THE PRAYER OF JABEZ
by Bruce Wilkinson
(Multnomah, 2000, 283pp, $29.95. Available from AD Books)
While many non-Protestants may not have heard of The Prayer of Jabez, it happens to be one of the best-selling Christian books to hit the market. In a few short months millions of copies of this book have been sold around the world. It has been on the New York Times best-seller list for some time now, and has been a huge success at internet booksellers such as Amazon.com. In fact, there are over 350 customer reviews of the book found on the Amazon site.
The book is based on an obscure passage contained in 1 Chronicles: "Now Jabez was more honourable 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).
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.
It seems that 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 Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, Aiden Tozer's The Pursuit of God, or J.I. Packer's Knowing God, which offer fuller, more balanced discussions of these issues.
One key idea of the book is the concept 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. H.T. Blackaby and Claude King's Experiencing God (1994) also spoke of divine appointments, but offered a somewhat larger Biblical context for such miracles. 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.
But Wilkinson seems to reverse the order, or at least minimise (or ignore) the preconditions. Because he does not focus on the issue of character, it is possible one can be misled into thinking that by simply praying the Jabez prayer each day, miraculous ministry will automatically ensue.
In sum, for many, this book will be a potent faith builder, encouragement and spiritual refresher. On the other hand, the danger for some is a false picture of the Christian life, leading them to believe that the spiritual life can be as easy as reciting a formula.
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 beliefs, no magic formulas.
The Prayer of Jabez could prove 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?
Bill Muehlenberg, a Baptist, is National Secretary of the Australian Family Association and teaches theology at several Protestant Bible colleges in Melbourne.