Let's not resist God, but instead ask Him for help.
I want to encourage all of us to listen for what the Lord might want to say. We’re in this new series called Spark. Spark has to do with this whole idea when faith starts coming alive. When God stirs things in us and when something is shifting around, we sense that we’re being called into a new season. My little contribution here is that this is going to take us through the early part of the summer and these next couple of months. We’re going to be hearing from other pastors and different speakers. I wanted to take these first two weeks since this is the second part and focus on an obscure man from the older testament. We introduced him last week. His name is Jabez. He’s not often talked about, the book that he’s found is I Chronicles. It’s an obscure Old Testament book that’s not usually read. In fact, if you were to read I Chronicles, usually someone only does it when they’re reading through the Bible. There are about nine chapters about genealogies. It frequently is just something that someone might skim past because it’s referring to someone who had a child and they had a son and so on. It goes on and on like that. Someone begat someone and you have all these names. None of them seem to have any real connection. They’re real people, but it doesn’t really connect. It’s like walking in a graveyard. You see names, but what do they mean necessarily?
In this listing of names, all of a sudden, there’s a little bit of an opening. Something is written about one of those names that catch our attention. To an extent that it almost requires us to really think, “wow, this person must’ve had something unique happen in their life for God to stop, pause and say, look at this.” Even though it was only two verses, it has so much for us. These little two verses about Jabez’s life are like what one commentator called an oasis in the graveyard or the wilderness of the dead. It’s a little spot of life.
I want to sit with his story and talk a little bit about his pain. I want to look at some other pieces of art. Engage and reflect on it. Hopefully, listen for the Lord through it. Let’s read this together. If you have your Bibles, a Bible app, or the handout, you can follow along. In I Chronicles 4, it says “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother called his name Jabez saying his name is Jabez because I bore him in pain. Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, oh, that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory and that your hand would be with me and that you would indeed keep me from evil so that I may not cause pain.” Just a prayer.
God granted him what he asked for. What we’re basically given here is this thumbnail sketch of this man named Jabez. We’re told two things in that ninth verse. Two things are immediately said about this man. One, he excelled above his brethren. That is, he was someone who was an achiever in his generation. He is someone who’s to be noted. Remember, that’s what the Bible is saying. He was more honorable in that regard. He stands out. He emerges from the relief. Two, you notice that he had an ignominious beginning. What we mean by that is that he starts out, unloved, unwanted, or at least less loved. Notice his name. We’re told what it means. Jabez means sorrow, one who brings sorrow, one who brings pain. His mother named him sorrow. His birth was a source of pain for her. We’re not sure why, but what we do know is that he begins his life with a stigma. Names meant even more back then than they do even now. There’s not even a mention of the father, which is suggestive in a highly patriarchal culture, to have no father there. Ut does open up some things to consider.
Jabez begins with this, I don’t know, I don’t want to call it almost like a curse. Those names were either aspirations a lot of times or an expression of a condition at the moment. When she calls him sorrow, it really does give him a kind of identity. From the very beginning, he starts with a disadvantage, a kind of a handicap, a mark against him. He’s in the hole from the start, a man with a wound. He could have so easily been defined by that wound. It’s what the Bible is implying. He could have lived his life like a victim, nourished his hurt and offense. He could have embraced it, which always will happen when we embrace our wound and cling to it. We perpetuate its sorrow. He could have very easily lived with a low grade of bitterness and resentment. Let that hurt fully define him, obliterate him in a way.
Instead, we’re told in verse 10, that there was a point in his life where he made a decision that he began to call upon God, a time when he prayed. He asked God specifically to intervene on his behalf. Notice what he says. “Oh, that you would bless me.” Somewhere in his life, this man who starts in so much pain because of a wound that was inflicted in a way upon him begins to turn to God. Out of his disadvantage, he begins to cry unto the Lord, oh that you would bless me. That is, he asked for a blessing. The one who starts with a deficit asks God to make a deposit on his behalf. Jabez says all that you would bless me and enlarge my territory. He prays for expansion, an extension of my lands, my borders, holdings, influence, and reach. Let me be blessed. In his pain, he turns to God and makes this prayer. He draws to the Lord and makes an appeal.
Here’s the thing that reminded me very early on: when things happen in life that are hurtful, unfair, painful, aren’t good or fair, that don’t seem just, or just tear our hearts apart, it’s important to resist a couple of things. One of them is to resist pushing God away in these times of pain or loss and making God our enemy. I know it’s a strong word, but it can happen. We start to blame God. Why didn’t you do this? Or why don’t you stop this? We’ve had a lot of discussions like this over the years. I had one recently with someone and I was hearing their hurt.I said, “I get it. I understand. But can I say one thing from the very beginning? Remember, God is on your side. He deeply loves you. Whatever else has happened here, remember this. You will never lose by drawing closer towards Him. Turn towards Him, not away. Don’t push God away. He’s given everything, He gave himself. He entered into wounding for us.” So one thing is to be careful when we’re hurting or when we’ve been hurt, about pushing Him away. The other thing to be really careful about is to be careful about becoming bitter. Be careful about allowing this anger to start to set in and to become resentful. There’s always that temptation to hold onto our pain and let it define us.
I was thinking about the idea of anger and bitterness and how Jabez had a choice to make in his life. He was either going to just let that sorrow define him or he was going to do what he did, which is to model how to allow God to take something that is bad and ask the Lord to help him in a significant way. It got my mind thinking about a story, a book that some of us may have read, certainly seen the musical, or watched the film. But I found myself reflecting on it as I was thinking about Jabez. How the temptation would be to get stuck in his anger and what was given to him. He had to make a choice. It reminded me of the story or the musical Les Miserables. I’ve always been very moved. Some of you who’ve been here for a while, you know I’ve always been impressed by Victor Hugo’s character, Jean Valjean. It’s powerful, very emotive. There were a couple of films that had been made over the last 20 years. The last one was in 2014. It was a musical. Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean. One of my favorite actors played another character in the film. Russell Crowe was in that film. Honestly, he’s an amazing actor, but he does not have the gift of singing. But the film was a version of the musical itself and the other film that was made years before, in 1998. It starred Liam Neeson and he really portrayed beautifully. It was more drama. It attempted to portray Jean Valjean, the character that Hugo creates.
This is very Christ-like, in a way that it presents the gospel as it were, because some of us, may have a memory of it. I don’t want to assume we do, but the musical is fantastic. It condenses it down. The music is powerful. The films are good. It told the story, but it lost something of the layer and the texture. Les Miserables is a big book, 1,200 pages. You can also read the condensed one, which is 300 pages. The point being, in the book, some of us remember what happened to Jean Valjean, the character that Hugo created brilliantly in 1862. He’s the main character. The book opens with him being treated so unfairly. There’s the connection to Jabez. He’s been imprisoned. Why? For breaking into a bakery. He’s trying to get some bread. He gets sentenced to the galleys. He gets hard labor for breaking in, stealing a loaf of bread. As a couple of years go by, he tries to escape. Eventually, he ends up staying in that place for an astonishing 19 years.
I’m going to read something to you. It says, “now at the end of his fourth year, his chance of liberty came to Jean Valjean.” He’s in prison. His comrades helped him as they always do in the dreary place and he escaped. During the evening of the second day, he was retaken. He had neither eaten nor slept for 36 hours. The maritime tribunal extended his sentence three years for the attempt, which made his total eight years. In the sixth year, his turn of escape came again and he tried it but failed again. He did not answer at roll call and an alarm cannon was fired. At night, the people in the vicinity discovered him hidden beneath the keel of a vessel on the docks. He resisted the galley guard, which seized him. The provisions of the special code were punished by an addition of five years, two with the double chain, 13 years, the 10th year, his turn came in. The 13th year came again and he made another attempt with no better success. Three years for this new attempt, 16 years.
Finally, I think it wasn’t the 16th year he made yet another attempt and was retaken after an absence of only four hours, three years for those four hours. A total of 19 years. In October 1815, he was set free. He had entered in 1796 for having broken a pane of glass and taken a loaf of bread; 19 years. Jean Valjean entered the galleys sobbing and shuddering. He went out hardened. He entered in despair. He went out sullen. Look at this from year to year. His soul had dried away slowly, but with fatal sureness. Look at the insight Hugo had. He says, when the heart is dry, the eye is dry. On the departure from the galleys, it had been 19 years since he had shed a tear. The power of fiction, when you get one good fiction, it’s not just a story. It’s reflection, life, observation, and understanding. When it’s woven in properly, it creates an opening for us to appreciate things in different ways, to say things in different ways.
Notice how Hugo was saying this. He’s saying that when you can’t even cry, you’re so hard. When you’re so hard, you can’t even cry. He goes to the galleys for 19 years, not a tear came from this man. He was so hard. He has seen, felt, and experienced so much that he had become hard. It’s a perfect picture. When he comes out of the prison, out of the galleys, out of those 19 years, all started by stealing a piece of bread, 19 years at 25. He goes in and by the time he comes out, he’s seething on the inside. He’s angry. There’s a deep wound inside of him that bathes bitterly. How angry is he at the situation, his treatment, his plight? The book goes into all the things that he experiences. He watches the inhumanity, the feelings of the violence, what it did to him, what it took away from him, the unfairness of it all. It’s all there.
When he gets out, something happens to him. I look at this story and I think, ‘Wow, this is like Jabez.” When he gets out, he’s an ex-con. Nobody wants to touch him. They’re afraid of him. Plus the truth is they should be afraid of him. But there’s this Bishop, a priest, who decides that he wants to embrace him and invites him to stay. It’s very touching. But when he’s there, Valjean starts wrestling with himself. He feels like I still have to take care of myself. What he notices is that the priest has this silverware, probably the most valuable thing the Bishop has is this silverware that he has, forks and knives and settings. Valjean decides that in the night, I’m going to wake up, I’m going to steal it. I’m going to take off. If he gets in my way, I’ll push him down and I’ll do what I have to do, but I’m taking that and I’m going. He does and he flees into the night. He’s caught by some guards who just notice him. When they notice him, he’s moving quickly and he’s suspicious. They look, and he’s got all this silverware. They said, where did you get all this from, it’s expensive. He says it was given to me by the priest. He gave it to me. They didn’t believe him. They took him back. We’ll find out. They bring him in. That’s the scene that gets set.
He walks into the door and he’s looking at the priest and at the Bishop. He knows he stole from this man. All he did was be good to me. I took it, the best that he had. I’m in so much trouble. The guards are sure he’s lying. You stole that. We know you did. They get there and they say, hey, we found this man. He says you gave him this silver. The goodly Bishop looks at him and says you forgot the candlesticks. The priest goes and gets the two silver candlesticks that will be with him to the end of his day. He says here, my friend, you forgot these. It’s a beautiful moment. He tells the guards to go, you can leave. There’s just Valjean hanging there, dumbfounded.
Jean Valjean felt like a man who was just about to faint. The Bishop approached him and said in a low voice, forget not. Never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man. Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise, stood confused. The Bishop had laid much stress upon these words as he uttered them. Then he continues solemnly, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition and I give it to God.” It’s powerful, it’s beautiful.
In that moment, I’m telling you one of the things about this is that you realize at that moment that something breaks inside of Jean Valjean. That’s one of the most beautiful expressions of grace I think has ever been written. It’s as good an example as we’ll ever read. Did you notice how Hugo sets it up? Jesus is betrayed by Judas for 30 pieces of silver. He uses the silver as a means of redeeming Valjean. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition. I look at that and I think, “oh, the Bishop’s act of love and grace, you know what it does? It breaks him. It breaks him towards God. It is the spark that sets his life.” It’s when faith comes alive inside of Valjean, all of a sudden he changes. There’s a real change. He becomes a very different man. He starts thinking of himself differently in the eyes of God. He all of a sudden decides that he is going to be a person who’s going to bless. He prospers. He prays. The same kind of thing that happens to Jabez happens to Valjean. He prays, he asks God for influence. All of a sudden, he has resources and property. At a certain point, he actually becomes a mayor of a city and this is only the front part of the book. There’s a whole other part. It’s pretty amazing as well.
In this front section, Valjean ends up becoming the mayor and he’s a blesser. He blesses people. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I love the one film version of the drama, because there’s such a Christlikeness, a sacrificial beauty of love and grace. When you watch it through that lens, it affects your heart a little bit. Remember when I talked about what we need to resist, let me just suggest this. Instead, when we are going through hard things or unfair things, feel stigmatized or unjustly treated, or we’ve experienced deep loss, whatever it is, one of the things I want to suggest is don’t push God away. Instead, make him our ally. Make him our ally. He is now here. I put that poem that I wrote last week in the handout there just to be able to refer to it. He is now here.
Secondly, instead of becoming bitter, choose in Christ to become better. So again, number two, instead of becoming bitter, become better, find reasons to be grateful. Where am I going to focus? Where’s the focus going to be? Choose to be more optimistic, at least more hopeful, smile. Laugh every now and then. Go back to what Hugo wrote about Valjean. His heart was so dry. His tears were dry. I think Hugo would write this. He would say the statement laughter is sunshine. It chases winter from the human face. Laughter is sunshine. It chases winter from the human face. Something about that. We will always have our reasons to become negative because the hurts of life are manifold. On this side of the garden, part of life is thorn and thistle. Part of life is loss. There is some disappointment. There’s a lot of beauty, a lot of good, but there’s also some tough stuff, hard stuff, and painful stuff.
I was thinking about this because one of the reasons I was thinking about it, I was reading about Billy Graham. Remember, some of you have heard me talk about it. I was thinking about loss and I remembered him talking about Billy Graham, who had just died. I respect this man so much, into his mid-90s, early 90s. He says he didn’t think he was going. He thought he was going to die young, so he never prepared. He said I never prepared myself for the possibility that I would grow old. I just assumed I was going to because of the way I had lived my life, that I was never going to make it to the old days. I wasn’t ready for it when it happened. He says, “I knew how to die, but I didn’t know how to grow old. I started noticing things being lost to me.”
I know some of us are younger in life. We’re in our 20s, 30s, 40s. I put a wide range of what could be young. That’s a period there where we can experience loss. I’m not suggesting we can’t. But we don’t usually think as much about our mortality, about that part of life, about the promise of Jesus and what it means to have eternal life. When we do, we might think about it, but we assume we’re going to live longer, which is why we’re shocked when people die young. A lot of times in that period in life, we’re also very tired people. Especially when you’re young. If you have a young family, it’s nonstop. My wife and I had four children. They’re all adults now. But I remember that period. We were tired all the time. But then we get to this period where you’re in your 50s and 60s, and things change. You start to notice things differently. Again, I’m making a generalization, but it’s true. For those that I’ve talked to, they move into their 70s and 80s, life’s really shifting around. By the time someone gets into their 90s, they have to confront certain realities.
I appreciated Graham when he spoke about loss. He says, talking about loss, “I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but as the years passed, it gradually dawned on me that I was growing older. Middle-age I had to admit, was fading into the distance and I was rapidly approaching what we politely call the mature years. Sometimes my age showed itself in small, even humorous ways. The occasional embarrassment of forgetting a good friend’s name, the reluctant awareness that most of the people I saw on the airplane or passed in the street were looking extremely young to me. The experience of having a server in a restaurant give me a senior discount before asking me if I qualified. But it also revealed itself in larger, more serious ways of a slow decline in energy, illnesses that easily could have ended in disability or even death. The obvious aging and even death of people I had known most of my life. They were all dying.
My wife Ruth’s brave, but difficult struggles as the years pass and she grew increasingly frail. I began relating to stories I heard from others. Most of my middle-aged patients are in denial, a doctor said to one of my associates. They think they will always be able to play strenuous sports or travel anywhere they want or continue working 12 hours a day. They just assume if something goes wrong, I’ll be able to fix it. But one day they’re going to wake up and discover they can’t do everything they once did. Someday they’ll be old. They won’t like it because they aren’t emotionally prepared for it.”
Graham also says, “I couldn’t truthfully say that I have liked growing older, because I haven’t. At times I wish I could still do everything that I once did, but I can’t. I wish I didn’t have to face the infirmities and uncertainties that seem to be part of this stage of life, but I do. Don’t get old I’ve said with tongue in cheek to more than one person in recent years, but of course, that is not an option. Old age is inevitable if we live long enough.” Then he spends a lot of time talking about how to age gracefully and how God can actually use these latter years in our lives in ways that maybe sometimes we’re not anticipating. He says but everything depends on how we approach it. He talks a lot about that. He talks a lot about attitude. He talks about reminding ourselves that if God allows us to have any stage of life, that we have it, he has a purpose in that stage of our life.
Graham talked about the need to keep growing as a person, not to simply say, well, I’m retired now, so I don’t need to grow as a person anymore. He could have implied this, the phrase that I’ve come to recognize; “change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” We get to decide that. We get to decide our attitudes. I look at Jabez and I think, “wow, it’s also true when it comes to relationships.” So when you think about loss and hurt in life, which Graham was reflecting on partly, and he was saying, don’t let that define you. Even growing old, you get to choose.
I was talking about pain and hurt. Some of the most painful things that we will experience in life are relational. Even Jesus talked about how my own familiar friend lifted up his heel against me. The most difficult pain is when someone who should have loved us didn’t love us well. In Jabez’s case, I can imagine him saying, “Mom, why did you call me Jabez? Why did you name me this? Why did you call me sorrow? Why do you call me pain? What did I do? What was wrong with me? Why?” You can feel it. Few things are as painful as someone who should have loved us better. Especially when they don’t honor that love. I look at Jabez and I think he knows relational pain. Now, who knows? Again, I talked about it. Who knows why his mother named him Jabez? Maybe she was in physical pain. More likely his birth was not a blessing to her.
She saw in this boy something she didn’t want. Maybe she was just passing down what had been passed down to her. We call that generational transference. I think a lot of us are aware. I hope we understand this. It’s not an excuse. It’s not, but hurt people hurt people. Hurt people, hurt people. That’s one of the reasons why God wants to heal us of stuff so that we don’t just send that down the line. Jabez, somewhere along the way, out of his hurt, out of his wound, turned towards God.
For one last time, I want us to look at that 10th verse. Look at the bottom side of it. Look what he prays. After he starts out with oh bless me, he says, “I ask Lord that your hand would be with me. I pray for your hand to be with me,” which was an appeal for presence and favor. We might call it grace today. That you would be my advocate, that you would make a way for me. Jabez says I cannot change how I started. But I look to you, God, I ask that your hand would be with me. Oh that your hand would be with me. At the bottom of that, after he asked for blessing, expansion, and the Lord’s hand to be with him, he asked God “that you would keep me from evil and do not allow me to bring pain.” Do you see it? The one whose name is pain, who is named after that sorrow says, Lord, do not let me be a pain bringer.
As you prosper me, as you bless me and I ask you for it, would you, in turn, give me the capacity to honor that? We see it all the time in culture, how power can be abused. We’re seeing it, how it happens all the time. If there’s not a mourning point, prosperity is not always a blessing. It can actually damage people. He’s praying this wonderful prayer. He’s saying, “God, I asked for a blessing that I don’t deserve. I ask you to open up things for me.” He turns towards God, not away. He says, “Lord, make a way for me, let your hand be with me. I ask you, God, that as you do it, let me Lord also honor you in my life.” He asked for purity. That means, let me be a blesser, not a pain bringer. Wow. Don’t let me disappoint you, myself, or the people that I’ve been given to love. Let me not be this. Let me succeed and not bring pain, but bring life and blessing. This is what I want. I ask you for it. Help me.
I thought about another request from a broken and humbled man. Another one is in Psalm 51. It’s where we’ll close. It says, “Create in me a clean heart, oh God,” David said. “Renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence. Do not take your Holy Spirit from me, restore to me the joy of your salvation, uphold me.” Here’s the word that I just clung to. “Uphold me with your generous spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways and sinners shall be converted to you.” In other words, Lord, let your generosity be made known to me and I will let it be known to others in your name. Do you see that? How good is that? That goes all the way back. That’s Jabez’s prayer. That’s his prayer. Lord, be generous to me. But then let me take that spirit of generosity and pour it out.
The name of our series is Spark. You know what God wants us to do, sparkle, right? He wants us to be sparky people for him. If I can use that term, he wants our light to shine. Let your light so shine before people, before men, that they may see your good works in the goodness of your life. Then glorify God, not just go oh, you’re a wonderful person. But say there’s something real about God because of what I see happening in your life. Lord, may I not be a pain bringer but a blesser. Bless me and in that blessing, give me the strength to manage that in a way that is life-giving to others and not destroy my own heart. Get me stuck in places I don’t want to go. I don’t want to bring pain. I want to bring blessings. Sorrow, the man named sorrow says, I don’t want to bring pain. I want to be a blesser.
That’s what God wants to do in all of our lives. He really does. How good is that? Let’s pray together. Lord, I thank you. I thank you because you will meet us where we are if we come to you with honesty in our hearts. I thank you, Lord, you know our wounds, you know our hurts. There’s nothing hidden. You know the unfairness. That part we can’t control, but we can trust you. We can welcome you. We can draw near to you. We can appeal to you. We can bring our prayer to you, Lord. We can call upon your name and ask for your hand to be with.
As you bless us, Lord, also give us the strength to manage that blessing so that our success doesn’t destroy us. It’s what Jabez prayed, Lord. Help me to have purity in my heart, lest I do evil and undermine the very blessing itself. I’m going to use what I am blessed with to bless others. Do not allow me to be a pain bringer. Help me, strengthen me, teach me your ways to strengthen my capacity to have generosity, even as you have been generous to me, Lord. I pray this blessing. Bless this word. Let the song that we close with be an accent point on it. Remind us as we go our ways into the rest of this day and week, that you’re calling us Lord to remind ourselves always how much we’ve been loved and how you want to heal the most broken places and how you can turn them into strengths. Remind us to be blessers, not pain bringers. In Jesus’ name. Amen.