Perhaps a better New Testament partner for the prayer of Jabez is not a prayer at all, but the parable of the Good Samaritan.
There are perhaps a few, a very few, Christian readers left who have yet to experience the hype surrounding Bruce Wilkinson’s best-selling book The Prayer of Jabez,which first appeared in April of 2001. An enormous amount of attention, both in print and on the Web, has been bestowed upon this brief devotional reflection—so much so that it is questionable whether yet another commentary serves any useful purpose.
Yet, with the advent of a whole library of related works (The Prayer of Jabez for Teens, … for Kids, … for Women, etc. ), an unprecedented two consecutive Christian Book of the Year Awards from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, and total sales exceeding 9 million (and counting), it seems the conversation may well have only just begun.
Wilkinson’s sermonic call to seek extravagant blessings from God has enjoyed considerable praise from within the evangelical community. But it has also occasioned a fair amount of suspicion, including occasional condemnations and at least one book-length rebuttal (Lary Pechawer’s The Lost Prayer of Jabez ).
While the suspicion is not without justification, it would be wrong to suggest impure motives on the part of the author. Wilkinson’s Walk through the Bible ministry has, since its inception in 1976, generated basic Bible literacy for more than a million participants. Most recently, the author has announced his impending move to South Africa, where after a series of meetings with African government and church officials, he has sensed a call to help fight the AIDS epidemic, promote intertribal reconciliation and address widespread famine—hardly the projects one would associate with someone interested exclusively in book sales.
Wilkinson’s book is a four-part devotional exposition of the prayer of Jabez, emphasizing the powerful opportunity it extends to every believer. Christians should (1) boldly seek blessings from God, (2) request that God expand their “territory,” (3) depend on God for the results, and (4) flee temptation. Wilkinson encourages readers to pray the prayer daily just as he has done since his senior year at Dallas Theological Seminary. It is, says Wilkinson, “the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God.”
The criticisms that have been levied against the book are substantial. Four of the most common are summarized here.
(1) Many critics complain that Wilkinson has stripped the prayer from its original context and introduced a foreign interpretation. Indeed, many Old Testament commentators find in the text something less than an exemplary Christian prayer. They point out that in the original setting the prayer was likely a plea for military victory and occupation of enemy lands (“enlarge my borders”). To be fair to Wilkinson, it must be added that this is hardly a fatal critique. In fact, it is common practice for faithful readers to find levels of meaning that are consistent with a text, but of which the author may or may not have had any inkling.
(2) The book’s own internal hype, that is, its tendency to use exaggerated and even misleading language to set forth its claims, is troubling to many. Is the Jabez prayer really “the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God,” or is that not rather a claim which only the Gospel can make? Wilkinson promises that “through a simple, believing prayer, you can change your future.” When we pray this way, “we will also see tremendous results that can be explained only as from the hand of God.” Can these things be said without qualification?
Wilkinson fails to caution his readers that sometimes the answer to our prayer is, “No”. Nor does he prepare his readers for the seasons of unanswered prayer which beset even the most ardent prayer warriors. (Consider the Apostle Paul’s plea for removal of his “thorn in the flesh” in 1 Corinthians 12:7ff.) God sometimes speaks to our prayers with the admonition that his “grace is sufficient.”
(3) Equally, if not more disturbing, are the ways in which the prayer plays on some of the most ethically problematic sensibilities of Western culture—notably, its individualism and consumerism. (This is largely the point of James Evans’ thoughtful critique in an earlier EthicsDaily.com column.) Wilkinson says explicitly that the ultimate purpose of “expanded boundaries” is to increase the effectiveness of Christian ministry. Unfortunately, this message is easily overshadowed by an effective pandering to the desire to acquire. God’s blessings are consistently and frequently depicted in terms of “wealth” and described as “rich” and “unlimited.” At one point Wilkinson even opines that “if Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, ‘Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios.'”
Likewise, there is a consistent individualism that permeates the work. Wilkinson speaks explicitly to the individual believer who desires “to be extravagantly blessed by God.” The corporate reality of the church disappears to make room for individuals seeking to rise above the crowd and find their place on “God’s honor roll.” The opportunity is lost to highlight the service of the congregation as the context in which God’s blessings typically manifest themselves.
(4) Finally, many of those who find fault with the work point to a telling absence of the cross. That a short book makes no literal or specific reference to the cross is, of course, not particularly problematic. But one would expect in even a brief exposition of the Christian life, particularly one concerned with the call to “bear witness,” some recognition of the costliness of this call. Instead one encounters an optimism that borders on superficiality. Instead of the faithfulness which often encounters tribulation, we are pointed to success as the certain outcome of our bold prayers.
Clearly the ethical and theological flaws of Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez extend beyond the realm of mere scholarly dialogue. They are serious. And pastors and church leaders would do well to offer words of caution and guidance to their many parishioners who are reading the text.
Yet, remarkably, in spite of the corrosive effects of the book’s inherent consumerism, individualism and triumphalism, I am persuaded that something of value remains. While Wilkinson provides ample distraction to mislead his readers, clearly the intended trail of the book is one that leads toward Christian service. In his words, the “expanded boundaries” function to increase our ministries, that we might “touch more lives for [God’s] glory.”
Many of the book’s critics make their case via a point by point theological comparison of Jabez’s prayer with the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament. Not surprisingly, Jesus wins every time. But perhaps this is not the best comparison. Perhaps a better New Testament partner for the prayer of Jabez is not a prayer at all, but the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Imagine the Samaritan on his donkey quietly praying the prayer of Jabez and at the next bend in the road coming upon the injured Jew. Suddenly the Samaritan and the Jew both discover what it means when God expands our boundaries! And they discover that having our boundaries expanded may well challenge our comfort zones, as well. Likewise, they experience something of how God’s “blessings” tend to work. As wounds are bandaged and coins are pulled from the purse to provide for the Jew’s lodging, both experience a glimpse of the “wealth” and “richness” of God.
This, of course, is not the main road that most find in Wilkinson’s book. It is perhaps an “alternate route,” one way of making ethical sense of an otherwise distorted picture. And it is a way of reading the book more in accord with the spirit of the New Testament. So let’s pray the prayer of Jabez, and pray it with the expectation that God will expand our boundaries of service in the name of Christ, even beyond our wildest dreams.
Ben Leslie is academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Ben Leslie is Provost and Executive Vice President for Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He served as academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, from 1990-2006.