A review of The Prayer of Jabez. By Bruce Wilkinson.

Multnomah, 2000.

There may be as many non-believers who have heard of this book as believers, thanks to its phenomenal sales. In May this year a Time magazine article reported that the book sold 3.5 million copies in its first 6 months, and made it to the top of the New York Times best seller list. At the moment it is the number 2 seller at Amazon.com.

The book is based on an obscure passage contained in 1 Chronicles: “Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, ‘Because I bore him in pain.’ And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, ‘Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!’ So God granted him what he requested” (1 Chron. 4:9, 10 – NKJV).

Wilkinson says God is just aching to bless us, and what prevents us from receiving his blessings is that we do not ask. He encourages us to pray this prayer on a daily basis, and watch God do amazing things. Much of the book gives examples from his life, and that of others, in the ways in which God has heard – and answered – these prayers.
Another key idea of the book is the idea of a “Jabez appointment”. When we ask God to enlarge our territory, to be blessed in order to be a blessing, God will open miraculous doors of opportunity. He will create divine opportunities. If we regularly pray this prayer, we will be amazed at the opened doors for witnessing opportunities and times of ministry.

A similar theme was made in another recent best-seller. Blackaby and King’s Experiencing God (1994) also spoke of divine appointments, but offered a somewhat larger biblical context for such miracles. They noted that such opportunities were not automatic, and that barriers to such chances to minister could exist. For example, they have a whole chapter on the importance, and costs, of obedience. They recognise that God’s blessings are not automatic, but are in many ways conditional.

Indeed, many Christians understand, as do Blackaby and King, that when we allow God to transform us and make us more like him, this will result in greater ministry for him. One way this has been expressed is to say that when we take care of the depth of our character (with God’s help of course), God will take care of the breadth of our ministry. That is, our ministry depends on our character, and when our character is deficient, we cannot expect God to greatly use us in ministry.

Indeed, this line of thought often goes further, and says that God is more concerned about our relationship with him than what we can do for him. If we concentrate on our walk with God, first and foremost, out of that relationship will flow ministry opportunities.

But Wilkinson seems to reverse the order, or at least minimise (or ignore) the preconditions. He says that we should make it our priority to seek an ever expanding ministry. This is a noble and spiritual goal which all believers should aspire to. But Wilkinson mentions very little of possible preconditions of such effective ministry. Only at the end of the book, on p. 85, does he say sin can break the flow of God’s power. Otherwise he just says God wants to do great things through us, and God is just waiting for us to ask him to do that. Life-changing ministry is simply a matter of asking and receiving.

Although he doesn’t really discuss character development and our spiritual condition, one would imagine that he is not arguing that any Christian in any kind of spiritual shape can have effective ministry. But because he just does not really discuss this, there is the possibility that one can be misled into thinking that if one just prays the Jabez prayer each day, miraculous ministry will automatically ensue.

There is much of value in this book. Indeed, it offers great encouragement and inspiration. It urges us to desire to see God move in mighty ways. This is good medicine. It is good to be spiritually dissatisfied, to always want more of God. It is good not to settle for second best. It is good to want more of God and his power in our lives. It is good to wrestle with God until he blesses us, as Jacob did. The message of this book was nicely encapsulated by the well-known saying of William Carey: “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God”.

Thus as a source of inspiration and exhortation, this book offers much. Many people have been, and will be, blessed by reading it, because of its faith-building, vision-enlarging message.

However, there are aspects of the book that are potentially problematic. I have already mentioned one shortcoming. Another possible problem is that the message of the book tends to reduce our relationship with God to a simple matter of repeating a prayer, of claiming our rights. God can appear to be just a celestial Jeeves, ever ready to do our bidding, even if what we are bidding is a good thing.

There is the possibility that prayer can be reduced to a mechanical formula. Indeed, it can seem that prayer is like a mantra, which if repeated enough will bring guaranteed results. At one point Wilkinson does address this issue, at least fleetingly. He says we must believe and act on the promises if we want to see results (p. 87). But the general tenor of the book is that the simple recitation of the prayer will pretty much guarantee the release of God’s blessing.

He states this idea often, and in different ways. He says there is only one “catch” to receiving God’s blessing: we must ask. And he uses the illustration of parent and child to undergird this point. He says that just as any parent likes to give in response to a child’s request, so God delights in responding to our requests. True enough. But any good parent will also give even when the child doesn’t ask. God gives freely to us all the time. Yes, he likes it when we ask for his gifts, his blessings, his best. But his hands are not tied if we do not ask. He is able to act, to bless, to respond, even when we don’t ask.

Also of some concern is the fact that there is not a great deal of Scripture found in the book, nor very much real theology. Admittedly, it is not meant to be a theological treatise. But Wilkinson tends to verify his teaching by sharing his experiences and those of others. We need to tread carefully here: experience should not determine our theology. This is not to deny that experience should be relevant to and flow from our theology. It is not a question of having either good theology or good experiences. We need both. But our experiences always should be informed by sound theology, which in turn should be based on God’s word.

And one’s theology will influence how one appraises this book. The more Reformed one is theologically, the more one may experience disquiet over aspects of it. Christians from this tradition may get the impression from Wilkinson that God’s hands are almost tied, that God is unable to act, or at least to bless, unless we ask, or unless we pray. God will appear to be unduly limited by the choices of his creatures.

On the other hand, those of a more Arminian persuasion may feel more comfortable with the book. They will recall the words of John Wesley, “God does nothing but in response to prayer.” They will agree that the Christian life is largely of our own making, of our own choices, aided of course by God’s spirit.

And both elements can be found in Scripture. It is just that this book tends to lean in the direction of one much more than the other. Thus this book needs to be read in conjunction with other recent Christian classics – perhaps Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Tozer’s The Pursuit of God, or Packer’s Knowing God, which offer fuller, more balanced discussions of these issues.

Several other quick thoughts. One cannot imagine a book devoted to Christian servanthood, cross bearing and self denial selling as well as this book. Maybe it is selling so well because it offers contemporary believers what they want to hear. It makes no demands, offers few warnings, and makes things pretty easy for believers – rather unlike what we find in the gospels. There we read about people who often turned away from Jesus because of his hard sayings, his strenuous demands, and his self-denying requirements.

Also, it is not surprising that this book originated in America, the most affluent, most success-orientated, and most “can-do” country on earth. The message of this book nicely reflects the spirit of modern Western culture. Not that there is no truth, insight or genuine Christian wisdom to be found in the volume. But it does seem to feature what we may want to hear, perhaps instead of what we may need to hear.

In sum, for many, this book will be a real faith builder, a real encouragement, a  real spiritual refresher. But there is also the danger that for some, this book will present a false picture of the Christian life. It may lead some to believe that the spiritual life is as easy as reciting a formula, repeating a prayer or claiming a promise.

But the Christian life, at bottom, is often not so simple. It usually is made up of struggle, ambiguity and difficulty. Jesus said his disciples would have to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him. And to follow him means to minister like him. And he ministered as a servant, as one who gave his life for others. No triumphalism here, no easy believeism, no magic formulas.

This book will indeed be a blessing as long as we consistently keep the life and example of our Lord in view. His close relationship with his father resulted in ridicule, rejection, and ultimately death. Can we expect any other path?

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