A little book about a short prayer is sweeping the nation.
Christian booksellers across the country are reporting record sales of Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez.
Jabez, an otherwise unknown biblical character, is only mentioned in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 along with a brief prayer attributed to him. The prayer, according to Wilkinson, “contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God.” It is a prayer, Wilkinson asserts, “God always answers.”
These are bold claims to make for a prayer that, up until now, has been virtually unknown.
Of course it’s hard to argue with success. If we care to use book sales as a measure of truth, then the prayer of Jabez is one of the greatest prayers ever prayed.
But soaring book sales do not establish truth-value. The popularity of this book reveals more about the people buying the book than it does about the meaning of the prayer.
The Prayer of Jabez is the latest in a series of novelty items popular religion uses to distract itself from weightier matters of faith and practice.
But more than novelty drives the uncanny interest in this tiny book (about 90 pages). There is a darker and more troubling dimension to its success. The warm reception of The Prayer of Jabez among Christians and non-Christians alike offers a vivid example of our culture’s propensity to make a cult of the self and substitute spiritual experience for an obsessive acquisition of things.
“O that you would bless me indeed,” the prayer begins. Me and me alone, is the subject of the prayer. Give me something that will make my life better.
“Enlarge my territory,” is the second line. Give me more of what I already have. Give me some of what I don’t have. The greedy depths of our society are laid bare in our desire to have more and more.
“Let Your hand be with me that I would be safe from evil and its pain.” In other words, build a shield around me. Protect me. Shelter me from the world and its troubles.
The Bible says God answered Jabez’s prayer. Good for Jabez. But just because Jabez got what he asked for does not make his prayer a model prayer. We don’t know anything about him other than he was more honorable than his brothers were. That snippet of information does not qualify Jabez as a prayer guru for the rest of us. In Christian circles that job has been reserved for Jesus.
In fact, it is instructive to place the prayer of Jabez alongside the prayer of Jesus. So at odds is the prayer of Jabez with the prayer of Jesus, it is tempting to label the prayer of Jabez “the anti-prayer.”
Instead of “bless me,” the prayer of Jesus begins “Our Father.” The prayer of Jesus is not about me and mine. Jesus’ prayer is about the possibility of “us.” The “our Father” is an invitation to recognize we are part of a community of human beings constituted and cared for by a loving God.
Instead of “enlarge my territory,” the prayer of Jesus asks for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
The prayer of Jesus does not promise riches to the petitioner. Instead we are taught to pray for our bread daily. Stockpiling bread might make us feel safe, but it often impoverishes our neighbors.
Interestingly, both prayers end with concern about evil, but the appeals could not be more different. The prayer of Jabez wants God to place a protecting hand around him. Protect me and mine.
The prayer of Jesus is concerned that we not surrender to the temptation to be unforgiving and uncaring. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are indebted to us.”
Wilkinson suggests that we pray the prayer of Jabez every day. Blessings will be ours, he says. I seem to remember something about rain on the just and the unjust.
If we are looking for a prayer to pray everyday–a prayer that may really make a difference in our lives and in our world–I recommend the prayer of Jesus over the prayer of Jabez.
The prayer of Jabez feeds into our craving for private gain, safety and security. It promises God’s blessings simply for the asking with no further responsibility to God or anyone else.
The prayer of Jesus challenges us to engage one another as members of the same family. Jesus prays that we learn to live together sharing resources and dealing with each other mercifully.
The prayer of Jabez begins with me and ends with me. The prayer of Jesus begins with “our” and ends with “forgiveness.”
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.