The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life (A Review)
How many of us have ever heard of The Prayer of Jabez? Had we asked this question a year or so ago most people would have answered with an embarrassed shrug of ignorance. Bruce Wilkinson, however, the author of a popular little book of the same title, has set out to rectify that situation and he appears to be succeeding spectacularly.
In evangelical circles and beyond there are more and more people who could now tell you a thing or two about this little-known fellow Jabez and his oft-overlooked prayer. Today Wilkinson’s book is the talk of many, can be found prominently displayed in most Christian bookstores (and many of the mainstream ones too) and it is going like a house on fire. Both Christians and non-Christians are now praying the prayer of Jabez and claiming that God is doing miracles as a result.
Recently I was lent a copy of this book. This made me happy for two reasons. First, because this would give me an opportunity to read the book and see for myself what all the fuss is about. My second reason for happiness came after having read the book. Having done so I am now happy I had never shelled out any money for a copy.
The book is well written. The print is easy to read and sparsely spaced over a mere 93 small pages. It can be read in one sitting. No doubt this accounts for some of its popularity in our non-reading video age. Sadly it says something too about the superficiality of much of the Christianity of our day, when many of us appear content to learn our theology from wall plaques, bumper stickers, and armbands.
So who is this Jabez? Jabez, of course, is that man whose name is tucked away in the middle of first Chronicles. So obscure is Jabez that we may almost be excused for our ignorance. His name appears smack in the middle of those first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles that set before us name after name in genealogy after genealogy. These are the places in Scripture that challenge our ‘read through the Bible’ plans the most. Wilkinson is definitely on to something significant when he notes that the brief revelation that we are given concerning Jabez, his background, his honour, and his prayer in 1 Chronicles 4:9, 10 virtually cries out for our attention. As little as we are told about Jabez, it is far more than we are told about any of the other names in context, and therefore it is evident that by slowing down to give us this extra information about Jabez, the Holy Spirit aims to call our attention to what he has had recorded for our learning. Recognizing this, ministers have preached on this obscure text throughout the years, perhaps particularly on our so-called Days of Prayer. Certainly there is something to be learned about prayer from this passage.
Wilkinson goes wrong, however, when he virtually absolutizes the things that are to be learned from this passage as though it carried in it the secret to everything a person needs to know about prayer. As a result Wilkinson becomes something of a crusader or marketer for this prayer of Jabez. From the opening words of his preface to his concluding chapter, Wilkinson makes the pitch for us to take these words of Jabez and make them our own. Pray this prayer for thirty days and see what happens is the risk free offer we are left with.
The ‘Jabez prayer’ takes on a life of its own as Wilkinson invites us to begin ‘praying Jabez’ (p. 16), and to expect to see results in our lives that could only be called ‘the miracle of Jabez’ (p. 90). Followers of Wilkinson’s teaching who take up his challenge to do great things for God call their missions ‘Operation Jabez’ (p. 35). While it may be acknowledged that in speaking this way Wilkinson merely makes effective use of language in order to make his point memorable, the problem is that in so doing he provides the next neat little gimmick for a weak and anaemic Christianity to latch on to. Prayer is hard, plain and simple, and we still do not quite know how to pray as we ought (Romans 8:26). Wilkinson, however, tempts us to think that with the ‘discovery’ of this prayer, he has found the long lost formula for blessing. As a result many today will jump from one frivolous fad to another as they move from asking: ‘What would Jesus do?’ to asking: ‘What would Jabez do?’
Given the prominence Wilkinson gives to this prayer, one begins to wonder why our Saviour, when he was asked, ‘Lord teach us to pray,’ didn’t simply respond by pointing to 1 Chronicles 4:10? As instructive as this verse of the Bible may be with respect to prayer, it has simply not been given in order that we might have comprehensive instruction about the subject. Missing from Jabez’s prayer (or rather from Wilkinson’s teaching in this little book) is much of an emphasis on the hallowing of God’s name, the doing of God’s will, and you will not find any reference at all to the need for the forgiveness of our sins in Christ. Here is the fundamental problem with Wilkinson’s approach: in wresting the words of this prayer from their covenantal context, we miss Christ and are taught to pray in a way that expresses no fundamental need for Christ. That’s why this book can also be so successful among unbelievers.
To be sure Wilkinson makes a few good points. In applying the words of Jabez, Wilkinson suggests that we need to learn to pray with a passion for more of God’s glory in a way that might sound something like: ‘0 God and King, please expand my opportunities and my impact in such a way that I touch more lives for your glory. Let me do more for you!’ (p. 32). Only the crustiest curmudgeon would deny the need for such praying in our lives. Wilkinson effectively challenges the complacency of a comfortable and mediocre Christianity.
But when he derives this from Jabez’s plea to the Lord in 1 Chron. 4:10 to ‘enlarge my territory’ he misses the fact that in context these words have to do with the covenantal inheritance focused in Christ, and not with building a personal empire. Wilkinson is unashamed and unequivocal when he suggests, for instance, that it is this prayer of Jabez that teaches Christian businessmen to pray for more business. ‘Absolutely!’ he says (p. 31).
In the end the door is opened for an abuse of prayer that is essentially more pagan than Christian. The danger is that God becomes reduced to the keeper of the storehouses of blessing, and prayer gets reduced to the specific magic words that unlock the doors. Believers and unbelievers alike are impressed. The focus is fundamentally man-centered. Arminianism infects the whole of the book: ‘Your loyal heart is the only part of God’s expansion plan that he will not provide,’ says Wilkinson (p. 60).
Wilkinson ends his book by holding before us the apparent success and spread of his teaching as evidence of this blessing of God. We are more inclined, however, to interpret this success as an indication of the weakness of today’s Christianity and of the self-centeredness of our culture. Not recommended.
Originally printed in Christian Renewal, July 2001, Vol. 19 No. 19. Reproduced with permission.
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