-olds! I watched and listened in amazement as presenters talked about how to “reach,” “preach to,” “build relationships with” and “evangelize” the most-targeted market segment in the world. Why? Because those kids have, spend and influence the spending of more money than any other age group. In effect, the conference was all about creating and cultivating life-long consumers who will grow up constantly trying to meet a growing list of market-formulated and reformulated “needs” in an effort to finally be made whole. Our distorted adaptation of Jabez’s prayer plays well in that kind of world.
You might now be wondering what’s occasioned my somewhat harsh rants and ramblings about kids, materialism and what we’ve done with the prayer of Jabez. At one level, it’s the reality of what I see when I look at today’s youth culture. At another level, it’s the reality of the example I see when I examine my own life. It’s also our failure to understand and live the Kingdom of God as lived and taught by our Savior. And, it’s also the fact that earlier this year I stumbled upon another Old Testament prayer that seems to be timely and worth embracing. Try as hard as I can, I can’t get that prayer out of my head, most likely because it needs to be the prayer of my heart.
I’m sure I’ve run across it numerous times before in my readings of Proverbs 30. But something about our unique times, today’s youth culture and my own situation made the prayer of Agur jump out at me like never before. Agur prays, “Two things I ask of you, O Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:7-9). All Agur begged for was to speak the truth, and to have just what was necessary for him to remain committed and obedient to his God. Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the same. Agur understood human nature and he knew his weakness. In wisdom, he prayed to be rich in faithfulness. I’m not sure Agur’s prayer would sell (as books, trinkets, kitsch, etc.) in today’s Christian market. That’s too bad. It’s a challenging prayer that shakes up our prevailing attitudes and reflects God’s will, way and Kingdom priorities. It’s a God-centered prayer that focuses on thy will and not my will, as we ask God to bless by giving and withholding as He pleases.
When I compare myself to Donald Trump, I can easily rationalize away any materialism and see myself as “poor.” But if I were to stand with the world’s population in a line starting with the richest and ending with the poorest, I would be—along with you, my kids and perhaps the entire North American church—in the front 5 percent of the line. That being the case, the prayer of Agur is looking pretty necessary.
We’d do well to heed the warning C.S. Lewis issues in The Screwtape Letters. He writes, “Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”
I guess the real question we should all be asking of ourselves, our church and our kids is this: “Ahhhh, I wonder what the rich people are doing today?” Watch what you pray for.