A Critique of “The Prayer of Jabez”.
Not too long ago, Bruce Wilkinson, a Bible-teacher with “Walk thru the Bible” Ministries, released a book about a little-known Bible character and his pithy prayer. The character’s name is Jabez, and his petition is found in 1 Chronicles 4:10:
And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, Oh that thou wouldest bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that thine hand might be with me, and that thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me! And God granted him that which he requested.
The success of The Prayer of Jabez is nothing short of phenomenal. Over 7 million copies have been sold so far, and the book is still at the top of the seller’s lists. Not only this, but, in line with the ways of the modern marketeers, we now have Prayer of Jabez for Teens, Prayer of Jabez for Kids, Prayer of Jabez Devotional, Prayer of Jabez Study Guide, Prayer of Jabez Journal, (surely it is only a matter of time before we are treated to The Prayer of Jabez for Women!) etc., etc…The Prayer of Jabez has taken off. Even many non-Christians are purchasing copies of it.
Such a stir cannot be ignored. What is it all about? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
To answer these questions we shall have to examine the book’s content. But before we do that, it is needful, I think, for us to get some understanding of the culture of modern America, a culture into which Wilkinson’s book comfortably fits. My reason for doing this will become clear as we proceed.
I. Backdrop: The Culture of Self.
The Prayer of Jabez is definitely a book for the times. It mixes grand promises of personal fulfillment with guaranteed success. Offering, as it does, a surefire way to “…release the miraculous power of God in your life…”, as the publicity pitch for Christianbook.com puts it; this book has found the pulse of modern America.
The mindset or worldview of Americans on the threshold of the 21st Century has been carefully documented in numerous books and articles. Take the following representative samples:
“[This generation is one] of diverse seekers…who value experience over beliefs,…stress personal fulfillment yet yearn for community, and are fluid in their allegiances.” – Wade Clark Roof cited in Marva Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, 33.
“Individualism, the first language in which Americans tend to think about their lives, values independence and self-reliance above all else.” – Robert Bellah, et al, Habits of the Heart, viii.
I have highlighted the words in these two quotations in order to show that there is a general recognition that we live in a culture that values personal autonomy and satisfaction, in a word, Self. It is not without reason that it has been dubbed “The Culture of Narcissicism.” Self-fulfillment is the key value of today, and its favorite ’buzzword’ is “Power”.
What is true for non-Christians is just as true for Christians. There is a slight difference in the way the two groups use the word “Power”: the secular world is mainly concerned with power as influence, whereas, the Evangelical Christians translate the word as “spiritual prowess”. But the call is clear from both groups, it is, simply, “What’s in it for me?’
I think many Christians suspect that “all’s not well” within Evangelicalism. They feel ill at ease sometimes when they hear of things like Church Marketing, Entertainment programs, and pragmatic approaches to keeping people ‘interested ’ in God.
Speaking of the inroads of pragmatism in the churches, Os Guinness has observed:
“The overall result of such different trends as prosperity piety, positive thinking, engineered revivalism, and the Church-growth movement has been to stamp pragmatism indelibly onto the Evangelical soul. The concern “Will it work?” has long overshadowed “Is it true?”. Theology has given way to technique. Know-whom has faded before know-how. Serving God has subtly been deformed into servicing self.” – Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, 59.
Prof. David Wells has commented:
“In the marketplace, everything is for us, for our pleasure, for our satisfaction, and we have come to assume that it must be so in the church as well.” – God In The Wasteland, 114.
Let me drive this point home with one more statement along these lines. This is from the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow:
“At one time theologians argued that the chief purpose of humankind was to glorify God. Now it would seem that the logic has been reversed: the chief purpose of God is to glorify humankind. Spirituality is no longer true or good because it meets absolute standards of truth and goodness, but because it helps me get along. I am the judge of it’s worth. If it helps me find a vacant parking space, I know my spirituality is on the right track. If it leads me into the wilderness, calling me to face dangers… then it is a form of spirituality I am unlikely to choose.” – R. Wuthnow cited in Donald McCullough, The Trivialization of God, 41.
This reminds one of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Mark 4!
In fairness Wilkinson acknowledges this trend on page 70 of his book. But in truth he is only paying lip-service to the problem. The burden of the work fits into the Culture of Self like a hand in a glove.
II. The Wilkinson Way.
The Prayer of Jabez is a book precision-made for the Culture of Self. Not that I think Mr. Wilkinson has consciously crafted the book for such a purpose; however, I do think he has subconsciously written it to fit snugly into today’s culture.
Evangelical leaders of today have become slick, professionally coached, and choreographed motivational speakers. Many deliberately employ psychological terminology to sway their audiences, and their books are an extension of their speaking ministries. Such is The Prayer of Jabez.
Let’s take a sampling of its message:
A) Wilkinson’s Buzzwords: “Miracle” & “Power.”
“This petition has radically changed what I expect from God and what I experience every day by His power. In fact, thousands of believers who are applying its truths are seeing miracles happen on a regular basis.” -Preface.
“I want to show you just how dramatically each of Jabez’s requests can release something miraculous in your life.” –p. 15 (N.B. Implicit reference to power.)
“By the time he was an adult, Jabez believed and fervently hoped in this God of miracles and new beginnings. So why not ask for one?” –p. 22.
“Let me tell you a guaranteed by-product of sincerely seeking His blessing. Your life will become marked by miracles…God’s power to accomplish great things finds no obstruction in you.”–p. 25.
“To pray for larger borders is to ask for a miracle–it’s that simple.” –p. 43
See also pp. 44, 68, 82.
Empowerment is explicitly stated on pp. 12,53, 61, 67, and 85. Two of these examples ought to suffice:
“I couldn’t recommend more highly living in this supernatural dimension!
God’s power under us, in us, surging through us is exactly what turns dependence into unforgettable experiences of completeness.” – p. 53.
“You and I are only one plea away from inexplicable, Spirit-enabled exploits. By His touch you can experience supernatural enthusiasm, boldness, and power. It’s up to you.
Ask every day for the Father’s touch. Because for the Christian, dependence is just another word for power.” – pp. 60-61.
Perhaps you have picked up on two more motivational words, “supernatural”, and “experience”.
B) Wilkinson’s Theology.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this book is its poor theology. For a graduate of DTS to have written this book is most surprising. Either DTS has moved far from its founding principles, or Wilkinson has forsaken his Seminary training (We think it is a bit of both).
Let us examine a few of the book’s theological problems:
i. Veiled Gnosticism: Why has the Church had to wait so long to be shown this “wonder-drug” text? Why did Jesus and the Apostles tell us nothing about it? Why has no great Christian leader like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, John Owen, Wesley, or C.H. Spurgeon not call our attention to it? Could it be that the repetition of this secret prayer by the ‘enlightened’ saints of the 21st Century, is, in reality, another example of a worldly “quick-fix” mentality in the Church? In his Preface Wilkinson says that this is a prayer “God always answers.“ He claims “it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God.“ Why then has the Christian Church had to wait until Wilkinson’s book to find this out? As a number of reviewers have pointed out, there is more than a hint of secret knowledge (Gnosticism) in his claims.
ii. Spiritualizing of the text (pp. 22-23, 31): The author has Jabez crying out “Father, oh, Father! Please bless me! And what I really mean is…bless me a lot!” But the fact is that no OT saint would call God his Father. You will not find that until Jesus’ revolutionary words in the Gospels. Wilkinson has made the fundamental interpretative blunder of reading the NT back into the OT. This ignores the context of the original passage. This is a rudimentary error! One cannot interpret a text aright unless one adheres to the context. Further, the whole tenor of the book, subtitled “Breaking Through to the Blessed Life” (i.e. reaping spiritual benefits), does not line up with Jabez’s request in 1 Chronicles 4. There the petition to “increase my borders” is literal not spiritual. So once again the book spiritualizes the text.
iii. Success Mentality (pp. 27, 29, 57, 60-61, 83): In Jabez God is watching and waiting. He is not the prime Mover, we are. He is just waiting for us to ask Him to perform wonders in our lives. This sort of thing is standard practice in charismatic publications. Now it has come into mainline Evangelicalism. For example, where do we find anyone in the Bible praying for things like “thirty decisions for salvation” (p. 58) by the end of the day?, or for God to make a plane late so “I can catch it.” (p. 79)? Do we not rather find things like Paul forbidden to preach in certain quarters (Acts 16:6-7), warned not to travel to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4,10-12), and frustrated in his wishes to minister to various peoples (Rom. 1: 11-13; 15:22; 1 Thess. 2:18)? And what are we to make of the lack of “success” reported in places like Mk. 6:5; Acts 17: 32-34; 18:5-6; 28: 23-28? If we were to include OT examples then what are we to make of the ministry of Jeremiah? Perhaps he did not know about the prayer of Jabez?
How totally different are these words of one of the great English Baptist preachers of yesterday:
“Many a servant of Christ has spent the greater part of his life with but little apparent success. His charge, it may be, was small at the beginning, and he has not been able to enlarge it. But if,…he be faithful to his trust, and preserve a single eye to the glories of God, his labours will not be lost.” – Andrew Fuller, Works, I. 182.
Whatever happened to “Thy will be done” (Matt. 6: 9)? And what about the scriptures that warn us about our motives (Jam. 4: 3-4; Psa. 66:18)? According to Wilkinson God “always answers” this prayer (Preface). If so, it must be a greater prayer that that of Jesus in the Garden, or Paul’s thrice repeated request in 2 Cor. 12: 7-9, or David‘s pleas to the Lord recorded in 2 Sam. 12: 15ff. and 24: 10.
Wilkinson’s book plays to the tune of modern Westerners. To cite one critic of the book, “It shows that American Evangelicals too quickly assume that they, like Wilkinson’s Jabez, were born for something extraordinary. They no longer believe that “godliness with contentment is great gain“. “
Bruce Wilkinson promises exponential blessings from praying this prayer (p. 83f.). One can find Buddhist mantras which promise the same thing. One wonders how so many godly men and women could have got it all so wrong (Heb. 11: 35-38; Phil. 1: 29).
iv. Promoting Self-Fulfillment (pp. 18-19, 29, 49, 79, 91): We have already touched upon this. He urges his readers to ask God everyday to bless them – and bless them a lot. “What counts”’ he assures us, “is knowing who you want to be and asking for it.” (p.29). In another place he says:
“You sense in the deepest recesses of your being the rightness of praying like this. You know…that you were redeemed for this: to ask Him for the God-sized best He has in mind for you…”(p.91).
This seems at odds with the Bible’s answer to why we were redeemed:
“Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” – Titus 2:17. See also 1 Pet. 2: 9.
Wilkinson’s words pander to our sinful tendency to want to be in the driver’s seat. God becomes our Facilitator, there to ensure we live satisfied lives.
v. Wilkinson’s god doesn’t cross us (p. 17): One will look fruitlessly to find any teaching on consecration in The Prayer of Jabez. Cross-bearing and self-denial are conspicuous by their absence (Lk. 9: 23). This again is in-line with modern Christianity’s de-emphasizing the duty of personal consecration, even though it is one of the major teachings of the NT (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4: 11-15; Phil. 3: 10-15; Col. 1: 10; 3:1-10; 1 Thess. 4: 1-7; 5: 23; Heb. 12:14; 2 Pet. 1:3-10 etc.).
vi. Implicit Hierarchy of the Blessed (pp. 74-75): “With the fourth plea of Jabez…we are now ready to move up to a higher level of honor and exponentially expanding blessings.”
vii. Neglect of Reason (p. 48): Scripture exhorts the saint to reason things out. Not, it is true, without the authority of the inspired Word! But Christianity is conspicuously a religion of the mind as much as the heart (Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 14:20; Phil. 4:8; 2 Tim. 1:7). So it is distressing to read the author recommending that we put aside our reasoning faculties on page 48. This lack of a Christian mind has been evident in Evangelicalism for many years. As long ago as the 1960’s Harry Blamires could famously write:
“…the Christian mind has succumbed to the secular drift with a degree of weakness and nervelessness unmatched in Christian history…We have too readily equated getting into the world with getting out of our theology. The result has been that we have stopped thinking Christianly.” – The Christian Mind, 3, 38.
This neglect of reason is also evidenced by the fact that, instead of backing up his points with Scripture, the author uses personal anecdotes. This is once more a sign of the times:
“Despite some blessed exceptions, not enough sermons carefully develop arguments and explanations based on a sustained scrutiny of the biblical materials. Instead, a biblical text is …illustrated with anecdotes and humorous asides – sometimes only faintly related to matters at hand. The congregation may be left with a vague warm feeling but receives little instruction. This doesn‘t mean that some truth isn‘t spoken, but truth is seldom presented in a rationally compelling manner or in it‘s divine depth…” – Douglas Groothuis, Christianity That Counts, 31.
Wilkinson’s book is symptomatic of this declension.
viii. Misleading Portrayal of Sin (pp. 67-68, 85): In the few places it is mentioned, sin is portrayed more as an inconvenience than an inward corruption of our whole nature. Sin “…breaks the flow of God’s power.” (p.85). This is a dangerous way to speak about sin.
ix. False Statements about Scripture (p. 77): At this place he makes the statement that the ‘Heroes of Faith’ in Hebrews 11 were “..mostly ordinary, easy-to-overlook people…”. We “…find very few supersaints listed…” in Hebrews 11 according to Wilkinson. In that chapter we find the names of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, etc. These people are chosen out by the Holy Spirit because they were extraordinary saints! And Mr. Wilkinson is a Bible-teacher!
x. Prayer or Mantra? (pp. 11, 86): One is told to repeat the Jabez prayer every day (at first for 30 days – a sort of trial-run). This advice runs contrary to the clear statement of Scripture that we are not to use vain repetitions (Matt. 6:7). It is not a little disturbing to see how many books of prayers have come onto the market from people who belong to Church traditions that once denounced the praying of set-prayers. Wilkinson has given this unfortunate trend a push in the wrong direction.
Berit Kjos’s words should be heeded at this juncture:
“Since the prayer of Jabez precedes the NT call to absolute commitment, it is acceptable to the world. It sounds good whether people serve God or self. Since it doesn’t point to Christ or thr cross, it carries no offense. It offers the same blessings to those who pursue a self-made image of God as to those who walk with Jesus.“
III. The Real Prayer of Jabez.
We do not have time for a full exposition of the real prayer of Jabez, so a few pointers will have to do.
· Jabez lived at a time when material blessing was a sign of God’s blessing . This is not the case in the NT (1 Tim. 6:5-8).
· Though Wilkinson makes much of it, Richard Hess, Prof. of OT at Denver Seminary says that Jabez’ name (which is a play on the Hebrew word for “pain“ or “sorrow“) would not have been burden to him.
· Notice that Jabez called upon the God of Israel, indicating his faith. This is vital if we are to understand the rest of his petition.
· Certainly he wanted God to enlarge his border (cf. 2:55?), but he also wanted God’s hand to be with him, indicating his willingness to walk closely with God.
· The fact that God granted him his request shows that his prayer was selfless and that Jabez was a man who feared the Lord (Psa. 112:1; James 4:6).
This analysis of the best-selling book, The Prayer of Jabez has, of necessity, been a very negative one. But I am not alone in my misgivings about the book. I believe it signals entrance into a dangerous new apostasy within Evangelicalism. We should not be surprised to hear of Bruce Wilkinson’s defection from mainline biblical Christianity in the coming years. Of course, this is only a personal surmise, but the fact remains that his book and its popularity do not augur well for the future of those Christians and churches who will follow his lead.