Who ever would have thought that Jabez would become a best seller? For thousands of years the poor man has been languishing in obscurity, stuck between Hazzobebah and Kelub in some Old Testament genealogy. But a book about this obscure biblical figure now sits atop the New York Times list for Advice, How-to & Miscellaneous books. Publisher’s Weekly predicts that The Prayer of Jabez (Multnomah, 2000)—as it is called—will turn out to be the year’s number one selling hardcover.

The book was written by Bruce Wilkinson, an evangelical preacher well known for his Walk Thru the Bible seminars. Wilkinson has been using the prayer of Jabez for thirty years, ever since he first learned it from a seminary chaplain. The prayer is based on the following verses: “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 Chron. 4:9-10).

Although this is the only place Jabez is mentioned in the entire Bible, the man’s prayer is taking Christendom by storm. Well over three million copies of his book have already been sold. Web sites list personal testimonies of unusual answers to his prayer. A video series is in the works, as are special versions of the book for children, teens, and women. Churches are starting Jabez study groups and hosting Jabez seminars. A few weeks ago I received a request to host one here at Tenth in place of our usual Sunday morning service. The promotional literature said, “If the principles of this message are taken seriously, this event could produce a major turning point in the spiritual growth and priorities of our congregation, and perhaps spark a revival in your community.” Perhaps. But it is worth asking whether the prayer of Jabez is, as its author claims, “the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God.”

It should be emphasized that all the prayers in the Bible—including the one that Jabez prayed—help set the agenda for our intercession. One of the best ways to learn how to pray is to pray through the Scriptures. The rediscovery of an Old Testament prayer is especially welcome—and from Chronicles, of all places.

It should also be said that some of Wilkinson’s teaching is helpful. For example, he emphasizes that the prayer is for spiritual rather than material blessings. Even the petition “enlarge my territory” is interpreted as a request for the biggest possible field for evangelism. It is doubtful whether that is what Jabez had in mind, but at least Wilkinson tries to discourage people from praying primarily for financial prosperity.

At the same time, however, he does encourage Christians to pray more selfishly. “Is it possible,” he asks, “that God wants you to be more ‘selfish’ in your prayers?” This self-centered focus seems to be the key to “praying Jabez.” In the words of one bookseller, “Everybody is looking to expand their territory.” Indeed, it is hard to think of a prayer more likely to appeal to Americans than one that petitions for territorial expansion.

There are a number of theological problems with Wilkinson’s book. One is its insistence on asking for miracles. People who use the prayer of Jabez are promised “a front-row seat in a life of miracles.” “It’s when you thrust yourself in the mainstream of God’s plans for this world… that you release miracles” (p. 44). Wilkinson’s view of God’s sovereignty is also problematic. He argues that Christians who do not ‘pray Jabez” will miss out on the blessings God has in store for them. “If you didn’t ask Him for a blessing yesterday,” Wilkinson writes, “you didn’t get all you were supposed to have” (p. 27). By this reasoning, a believer who forgets to pray Jabez is relegated to Plan B of divine providence.

There is also the danger of turning Jabez into a mantra rather than offering it as a genuine prayer. Putting faith in the words of a particular prayer tends to turn that prayer into a work. In the words of one secular observer, “It’s very evangelical and very American, this whole notion that if you know the right technique, the right form, that prayer will be efficient and effective.” That is exactly what The Prayer of Jabez offers: a simple technique that guarantees spiritual blessing. So we are assured that “thousands of believers who are applying [the prayer’s] truths are seeing miracles happen on a regular basis” (p. 7).

Perhaps the biggest problem is the Jabez mindset. Every few years another fad invades the evangelical church. It is always presented as the secret to a life of happiness, blessing, sanctification, and so on. The word for this way of thinking is gnosticism. The Gnostic claims to have secret knowledge that goes beyond ordinary religious experience. Anyone who gains this knowledge breaks through to a whole new level of spiritual experience.

If Jabez really is the key to a better prayer life, one wonders where that leaves the Lord’s Prayer. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he did not say, “How to pray!? You’re kidding, right? Haven’t I ever told you guys about Jabez?” Instead, he gave his disciples a new model for prayer. Unlike the prayer of Jabez, the prayer of Jesus is not a selfish prayer. It is not even offered in the first person. All of its petitions are corporate: give us, forgive us, deliver us. Nor did Jesus teach us to pray for miracles. Instead, he taught us to do simple, ordinary things like worship God’s holy name, ask for what we need, confess our sins, and seek God’s heavenly kingdom and sovereign will.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org