The Prayer of Jabez and other misuses of the Bible

THE Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life
Bruce H. Wilkinson
Multnomah Publishers, 2000.

Hardcover, 96pp.

It is a #1 bestseller in Christian bookstores. In fact, it was a #1 New York Times bestseller. It is a book that promises to revolutionize your life. It is called The Prayer of Jabez.

If we were to start listing the problems with the book, it would be hard to know where to begin, and it would certainly take more pages than are available here to reach the end of the list. Here is a book that further fuels one of the most ungodly and damaging ideas to plague the Christian church in the past 50 years: the prosperity gospel. It is saying that God wants you to have more; all you have to do is ask for it in the right way. It is a book that says we have the power to restrain or unlock God’s power and blessing (as though God were some kind of magic genie). It is a book that gives the impression that God is powerless to bless us unless we ask for it. It is a book that presents a very unbiblical view of what blessing means.

In short, I suppose it is a book that tells people just what they want to hear (that they can have a fuller and richer life)—but not what the Bible is saying. It is a book that promises almost the same thing as every self-help program on TV—power, blessings and contentment. And the book is filled with real life examples of how this ‘prayer’ has worked for the author and others. (You can even go to the web site to read more testimonials—

The Prayer of Jabez is based on two verses from the book of 1 Chronicles.

Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain”. Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain”. And God granted his request (1 Chr 4:9-10).

Wilkinson says these verses contain “the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God” (p. 7). The logic runs something like this: Jabez prayed for blessing and got it, so we should pray for blessing, and we will get it.

But is that what the verse in 1 Chronicles means? Is that what we are supposed to do with this brief account of Jabez—a man mentioned nowhere else in the Bible? Is that the right way to handle the Bible? Well, of course not. Wilkinson’s approach to the Bible is to take a story he likes the sound of, and then apply it directly to us. When it comes to “enlarging our territories” Wilkinson says we are not talking simply about land, but any area of our life that we might want God to expand. His example is this:

If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, “Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios” (p. 31).

He wants to take the story of Jabez as part allegory, part moral lesson. Wilkinson entirely ignores two major tenets of biblical theology:

  • The Bible has a central theme or story running right through from Genesis to Revelation
  • At the focus and fulfilment of the story of the Bible is Jesus

That is the way that Jesus and the Gospel writers say we should read the Bible (Matt 1:22, Luke 4:21, John 5:39). It is the way the New Testament writers say we should understand the Old Testament (1 Peter 1:10- 12, 2 Corinthians 1:20, 1 Corinthians 10:11). The whole book of Hebrews is a perfect example of this. The overwhelming point of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus has come as the fulfilment of the promises God made. Jesus is the fulfilment of the things that were only in shadow under the old covenant (tabernacle, sacrificial system, priesthood, even the covenant itself). All that Israel hoped for—all that God had promised his people—is found in Jesus.

Barry Webb offers a helpful description of how biblical theology works:

[The] focus [of Biblical theology] is on the unity of Scripture, while doing full justice to its diversity. The key to this unity in diversity is found in the gospel preached by Jesus and his apostles, to which the New Testament bears witness. This gospel is everywhere anchored in the Old Testament, of which it is seen to be the fulfilment. In short � biblical theology … derives its rationale from the evangel (the gospel) itself (Five Festal Garments, p.15)

So what do we make of the prayer of Jabez?

These verses fit into a summary section at the beginning of 1 Chronicles, where the writer is talking about the tribes and clans that moved into the land. The promises God made to Abraham (land, blessing, becoming a great nation, rest from their enemies and God being with them) have been fulfilled.

What Jabez prays is exactly what God had promised to give Israel—land, blessing and rest from all their enemies. God is willing to grant Jabez’s prayer because it is what God had promised to give his people. What makes Jabez “more honorable than his brothers” seems to be the fact that he wants what God wants for his people.

Is there a ‘Jabez Principle’ that we should apply? No, I don’t think so. Jabez prayed that particular prayer at that particular time and God graciously answered it. There is, however, a ‘God Principle’: God is faithful to his promises and to his people.

Does it mean that God will answer every prayer to ‘enlarge our territory’ (figuratively speaking)? No, it certainly does not. Just because God granted Jabez’s request doesn’t mean he will answer every prayer that is remotely similar.

Wilkinson gives the impression that this prayer is a kind of mantra that we can say over and over again. He says that he has been praying it every day for 30 years. At the end of the book he encourages you to commit yourself to pray it every morning for 30 days. But when it comes to understanding what it means to be blessed by God we have to remember that the promises to Abraham find their fulfilment in Jesus. All the blessing we see God give Israel in the pages of the Old Testament are just a shadow of the greater things to come in Jesus.

In a book about “Breaking through to the blessed life” (the subtitle), Wilkinson fails to see that we already have the “blessed life” if we trust in Jesus. He fails to see that we have already been blessed more than we could ever hope for—and more than Jabez could have ever dreamed of: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph 1:3).

The Prayer of Jabez is a book that wants to talk about blessing, but barely mentions the blessing we have received in Jesus. In fact, it is more than halfway through the book before the name of Jesus is used (p. 47 of the 92 pages). Failing to read the Bible with the whole message in view and failing to read the Bible without recognizing that Jesus is the focus and fulfilment of the story can lead to some very dangerous ideas.

There have already been thousands of people who have made Wilkinson’s book a bestseller. I am sure that there will be thousands in Australia who will lap up the message thinking they are hearing what the Bible has to say. But when you know the message of the Bible—when you know that Jesus is the fulfilment of all things—then you know that God has already lavished his blessing on us in Jesus.

The Mantra of Jabez

Douglas M. Jones
The Upturned Table Parody Series
Canon Press, 2001. 57pp.

Douglas Jones has done for the Jabez phenomenon what Weird Al Jankovich did for Michael Jackson. The Mantra of Jabez pokes fun at the original book’s prosperity teachings and its superstitious view of faith and prayer. Jones says that the success of the Jabez series is the outcome of “bored sentimental Evangelicals” reaching for “the whizz-bang life, like that on MTV”. It’s bumper-sticker Christianity “touched by immaturity”.

In the serious postscript to the book, Jones explains why writing such parodies is more than just a joke. He’s trying to diagnose an illness:

But what about all those for whom these ‘precious books’ have meant so much? One answer is that medieval folks could say the same thing about their relics. Relics made people feel warm and fuzzy, too, but they were evidence of sickness.

The Mantra of Jabez is silly, but not as silly as the thing it is parodying.

Canon Press has also put out a parody of the Left Behind apocalyptic novel series: Right Behind. You can find both books on the web:

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