"The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life" by Bruce H. Wilkinson

Mark R. Talbot
Thursday, June 7th 2007
Nov/Dec 2001

This little book, its website reports, has been a runaway best-seller, appearing on both the New York Times and the USA Today top ten lists and winning Nonfiction Book of the Year, Retailers Choice Awards. Over six million copies are in print.

Time magazine has chronicled its extraordinary success. The New York Times ran a front-page article on it. James Dobson devoted two radio programs to it. Tommy Nelson, Thomas Nelson's children's division, published a collection of books based on it for children aged 2 to 12. And Howard Hendricks, Distinguished Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, declares: "If you long to live your life the way it is meant to be lived in Christ, The Prayer of Jabez is a must read. A small book, a life-changing message! Highly recommended!"

A book this popular is emblematic of some mindset. So what is it about? And what does that tell us about American Evangelicalism?

What Is The Prayer of Jabez About?

Wilkinson's book opens like this: "The little book you're holding is about what happens when ordinary Christians decide to reach for an extraordinary life-which, as it turns out, is exactly the kind God promises." He proceeds to tell us how he discovered the Jabez prayer. He has prayed it word-for-word every day for the past thirty years. He says his own experience and that "of hundreds of others around the world" has shown that God has "unclaimed blessings" waiting for each of us, if only we will pray this prayer.

Jabez's prayer is found about midway through the lengthy genealogies that open 1 Chronicles. Some-times the Chronicler comments about someone he has named. With Jabez, he says:

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 calls this a "daring prayer that God always answers" and declares that "it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God."

He proceeds to analyze Jabez's four requests. With the first request-"Oh, that you would bless me indeed!"-Wilkinson pictures Jabez "standing before a massive gate recessed into a sky-high wall." Naming a child "Jabez"-the Hebrew word for "pain"-meant predicting for him a life of pain. Thus, "[w]eighed down by the sorrow of his past and the dreariness of his present, [Jabez] sees before him only impossibility-a future shut off. But raising his hands to heaven, he cries out, 'Father, oh, Father! Please bless me! And what I really mean is … bless me a lot!'"

"With the last word," Wilkinson imagines, "the transformation begins. He hears a tremendous crack. Then a groan. Then a rumble as the huge gate swings away from him in a wide arc. There, stretching to the horizon, are fields of blessings." And, Wilkinson concludes, "Jabez steps forward into another life."

This life is a life of "supernatural favor," for that is what receiving God's blessing means. Wilkinson is careful to say that Jabez "left it entirely up to God to decide what the blessings would be and where, when, and how [he] would receive them." Requesting God's blessing is nothing like "the popular gospel that you should ask God for a Cadillac." We must want for ourselves "nothing more and nothing less than what God wants for us." For "[w]hen we seek God's blessing as the ultimate value in life, we are throwing ourselves entirely into the river of His will and power and purposes for us. All our other needs become secondary to what we really want-which is to become wholly immersed in what God is trying to do in us, through us, and around us for His glory."

Yet a "guaranteed by-product of sincerely seeking His blessing" is that our lives "will become marked by miracles." For a life where we make this request is one where "God's power to accomplish great things suddenly finds no obstruction" in us. By means of "a little fable" about the Apostle Peter and a Mr. Jones who has just died and gone to heaven only to realize that God had wanted to give him many more earthly blessings, Wilkinson interprets the claims "Ask and it will be given to you" (Matt. 7:7) and "You do not have because you do not ask" (James 4:2) to mean that while "there is no limit to God's goodness, if you didn't ask Him for a blessing yesterday, you didn't get all that you were supposed to have." Thus, he concludes, through praying this "simple, believing prayer, you can change your future. You can change what happens one minute from now."

In interpreting Jabez's next request, Wilkinson argues that these blessings will include all kinds of success. He says that "[w]hen Jabez cried out to God, 'Enlarge my territory!' he was looking at his present circumstances and concluding, 'Surely I was born for more than this!'" More generally, he says:

If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, "Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios…." Suppose Jabez had been a wife and a mother. Then the prayer might have gone: "Lord, add to my family, favor my key relationships, multiply for Your glory the influence of my household." … No matter what your vocation, the highest form of Jabez's prayer for more territory might sound something like:O God and King, please expand my opportunities and my impact in such a way that I touch more lives for Your glory. Let me do more for You!

Wilkinson stresses that our asking God to enlarge our territory must be motivated by our wanting to make a greater impact for him. "Enlarge my territory" means "give me more ministry." But "more ministry" means "more influence and responsibility." So Wilkinson says that

[w]hen Christian executives ask me, "Is it right for me to ask God for more business?" my response is, "Absolutely!" If you're doing your business God's way, it's not only right to ask for more, but He is waiting for you to ask. Your business is the territory God has entrusted to you…. Asking Him to enlarge that opportunity brings Him only delight.

As usual, Wilkinson supports these claims not by making arguments from Scripture but by relating his own and others' experience.

"Oh, that your hand would be with me!" is interpreted as the way in which we "release God's power to accomplish His will and bring Him glory" as we face the impossibility of our handling the increased influence and responsibility that have come from God's answering our previous request. "As God's chosen, blessed sons and daughters," Wilkinson says, "we are expected to attempt something large enough that failure is guaranteed … unless God steps in." But God won't step in unless we ask. God is "watching and waiting" for us "to ask for the supernatural power He offers." Wilkinson cites 2 Chronicles 16:9 as establishing that God "eagerly seeks those who are sincerely loyal to Him." But the loyalty must come from us: "Your loyal heart is the only part of His expansion plan that He will not provide." We "are always only one plea away from inexplicable, Spirit-enabled exploits. By His touch [we] can experience supernatural enthusiasm, boldness, and power." But, ultimately, it's up to us.

Wilkinson takes Jabez's fourth request as equivalent to the request "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one" in the Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:13). He says that this is not a request for God to strengthen us while we are being tempted but for him to keep Satan and his temptations away from us. It is especially crucial after we have begun to experience some "spiritual success," for we are then most prone to think that we can resist temptation on our own.

The Book's Strengths and Weaknesses

We now have enough of Wilkinson's book in front of us to make some observations about its strengths and weaknesses.

No doubt, Wilkinson wants to lead us to live lives that are more God-glorifying. Because he believes that God is most glorified when we go from one inexplicable Spirit-enabled exploit to another, and because he believes that this will only happen if we ask God for "supernatural blessing, influence, and power," he sees Jabez's prayer as the means by which God becomes most glorified as we become most blessed. Repeating it over and over will "set in motion a cycle of blessing that will keep multiplying what God is able to do in and through [us]." As this cycle repeats itself, we find ourselves to be "steadily moving into wider spheres of blessing and influence, spiraling ever outward and upward into a larger life for God." The result is "exponentially expanding blessings" for us that bring ever-greater glory to God.

This is not quite "name it and claim it" theology, since we are not to pray explicitly for six-figure incomes or any "material sign that [we] have found a way to cash in on [our] connection with Him." Yet it is close.

For Wilkinson is placing an unbiblical emphasis upon our success. His stories aim to convince us that God will continuously-indeed, miraculously-open doors of ever-increasing opportunity, influence, and responsibility to whomever asks. He declares to each of his readers that "God wants your borders expanded at all times with every person." At one California college, he challenged students to pick some island somewhere in the world and then just go and "take [it] over" for God. Often-as when his youth group prayed for thirty decisions for Christ by the end of their first day of beach evangelism-his stories encourage us to specify to God the terms of our success. But is this scriptural? In Scripture, do God's people just decide what they want to do and then "Just do it!"-even while recognizing that their accomplishments come only through God's strength? Do we ever find any apostle praying, "Lord, give me thirty decisions for Christ today?" The Apostle Paul had some borders closed to him (see Acts 16:6-7). His desire to minister to the Romans was frustrated repeatedly (see Rom. 1:11-13; 15:22). Satan stopped him from revisiting the Thessalonians (see 1 Thess. 2:18). In some cases, his preaching had very little positive effect (see Acts 17:32-34; 18:5-6). Were these restrictions on his ministry unnecessary? Did Paul lack faith? If he had prayed Jabez's prayer, then would those borders have opened and would he have had more success?

James urges us always to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that" (James 4:15). Scripture requires our faithfulness without promising us success. Indeed, sometimes things will go badly for us, in spite of or because of our faith (see Job; Heb. 11:35-39; Acts 7; 1 Pet. 1:6-7; 4:12-19). Wilkinson's relentlessly upbeat stories, where praying Jabez's prayer has guaranteed triumph after triumph, don't acknowledge this.

By Wilkinson's own admission, Jabez's prayer is "tucked away" in a part of the Bible where very few are likely to find it. Sometimes we who believe that all Scripture is inspired by God and thus useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness will stress what we have found in some obscure corner of the Bible as a way of emphasizing that truth. But in this case, there seems to be more of a whiff of gnosticism here-an appeal to a piece of esoteric knowledge that brings those who know it special blessings from God. If this prayer, prayed word for word day after day, has such power to revolutionize our Christian lives, then why didn't our Lord and his apostles stress it?

No doubt, portions of Jabez's prayer-at least as Wilkinson interprets it-may be found elsewhere in Scripture. Yet are his interpretations correct? In nearly all English translations but the New King James Version that he has used, Jabez's fourth request sounds far less wise and noble than Wilkinson makes it seem. The New International Version's rendering is typical and suggests that Jabez was just afraid of more pain: "keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain."

Overall, Wilkinson spiritualizes Jabez's requests. For instance, context does not warrant Wilkinson's paraphrasing Jabez's request that God enlarge his territory as "please expand my opportunities and my impact in such a way that I touch more lives for Your glory. Let me do more for You!" Interpretations like this violate the principle that we should not add to what Scripture actually says (see Prov. 30:5-6; 1 Cor. 4:6 [niv]). They encourage Wilkinson's readers to be less than careful with God's words.

Wilkinson also "Christianizes" Jabez's requests. This flattens out the Bible's redemptive/historical message in ways that can desensitize his readers to the full glories of what God has done in Christ. Take, for example, his imagining Jabez crying out "Father, oh, Father!" in his first request. In the Old Testament, God is occasionally called the "Father" of the Israelite nation (see Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 31:9), but no individual Israelite in Jabez's time would be likely to call God "Father" in prayer. Addressing God as "Father" is a New Testament privilege that accompanies the post-resurrection release of the Holy Spirit who then witnesses in the hearts of God's New Covenant people that they have become God's children by means of Christ's finished work (see Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 3:26-27).

At the same time, it is one of this book's crowning ironies that, in spite of Howard Hendricks's recommendation of it to those who long to live their lives in Christ, it really says nothing about Christ and his cross. Those who open this book without knowing what the gospel is will close it having become no wiser. It does not recognize that God's greatest blessing to human beings is not "more influence and responsibility" but reconciliation with himself through faith in Christ's work. Some readers may come away with a vague sense that they should make a "decision for Christ," but they will not have been told what making such a decision really means.

So What Does this Book's Popularity Tell Us about American Evangelicalism?

The Prayer of Jabez's popularity tells us that American evangelicals are not like the noble Bereans, who, even as they received Paul's message with great eagerness, "examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11). It suggests that appeals to experience-and not careful study of the Scriptures-have become the evangelical touchstone for theological truth.

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" (1 Tim. 6:6).

It also confirms that American evangelicals like creeds that put them in the driver's seat. Wilkinson's God will shower us with "unclaimed blessings" if only we ask. By merely uttering a "simple, believing prayer" we "can change what happens [to us] one minute from now." All we have to do is "reach for an extraordinary life."

Our fates are in our hands, then. Nothing hinders us from reaching for this life; nothing keeps us from obtaining "what we really want"-namely, "to become wholly immersed in what God is trying to do in us, through us, and around us for His glory."

God is waiting for us to pray this prayer, for then his power to bless us "suddenly finds no obstruction" in our unwillingness. We enable him to do more and more in and through us through praying it again and again. We must ask him to bless us each day, or we will not get all that he wants to give. Praying this prayer releases God's power to accomplish his will because it gives to him "the only part of His expansion plan that He will not [Himself] provide"-our loyal hearts.

Of course, Scripture does direct God's people to give him their whole hearts (see Deut. 6:5; 10:12; Matt. 22:36-38). It promises us that if we draw near to him, then he will draw near to us (see James 4:8; cf. 2 Chron. 15:2). It instructs us to ask and seek and knock so that we will receive and find and have doors opened to us (see Luke 11:9-10). It urges us to present our requests to God (see Phil. 4:6). And it links God's blessing his people to their giving to him their whole hearts (see 1 Kings 8:48-49; 2 Chron. 15:10-15; Ezra 8:22).

This is all part of the give-and-take of living in personal relationship with God. And so Wilkinson is not wrong to stress the part that our wholehearted prayers play in our receiving God's blessings. Yet he fails to balance this truth with other biblical truths-and so his book plays to our sinful human tendency to think better of ourselves than we should.

For Scripture makes it clear that even our loyal hearts are part of what God himself provides. Since the fall, every human being has been born spiritually dead (see Eph. 2:1-3) and indeed a slave to sin (see John 8:34; Rom. 6:15-22). We live to gratify the cravings of our sinful nature and are naturally objects of wrath (see Eph. 2:3). It is only through his mercy that God has chosen to make some of us alive in Christ (see Eph. 2:1-5; Matt. 13:11). He has sent preachers to proclaim the gospel to us (see Rom. 10:8b-17; 1 Pet. 1:23-25) and he has moved our hearts to believe what we have heard (see John 6:25-65, esp. vv. 44, 65; 2 Thess. 2:13-14). In the final analysis, then, it is God who enables us to give ourselves to him (see John 6:65; Phil. 2:13); and not we who enable him (see 1 Cor. 4:7; 15:10).

Indeed, this is an essential part of the gospel; namely, that in these New Covenant times, because of what Christ has done on the cross (see Jer. 31:31-34 with Heb. 7:11-8:12), God does for us what we are helpless to do for ourselves (see Rom. 5:6-11). God does command us to repent and turn away from all our offenses and get a new heart and a new spirit (see Ezek. 18:30-31). But in his mercy he also gives what he commands. The gospel involves God's declaration, "I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them. I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws" (Ezek. 11:19-20). In fact, in Ezekiel God flanks his command "get a new heart and a new spirit" on both sides with his promise: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you" (Ezek. 36:26; see 11:19; Jer. 32:39).

According to Scripture, we are not the masters of our own fate. We are not in the driver's seat. God is not just "watching and waiting" for us to make the right choices and give ourselves loyally to him. For our sin hinders us from giving ourselves wholeheartedly to God. If we choose to be reconciled to God, then even that choice has its origin in him.

Wilkinson's book does not hug close to the shore of Scripture and thus does not acknowledge these great truths. Although it intends to spur us on to lives of faith that glorify the Christian God, its failure to be truly biblical means that it actually distracts us from focusing on the true blessings that God has given us through the work of his Son, Jesus Christ. Those blessings are not tangible success in our earthly lives. They do not necessarily include an expansion of our ministries, nor are they inevitably marked by God's giving us more influence and responsibility. Such blessings are, it seems, what the Corinthians sought-and what the Apostle Paul condemned (see 1 Cor. 4:8-16). God's true blessings are the intangible (see Col. 3:3), Spirit-attested (see Rom. 8:16; 2 Cor. 1:18-22) blessings of reconciliation with him through Christ and of receiving the ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Cor. 5:16-21)-the ministry of proclaiming the gospel of God's gift of righteousness that human beings receive only through faith in Christ's work.

It is distasteful to criticize a fellow Christian's book this thoroughly. Yet there is good reason to fear that Wilkinson's book is encouraging many to think about God and the Christian life in ways that are insufficiently biblical. May God himself keep his people from falling prey to this book's inadequate theology.

Thursday, June 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology