Prayin' Jabez Fad

On the Confusion Caused by Popular Books:

The Prayer of Jabez as an Example

by Paul Sue

Table of Contents

  1. General introductory remarks
  2. Why I am uneasy about most popularly written books
  3. Who's to blame?
  4. Some final thoughts
  5. Some helpful books to supplement The Prayer of Jabez
  6. My post to a Christian discussion group
  7. Links to critiques of The Prayer of Jabez
  8. The response I got from Multnomah Books, the publisher of The Prayer of Jabez
  9. My comments on the response.
  10. An e-mail from an associate of Douglas Jones, author of The Mantra of Jabez
  11. A critique by a seminary professor at Bruce Wilkinson's alma mater
  12. Postscript: Chicken Soup for the Narcissistic Soul

Lost Prayer of JabezCheck out The Lost Prayer of Jabez by Larry Pechawer

Also, check out the excellent review by Dr. Roy B. Zuck in Bibliotheca Sacra (Jan.-Mar. 2002), p.112-117.

"Praying Jabez's Prayer: Turning an Obscure Biblical Narrative Into a Miracle-Working Mantra: A Review Article" by Dr. Richard Schultz, Trinity Journal NS, 24:1 (Spring 2003): 113-19.

See also the brief review by Steve Lehrer in JNCT 1:1 (2003), pp. 56-59.

Introduction

Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez (Multnomah Books; 2000) is indeed a popular book, both in the sense of its broad appeal, as well as its level of accessibility (written for the masses). It is the latter sense of "popular" that I am referring to in my title.

Lest I be misunderstood, I want to emphasize at the outset that I am NOT opposed to popularly written books per se. There is certainly a need for informed, biblically sound books written at an intelligent yet accessible level that targets a broad general audience. Writers such as J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, D.A. Carson, and others come to mind. May their tribe increase!

The best of these books demonstrate careful study and reflection on the particular topic. Usually, footnotes and a bibliography give evidence of interaction with others, both academic and popular writers. However, there are also a large number of books (for distinction, I will call them devotional or inspirational) which seem to be based largely on anecdotes, personal experiences, and a superficial use of Scripture, and written primarily to elicit warm fuzzy feelings.

[T]he Bible is not principally concerned with organizing our schedules, giving us tips for winning in life and business, or with guiding us into self-fulfillment... It is not about us, and it is not about our daily lives. It is about God and His redemptive activity... Very often these days, the demand is overpowering for the practical... Many intend a high view of Scripture when they insist that it is a manual for life, but in fact, treating the Bible as a manual ends up leading to a low view of Scripture by trivializing the message.

Michael Horton, "Recovering the Plumb Line" in
John Armstrong, ed., The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Moody Press; 1996)

Why I'm Bothered by Popular Christian Books

While I have no doubt about the sincerity, intelligence or the motives behind many authors of popular Christian literature, I am dismayed by their careless use of the Bible. More often than not, verses or passages are lifted out of their context and strung together as prooftexts. Even when some casual comment on the verses are offered, they tend to be superficial, and one is left wondering, "How did he/she arrive at that interpretation?!" Sadly, Wilkinson's book seems to be guilty of this.

The truly Christian mind has repented of 'proof-texting' (the notion that we can settle every doctrinal and ethical issue by quoting a single, isolated text, whereas God has given us a comprehensive revelation), and instead, saturates itself in the whole of Scripture.

John Stott, Involvement: Being a Responsible Christian in a Non-Christian Society (Revell; 1984), p. 59.

I should clarify that I'm not opposed to emotions. In fact, I can't see how one can write about biblical topics in a cold, detached manner. However, writing with passion and warmth does not mean that the content has to be watered down or devoid of any serious theological reflection. Despite the vast and ever expanding resources available to Christians, why is it that we seem to be witnessing a "dumbing down" of the Christian message? Books that don't stretch their reader's mind only serve to reinforce this level of mediocrity.

This is evident in some emphases in current evangelical spirituality, such as the preoccupation with pragmatism and the largely experiential, that conveys a false dichotomy between the head and the heart, leaving the lives of many Christians fragmented and ineffective.

Scott Holman, The End For Which God Re-Creates the Soul
(MTS Thesis, Northwest Baptist Seminary; 2001), p. 2.

How do popular books bring about confusion? They set a bad example for Biblical interpretation by ignoring context. They offer a simplistic and reductionistic view of the topic being written about. They tend to be lopsided in the sense of being too pragmatic and man-centered. They rely too much on personal testimonies and emotionalism. They encourage a psychological and mystical approach to Christian living. Some of these tendencies can be seen in The Prayer of Jabez.

Another example of a book aimed at a popular audience is Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free (2nd ed.) (Bethany; 2001). It would be a worthwhile exercise in learning critical thinking skills, to read Geisler's book alongside the rebuttal by James White, The Potter's Freedom (Calvary Press; 2000). It is painful to see a well-known scholar such as Geisler make so many serious blunders.

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Who's to Blame?

Teachers/Authors Need to be Accountable

In singling out The Prayer of Jabez, I do not mean to entirely discredit Bruce Wilkinson. There are many books that are far worse. I'm using his book as an example because it is so well known and widely read. In light of the many legitimate criticisms of his book, I am waiting for him to respond. I hope that he is at least humble enough to read the critiques and to admit where he is wrong where that is the case.

Publishers Must Have Higher Standards

Publishers need to maintain a high level of responsibility, accountability and integrity. Far too often, publishers are far too quick to publish a manuscript based on "name brand" recognition (e.g. James Dobson, Henry Blackaby) rather than on the merits of the manuscript itself. Has Christian publishing become too focused on filthy lucre? Are they more concerned with the "voice of profits" rather than the "voice of prophets"? Consider some of the recent Christian best sellers: how much truth content or biblical teaching are there in these books?

Churches Need to do a Better Job of Equipping

Church leaders need to do a better job equipping their flock so that they can better discern truth from error, and not be tossed about by every wind of doctrine. Believers need to be taught some basic hermeneutics. Unfortunately, most churches seem to prefer spoon-feeding their members. To make matters worse, many sermons are just as guilty of wrenching verses out of context to suit the preacher's moralizing goal.

Historical exegesis is fast becoming a lost art in the pulpit. Rather than explaining the historical setting of a passage, texts become springboards for devotional reflection. Biblical passages are taken out of context as the preacher searches for those stories that evoke the responses or attitudes desired. The heart of a "good" sermon is fast becoming the "emotional work" that can be done in 20 minutes preaching time.

Gary M. Burge, The Greatest Story Never Read: Recovering biblical literacy in the church

Part of the problem is that church structures are geared for a passive, spectator sort of Christianity. Many gifts in the Body remain dormant or under-deployed. Accustomed to a diet of warm milk, it's not surprising many Christians never seem to be ready for the strong meat of the Word. For more thoughts on this, read Jon Zen's article, Building Up the Body - One Man or One Another?

Christians Need to be More Biblically Literate

We fail in our duty to study God's Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work. Our problem is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of passion. Our problem is that we are lazy.

R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (IVP; 1977), p. 17.

There seems to be a dumbing down of the Christian culture and mindset (read Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind or David Well's recent trilogy), despite the abundance of seminaries, books, tapes, and various ministries. What sells today? Ever since Hal Lindsey launched the genre back in the 1970's, end-times prophetic speculation continues to hold sway over gullible Christians, as demonstrated by the popularity of the Left Behind series. Psychotherapeutic approaches to Christian living or "heart-warming" stories of God's love (of the "Touched by an Angel" variety) are sure winners as well. Christianity has largely become a mass-marketed consumer religion.

Many Christians I know are NOT interested in the serious study of God's Word. For some, their 5 or 10 minutes "devotions" in the morning is their only intake of the Word for the day. Some have admitted that they seldom read their Bibles at all. Even home bible studies have evolved into "small groups", with superficial "study guides" displacing the Bible as the main text. No wonder many Christians lack any ability to discern truth from error.

Most of us have a haphazard approach to Scripture ... what we want is a thrill, that is, we want the text to touch our hearts somehow. In and of itself, this is not necessarily wrong, except that our "felt needs" too often take precedence over biblical truth.

Grant Osborne, 3 Crucial Questions About the Bible (Baker; 1995), p. 74.

Scholars Need to Get out of Their Ivory Towers

Have today's bible scholars become intellectual elitists locked away in their academic ivory towers? In his presidential address at the 51st annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (Nov. 17, 1999), Wayne Grudem offered six suggestions to his fellow scholars as to how they can be of more help to the Church at large. He asks, "Are we teaching the Church what it is crying out to know?" It seems that scholars are so caught up at times in their esoteric studies that they have lost touch with real-world issues that Christians are facing. Thus, Grudem continues by asking, "Has it become true that the more people know about interpreting the Bible, the less willing they are to tell the Church about what the Bible says? ... on controversial issues that affect the whole Church ... our academic journals in the evangelical world say very little and our exegetes are almost entirely silent." ("Do We Act As if We Really Believe That 'The Bible Alone, and the Bible in its Entirety, is the Word of God Written'?", JETS 43:1, March 2000, p. 6,7,9).

It is sadly true that scholarly monographs tend to be as dry as dust. This is unfortunate, as a generation of earlier scholars felt no shame in writing with passion as well as intellectual prowess. B.B. Warfield, one of old Princeton Seminary's finest theologians, gave a lecture to the student body on the anomaly of separating rigorous intellectual studies from vital spirituality. His stirring lecture, The Religious Life of Theological Students can be read on-line.

In his provocative article, "Hermeneutics and the Meditative Use of Scripture: The Case for a Baptized Imagination", Glen Scorgie argues in a similar vein, that "one of our goals in the evangelical church and is various institutions should be the fostering of an integration of academic study of Scripture with a vibrant spirituality." (JETS 44:2, June 2001, p. 284). May a new generation of biblical scholars arise, who will take seriously the task of communicating to the Church, and not just remain aloof in their learned guilds.

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Some Final Thoughts

Reading the Bible can get you into a lot of trouble. Few things are more important in the Christian community than reading the Scriptures rightly. The holy Scriptures carry immense authority. Read wrongly, they can ignite war, legitimize abuse, sanction hate, cultivate arrogance. Not only can, but have ... So caveat lector - let the reader beware. Read; but read rightly. The adverb rightly in this context does not only mean accurately; it means right-heartedly as well as right-mindedly, what the biblical writers referred to as uprightly.

Eugene Peterson, "Introduction",
in Elmer Dyck, ed., The Act of Bible Reading (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), p. 8.

Simply stated, [hermeneutics] is nothing more than a systematic process for deriving the Holy Spirit's intended meaning of any given passage of Scripture in order to "find out what pleases the Lord" ... How can your thoughts and deeds be pleasing to God if they are prompted by serious misinterpretations of his word? ... Hermeneutics therefore, is not some heady science reserved only for the lettered elite. The ability to accurately interpret Scripture is essential to every believer's growth in the "grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 3:18) ... Skillful biblical interpretation is a life-long commitment.

Cliff Bjork, "Hermeneutics: Six Essential Principles of Biblical Interpretation You Won't Find in the Textbooks", Searching Together 22:1-4; 1994.


Suggestions for Further Reading

Here are some representative introductory books on biblical interpretation:

  • Daniel M. Doriani, Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible (P & R; 1996)
  • J. Scott Duvall & J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God's Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (Zondervan; 2001)
  • Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible, 2nd Edition (Zondervan; 1993)
  • William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg & Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Word; 1993)
  • Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (IVP; 1997)
  • Walt Russell, Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (NavPress; 2000)
  • Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Victor Books; 1991)

Here are some other books that will also prove useful:

  • D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Baker; 1996)
    Carson gives examples of common mistakes people make when interpreting the Bible.
  • James W. Sire, Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways the Cults Misread the Bible (IVP; 1980)
    Christians are just as guilty of twisting scripture.
  • Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (IVP; 1991)
    This book provides an excellent and very readable overview of God's redemptive-historical story.

For those who are interested in current issues in hermeneutics, the following books are good places to start:

  • Moises Silva, ed., Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (Zondervan; 1996)
  • Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Biblical Hermeneutics (Zondervan; 1992)
  • Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Zondervan; 1998)

These books encourage Christians to think more:

  • Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don't Think and What to Do About It (Baker; 1994)
  • J.P. Moreland, Love Your God with all Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (NavPress; 1997)
  • James W. Sire, Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God in the Ways We Think (IVP; 1990)
  • James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life As a Christian Calling (IVP; 2000)

Lastly, here are a few books on prayer that will help give a more complete and Biblical perspective on prayer:

  • D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Baker; 1992)
    A very stimulating and rewarding study.
  • David Crump, Jesus the Intercessor: Prayer and Christology in Luke-Acts (J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck); 1992)
    This is a doctoral thesis, so it will be a challenging read for many. However, let your mind be stretched and you will glean some real helpful insights.
  • D.A. Carson, ed., Teach Us to Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World (Baker/Paternoster; 1990)
    A fine collection of essays from a meeting sponsored by the World Evangelical Fellowship. Edmund Clowneys' chapter is a commendable effort towards developing a biblical theology of prayer.

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My post to a Christian discussion group (slightly edited)

Hi,

I hesitate to jump into this fray, but in light of the book's immense influence, I feel constrained to offer a few remarks. At one point, I wanted to write a detailed review, but I didn't really want to spend the money on the book ;-) Thankfully, others have written some good critiques.

Let me say that any book that encourages Christians to pray has at least that much to commend it. Though I'm turned off by the faddish following and the marketing of related paraphenelia (T-shirts, journals, etc.; see his self-serving web site), my MAIN bone of contention with Wilkinson's book is a hermeneutical and theological one. (This is my main beef against Bill Gothard as well.)

In brief, Wilkinson seems to ignore the context of the passage: its occurrence in a genealogy (and the nature/purpose of biblical genealogies), the larger redemptive-historical purpose of 1 Chronicles, the nature of biblical historical narrative, etc.

Furthermore, to lift just one obscure passage out of Scripture to promote a particular teaching on prayer does NOT do justice to a biblical theology of prayer. The sad part is, Dr. Wilkinson should know better; after all, he's a graduate of a respected seminary.

I am curious if anyone knows where Wilkinson has responded in print to his critics. I mean, there ARE some serious weaknesses of his book, and it is incumbent upon Dr. Wilkinson to reply to these, since as a public teacher of God's Word, he needs to be held accountable.

I will refrain from a detailed exegesis of 1 Chron. 4:9,10. Instead, let me point the interested reader to a few good links below.

Paul

"How much of our praying is largely formulaic, liberally larded with cliches that remind us, uncomfortably, of the hypocrites that Jesus excoriated?"

D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers
(Baker Books, 1992), p. 17.

[an excellent corrective to Wilkinson's book!]


Links to Critiques of The Prayer of Jabez

Disclaimer: I do not necessarily endorse everything contained in the links listed here. They are intended for your own research so that you can draw your own conclusions.

For a comprehensive list of other links, please see:
www.gospelcom.net/apologeticsindex/p12.html

A flurry of books have been published in the wake of the Jabez cult:
Over-Enlarged Territory?

Douglas Jones has written a hilarious parody of the book called The Mantra of Jabez; you can read an excerpt at:
www.antithesis.com/features/mantra.html

Mantra

The Door has published several parodies as well:

Ron Gleason has written an in-depth critique; read it at:
www.christiancounterculture.com/cc_10629.html OR
www.rongleason.com/ethos/prayerofjabez/index.html

Here is a scholarly study of 1 Chron. 4:9,10 by R. Christopher Heard:
Echoes of Genesis in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10: An Intertextual and Contextual Reading of Jabez's Prayer

Chad Bird's helpful study, "An Evangelical-Lutheran Critique of The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life" is unfortunately no longer available on-line.

The Prayer of Jabez: A Critical Review by Phil Johnson (Real Audio)

Other helpful reviews include:

T-Shirt
 
Wanted

There was some discussion on the btdisc (Biblical Theology Discussion) group: see messages 3055, 3053, 3051, 3049, 3048, 3044, and 2843.

And if you really have a lot of time on your hand, here are some more links:

Cult

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An (Unofficial) Response from Multnomah Books


Subject: RE: prayer of jabez
Date: Fri, 3 Aug 2001 19:47:56 -0700
From: SomeBogusName@multnomahbooks.com
To: "Paul" ....@yahoo.com

Would you really your comments don't sound like your seeking understanding? Keep praying. Some of the comments you quoted remind of a man named Saul who felt he was doing God's work by attacking Christians. In this case Jesus said to Saul "Why persicutest thou me?" We all need to remember Jesus new commandment to "love one another." Thanks for writing.

No name given in original e-mail


My Comments on the Above Note from Multnomah Books

The "just love Jesus and don't worry your pretty little head about doctrine" mentality -- which is all too common among us today -- has led to a virtual famine of biblical understanding in the modern world. We no longer know what the Bible says, and we no longer care.

Jack Crabtree, "Bible Study: The Solution to What Spiritually Ails Us"

I am very disappointed by the anonymous response I received from someone at Multnomah Books. As you can judge for yourself, it seems to be an emotional knee-jerk reaction to my post. I will make just a few comments.

The e-mail begins with a rather judgmental remark about me: "Would you really your comments don't sound like your seeking understanding? Keep praying." I'm accused of not "seeking understanding" (!) and not praying enough apparently. I guess what I need to do is to start praying Jabez's prayer! This is a common tactic used by those who are squeamish about serious dialogue: they imply they have some mystical gnostic understanding that their opponent is lacking.

Our anonymous person then goes on to imply that some of the comments I quoted "remind of a man named Saul who felt he was doing God's work by attacking Christians". First of all, which particular comments? Again, such sweeping statements is a typical ploy. And of course, the incident about Saul has nothing to do with Christians exercising discernment.

Lastly, the decisive argument is put forward to silence all critics: "We all need to remember Jesus new commandment to 'love one another.'" This is the most common retort that Christians love to use. Again I ask, "In what way am I (or others who disagree with Wilkinson) being unloving?". On the contrary, it is because of my love for my fellow believers (including brother Wilkinson) that I decided to share my concerns. Why else would I spend all this time writing this? Is it unloving to be discerning and seeking the truth? Is it unloving to disagree? Is it unloving to express these disagreements?

I am sure many critics of Wilkinson's book (including myself) would gladly sit down with him to discuss their differences with him. I'm not aware if this has happened or not. I am tired of unthinking Christians who idolize their favourite author or preacher and set them up as "God's anointed untouchables". ALL Christians need to be accountable, especially those who seek to teach God's Word: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly." (James 3:1; NET).

What really concerns me is not so much whether Wilkinson is right or his critics are right, but that Christians, especially leaders, are so unwillingly to be accountable. Why is it that brothers and sisters in Christ cannot calmly discuss their differences? Can't we be humble enough to admit that none of us has all the truth, and that we need to seek the Spirit's help in our own study, as well as together as a Body?

I genuinely pray that Dr. Wilkinson would be open-minded enough to listen to his critics and respond. Let's engage in constructive dialogue as we seek a better understanding of God's Word together.

... it is very disturbing to me to observe a trend in the Body of Christ today. This trend is to scorn and belittle those who would exercise their God-given self-defense weapon of discernment. Those who would obey scripture and "test all things" are mocked ... It seems that the Church has fallen prey to the pluralistic, non-judgmental mindset of our present age. The one unpardonable sin is to question someone's belief, or dare to say that it might be wrong.

John Green, PREPARED FOR THE SLAUGHTER: The Disarming of the Church
Deception in the Church Newsletter 2:3 (10/98).


Correspondence With An Associate of the Author of The Mantra of Jabez

From: ...@att.net
To: "Paul" ...@yahoo.com
Subject: Re: Mantra of Jabez
Date: Sat, 04 Aug 2001 20:33:07 +0000

Mr. Sue,

I agree with your criticisms, but I must say that I can't expect the Jabez folks to listen. It isn't about truth, it's about money. "The Mantra of Jabez" was written the way it was because it forces them to listen, as others begin laughing. In regard to your request that we send a copy to Wilkinson, we don't need to. The book debuted at the CBA in Atlanta where Wilkinson was being heralded as the author of the book of the year. A copy of "The Mantra of Jabez" was handed to him personally before being distributed to the rest of the convention. And it was handed to him by the author (Douglas Jones).

Wilkinson then tried to have us kicked out of the convention, but the "Mantra" book was so wildly popular that we were not shown the door. The spoof of "Left Behind" was also given immediately to Jerry Jenkins and Tim Lahaye. And also has started people laughing publicly at the series.

Thanks, and best wishes.

Douglas Wilson
Editor, Credenda Agenda

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A Seminary Professor's Critique

Again I thank you for sharing your thoughts with me about Bruce Wilkinson's book and your essay on 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. I've been giving more thought to this prayer recently, and I read Bruce's book again today.

When I read the book a few weeks ago when it first came out, I thought it was a fine exposition of that passage. However, I am now having some misgivings about a number of statements in the book. Let me enumerate these.

  1. He says the name "Jabez" means "pain" (p. 20). This is not correct. The Hebrew noun for pain is similar to Jabez, but it reverses the two consonants b and j. The word for pain is jazeb. This was an intentional pun by Jabez's mom. So I think it's incorrect to say that Jabez led a life of pain. We really don't know that he did. All we know about pain in these two verses is that Jabez's mom experienced pain in childbirth.
  2. Interestingly Bruce does not make any comment on the last line in Jabez's prayer. He doesn't include the last line in his quotation of the verse on page 15, but he does include it on page 93. But he doesn't discuss it. And yet this was part of Jabez's prayer.
  3. The translation of that last line in the NIV (which Bruce quotes on p. 93) says "that I may not cause pain." However, this is not a good translation of the Hebrew verb for pain. (The verb has the same consonants--jzb--as the noun.) The verb is not in the "causal" form; it's in the simple form, so that it should be translated as it is in the NASB: "that it may not pain me" (i.e., "that it may not give me pain").
  4. He says God always answers this prayer (p. 7). But how can anyone assert that any one prayer of a believer will ALWAYS be answered? Don't the Scriptures reveal a number of prayers that are not answered? You in fact are an example of one who has prayed that harm would not cause you pain, but God has not chosen to answer that request.
  5. He says we should pray this prayer every day (p.7), and that miracles are "guaranteed" to happen every day (pp. 24-25) and on "a regular basis" (p. 16). This cannot be substantiated from Scripture.
  6. Is it correct to refer to aspects of one's enlarged ministry as miracles? Isn't this a loose use of the term "miracles"?
  7. I also question the wisdom of praying this prayer every day (pp. 10-11, 86). Why not pray prayers like Paul's prayers in Ephesians and Colossians every day?
  8. Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to pray this prayer. So to tell Christians to pray this prayer seems presumptuous.
  9. The Hebrew word translated "evil" in Jabez's prayer can also mean "harm" (or "calamity"). So no one can say with absolute certainty that Jabez was praying to be kept from evil. He could just as well have been praying that he would be protected from harm so that it - harm - would not bring him pain.
  10. It strikes me as strange for Bruce to say on page 29 that God will answer this prayer "one minute from now."
  11. I do not believe that when Jabez prayed for an enlarged territory that he was praying that God would give him "more influence, more responsibility, more opportunity" (p. 30; see also pp. 32, 36, 82). There is no hint in the verse that that is what he meant. He simply asked for more land - perhaps from the Canaanites - and that's what God gave him. I believe this is a hermeneutical error - building an application on a faulty interpretation. Unfortunately he builds so much of his book on this point. But where is the proof that this is what Jabez asked for? True, we can ask God to expand our ministries - Paul did - but we shouldn't base it on a prayer that has to do with real estate. It's also erroneous to say that "to pray for larger borders is to ask for a miracle" (p. 43).
  12. Any Old Testament prayer should have New Testament confirmation if we are to pray that prayer. So it's normal for believers to pray that God's hand would be on them and that God protect them from harm. But the New Testament gives us no basis for praying that God would give us more real estate, as Jabez prayed.
  13. Does God always answer this prayer to enlarge one's ministry? And is it always in a spiraling fashion in which the influence is ever expanding? (p. 83). I doubt it. Bruce cites examples from his and others' experiences where this is seemingly the case. But examples could also be given of believers who have prayed that prayer and it hasn't been answered.
  14. He says something about us wanting to be "more honorable" (p. 76). But Jabez did not pray for that! That was God's doings, not Jabez's.

I realize I've picked at a number of things, but I find that others are questioning this book too. However, I do agree with Bruce's statement that God decided what blessings he would give Jabez (p. 24). And I agree with his statement that the "hand of the Lord" refers to God's power and presence (p. 54).

Name Withheld

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Postscript: Chicken Soup for the Narcissistic Soul

I wrote this book because of a growing concern that our culture is being swept into a new era not of secularism, but of superstition, and because the evidence seems to support the idea that even contemporary evangelical Christians are not sufficiently resisting the fads of our age.

Michael Horton, In the Face of God (Word; 1996), p. xv.

According to the Prayer of Jabez website, over 9,100,000 copies of The Prayer of Jabez have been sold. In fact, an entire cottage industry has grown up around Bruce Wilkinson's books. In addition to ranking #1 on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, the book has won the 2001 ECPA Gold Medallion Award, and was named the Nonfiction Book of the Year (2000 Retailers Choice Awards). None of this should surprise anyone in tune with the current wavelength of modern evangelical Christianity. If anything, these facts only serve to confirm the alarming downgrade in the evangelical empire. As Horton has noted, "Today we value sincerity above truth; feeling over reality." (Horton, op. cit., p. xvi)

First of all, The Prayer of Jabez is just the first in a series of a books (the so-called "Breakthough Series") that Wilkinson has inundated us with. The complete titles of the extant corpus at the time of writing (Feb. 2003) are:

  • The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life
  • Secrets of the Vine: Breaking Through to Abundance
  • A Life That God Rewards: Why Everything You Do Today Matters Forever

What the subtitles appeal to is our narcissism, the what I can get out of this attitude: "the blessed life", "abundance", and "rewards". Try imagining a bestseller with words like "commitment", "suffering" and "suffering" in the titles; I don't think so! Despite protests to the contrary, the book is popular because "it presents what many Americans want to hear - a guarantee of 'the good life'. A prayer that panders to desire for more money, comfort, and material things, and even bigger and better ministries plays into the hands of greed." (Roy Zuck, Bibliotheca Sacra, January-March 2002, p. 115)

Maybe the Palestinians should start praying the Prayer of Jabez in their efforts to get more land. Maybe we should ship a gadzillion copies of the book to the starving people in Africa: "O that you you would bless me indeed and enlarge my daily supply of food." And in Afghanistan, they can pray: "O that you would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory -- um, actually Lord, this desert sucks ... how about giving us some more fertile land instead?"

Praying

In his recent book, Praying Like Jesus: The Lord's Prayer in a Culture of Prosperity, James Mulholland asserts that "In significant ways the Prayer of Jabez is counter to the heart of the gospel and the priorities of Jesus."

Secondly, the books claim to be "Breakthroughs" for victorious Christian living. The implication is that guru Wilkinson has discovered some long lost secrets for spiritual blessings that are ours to claim. Bruce Wilkinson has unlocked the treasuries of heavenly riches for us, for only a small price!

Really? The Prayer of Jabez rests on faulty exegesis and an incomplete theology of prayer. I have not read his other two books yet, as I don't want to waste my hard-earned money. If any reader is willing to donate a copy to me, that'd be greatly appreciated! However, I have carefully skimmed his Secrets of the Vine, and it appears that Wilkinson has continued to follow his success formula: take a few verses out of context, offer a brief simplistic explanation, and use a light, breezy style of writing, copiously sprinkled with lots of warm anecdotes. In any case, if there are any truths to be found in his books, it is not because of Wilkinson's innovative genius. One could study the passages for oneself using solid commentaries, and come up with the truths for oneself!

Furthermore, reflecting American marketing genius, each of the above books have been aesthetically designed and packaged in various formats and targeted for various age groups. As best as I can gather, here's a pretty complete listing:

The Prayer of Jabez

  • The Prayer of Jabez Gift eBook
  • The Prayer of Jabez Gift Edition
  • The Prayer of Jabez Leather Edition
  • The Prayer of Jabez Devotional
  • The Prayer of Jabez Journal
  • Prayer of Jabez Bible Study
  • The Prayer of Jabez Bible Study Leader's Edition
  • Prayer of Jabez for Young Hearts
  • Prayer of Jabez for Little Ones
  • Prayer of Jabez for Kids
  • Prayer of Jabez for Teens
  • Prayer of Jabez for Teens eBook
  • The Prayer of Jabez Audio
  • The Prayer of Jabez Audio CD
  • The Prayer of Jabez Video
  • The Prayer of Jabez Video Leader's Guide
  • The Prayer of Jabez Video Course Workbook
  • Prayer of Jabez for Women
  • Prayer of Jabez for Women DVD
  • Prayer of Jabez for Women Audio
  • Prayer of Jabez for Women Audio CD
  • Prayer of Jabez for Women Video
  • Prayer of Jabez for Women Video Course Workbook
  • The Prayer of Jabez Music: A Worship Experience [Music CD]
  • Inspiration for the Heart from the Prayer of Jabez

Secrets of the Vine

  • Secrets of the Vine: Breaking Through to Abundance
  • Secrets of the Vine eBook
  • Secrets of the Vine Gift Edition
  • Secrets of the Vine Leather Edition
  • Secrets of the Vine For Kids
  • Secrets of the Vine For Women
  • Secrets of the Vine For Teens
  • Secrets of the Vine For Young Hearts
  • Secrets of the Vine Bible Study
  • Secrets of the Vine Bible Study Leader's Edition
  • Secrets of the Vine Devotional
  • Secrets of the Vine Devotions for Kids
  • Secrets of the Vine Journal
  • Secrets of the Vine 2003 Block Calendar
  • Secrets of the Vine Audio
  • Secrets of the Vine Audio CD
  • Secrets of the Vine for Teens Audio CD
  • Secrets of the Vine DVD
  • Secrets of the Vine Video
  • Secrets of the Vine Video Course Workbook
  • Secrets of the Vine Video Leader's Guide
  • Secrets of the Vine Cards

A Life God Rewards

  • A Life God Rewards: Why Everything You Do Today Matters Forever
  • A Life God Rewards Leather Edition
  • A Life God Rewards eBook
  • A Life God Rewards For Little Ones
  • A Life God Rewards For Kids
  • A Life God Rewards For Teens
  • A Life God Rewards Bible Study
  • A Life God Rewards Bible Study: Leader's Edition
  • A Life God Rewards Devotional
  • A Life God Rewards Journal
  • A Life God Rewards Audio
  • A Life God Rewards Audio CD
  • A Life God Rewards For Kids Audio CD
  • A Life God Rewards For Teens Audio CD
  • A Life God Rewards: Guys Only
  • A Life God Rewards: Guys 90-Day Challenge
  • A Life God Rewards: Girls Only
  • A Life God Rewards: Girls 90-Day Challenge
  • A Life God Rewards Video
  • A Life God Rewards Video Course Workbook
  • A Life God Rewards 2003 Calendar
  • Reflections on A Life God Rewards

Multnomah Books has clearly learned from the phenomenal success of the ubiquitous Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books. By my last count, there are over 50 titles in that sentimental suite of "sunshine and saccharine" stories. In addition to having a "Chicken Soup" answer for every conceivable interest and need in life ( Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Sport Fan's Soul), there are also E-Cards, music CDs, keychains, puzzles, board games, mugs, and other gift items.

Guess what? You can get trinkets to go along with your Prayer of Jabez book as well!

You can even download the prayer for your Palm, listen to a Prayer of Jabez" song on-line, or if you're a motorcylist, join the Jabez Prayer Ride Group. Want to really get spiritual? Attend Camp Jabez.

For a moment, I thought I heard a faint voice in the distance crying out, "Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father's house a marketplace!" But maybe I was dreaming ...

This crass materialism and user-friendly sentimentalism certainly appeals to the self-centered, consumerist mentality that largely characterizes today's therapeutic culture. Perhaps the real "genius" behind Wilkinson's books is that they epitomize "spirituality as technique". In effect, the secret to the success of Wilkinson's books is that he has refined the "McDonaldization" of spirituality (see The McDonaldization of Society by George Ritzer).

The evangelical Church today ... is replete with tricks, gadgets, gimmicks, and marketing ploys as it shamelessly adapts itself to our emptied-out, blinded, postmodern world. It is suporting a massive commercial enterprise of Christian products ... and is always begging for money to fuel one entrepreneurial scheme after another, but it is not morally resplendent. ... There is too little about it that bespeaks the holiness of God. And without the vision for and reality of this holiness, the Gospel becomes trivialized, life loses its depth, [and] God becomes transformed into a product to be sold ...

David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Eerdmans; 1998), p. 180.

Predictably, other writers have rushed in to capitalize on the Jabez fad. Here are some recent titles by those who have jumped on the Jabez bandwagon:

  • Jabez: A Novel, Thom Lemmons
  • The Jabez Prayer Experiment: Discovering a Prayer That Could Change Your World, Jay Dennis
  • The Jabez Prayer Collection: 30 Life Changing Prayers From The Bible For Children, Stephen Elkins et. al.
  • Prayers Jabez Didn't Pray, Kenneth C. Hill
  • Jabez the Story: Why God's Heart Was Moved, Jerry Seiden
  • The Jabez Prayer Guide: A Personal Journey to God's Blessing, Jacquie Tyre, Fred A. Hartley III
  • And Jabez Called on God: Blessings for Abundance in Everyday Life, Sarah M. Hupp
  • A Prayer for Today: "Fresh Insights" on the Prayer of Jabez, Bob Gass, Ruth Gass Halliday

And why not? Writing in The Weekly Standard (Dec. 16, 2002), in an article titled, The Jesus Market, Stephen Bates notes that Christian retailing is "a $4 billion-a-year business, with bestsellers and Grammys and trademark lawyers. Once available only in Christian bookstores, many of the items now command premium space in Wal-Mart and Borders. Christians may be struggling in the public square, but they seem to be prospering in the public bazaar." Lynn Garrett, religion editor for Publisher's Weekly, notes that, "You've not only got the original book, but the sequel, the audio book, the devotional. As soon as they (Multnomah) saw the first signs of success, the marketing machine went into high gear." She goes on to comment, "Its self-help orientation is also part of its popularity. Americans expect results; they expect their religion to work. Americans are very oriented towards success." (Lou Carlozo, "Jabez Becomes Cultural Phenomenon", The Chicago Tribune, Nov. 30, 2001)

Much that passes for popular Christianity these days is a strange brew concocted from pop psychology, Romantic piety, common sense, self-help, positive thinking and self-fulfillment (Peale and Schuller), and even a smattering of New Age spirituality. In his books, The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back and Spirit Wars, Peter Jones warns of a revival of gnostic ideas in today's spiritual smorgasbord. Damon Linker, associate editor of First Things, charges that The Prayer of Jabez

is a book of New Age spirituality--a gospel of personal empowerment. Mr. Wilkinson does not profess to offer rational reflection on the divine and its place in human life; he wants merely to make folks feel good about themselves. His book thus manages to amplify what is arguably the least Christian aspect of contemporary American popular culture.

That Mr. Wilkinson and his legion of admirers apparently find nothing particularly inappropriate about treating God as a means to their worldly satisfaction teaches us something important about American Christianity today--and thus something essential about America itself.

"Say a Little Prayer for Me", Opinion Journal

It never fails to baffle me at how Christians can read their Bibles and glibly ignore the context. I mean, is that how they read their favourite mystery novel? Then why do they feel justified in treating God's sacred Word in such a piecemeal fashion? Walter Brueggemann, professor of Old Testament theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, makes this astute observation, "The central critique of the popular response to the prayer is that it is treated in a vacuum, apart from a life of glad, obedient trust. Such a reduction fails to understand faith as the matrix of prayer. It regards God simply as a deal maker, an idolatry sure to happen in a commodity-driven society." (from Religion & Ethics Newsweekly)

Americans have perfected the art of reducing complicated truths into formulas and products.

Mike Yaconelli, in A Phenomenon of Biblical Proportions, LA Times (Aug. 14, 2001)

The Jabez prayer grants the supplicant full access to the American cult of success, an adoration of power and material satisfaction untroubled by any sense that the world may be a tragic place or the fear that the enlargement of one's territory might leave others' diminished.

Judith Shulevitz, Lord, Won't You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz?, New York Times (May 20, 2001)

I'm sure The Prayer of Jabez fad will eventually end (I pray it may be soon!), and the book will be forgotten. However, you can be sure that there will be a new faddish bestseller (full of warm ancecdotes, dubious interpretation of scripture verses and half-baked theological concepts) just around the corner, waiting to takes its place. And Christians (being the dumb sheep that we are) will be happy to shell out their money for the book and the accompanying spin-off merchandise! Like idolatrous Israel of old, you can count on it that Christians are always ready and willing to be a-whorin' after the latest spiritual craze.

Hey, how about you? Ever thought about being the next bestselling Christian author/celebrity? Can you imagine yourself on Larry King Live talking about your book? Here's how: find an obscure passage in the Old Testament (for best results, quote from the King James); ignoring the context, try to creatively think of how the verse can relate to people's "felt needs" today; try to present your message in a few easy-to-follow steps; throw in some heartwarming stories, and send your manuscript off to Multnomah Books! (Try something from the Book of Proverbs; or since sex always sells, the Song of Songs could prove to be fertile ground!)

However,the meaning of religious belief has also been changing in recent decades. ... Although most Americans say they want religion to play a greater public role so as to improve the moral condition of the nation, only 25 percent say that religious doctrines are the basis for their moral judgments about right and wrong. Even among born-again Christians, fewer than half say that they base their moral views on specific teachings of the Bible."

Hugh Heclo, "The Wall That Never Was", p. 75 (The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2003)

As more and more "pulp and pablum" continue to flow from Christian publishers, my experience has been that Christians are reading their Bibles less and less. Despite the growing number of different translations now available (e.g. the recent ESV and the recently completed The Message), and the various marketing formats (for Spirit-Filled Women, for Blacks, for Teens, etc.), most Christians I know would rather get their spiritual feeding from the milk of devotional and inspirational literature, than the meat of the God's Word. I often hear Christians excitedly say to me, "Hey, have you read Blackaby's book? It's awesome! I'm really growing from it!" or "Have you read Max Lucado's newest yet?" or "I'm soooo excited! I just got the latest volume in the Left Behind series! The cover is way cool!" But you're not going to hear, "Man! I just read through the book of Ezekiel in two sittings! What a powerful book!" or "Hey, I read through the rest of Chronicles -- other than the 2 verses that make up Jabez's prayer!" And so it's not surprising that much of what passes for Christianity these days is merely moralism or mysticism.

In closing, the prayer of Jabez obviously "works" for Wilkinson, as it has made him both very famous and rich. As for myself, the title of a work of fiction by Coleman Dowell in 1995, aptly summarizes what I think about this whole Jabez fad: Too Much Flesh and Jabez.

For Further Reading

The following books give helpful background as to why the Church is so anemic today. None of them are or ever will be bestsellers. You will not find them at Wal-Mart or your local grocery store.

  • John H. Armstrong, ed., The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis (Crossway; 1998)
  • John H. Armstrong, ed., The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel (Moody; 1996)
  • James Montgomery Boice, Benjamin E. Sasse, eds., Here We Stand! A Call from Confessing Evangelicals (Baker; 1996)
  • Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don't Think and What to Do About It (Baker; 1994)
  • Os Guinness, John Seel, eds. No God but God: Breaking With the Idols of Our Age (Moody; 1992)
  • Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale U. Press; 1989)
  • Michael S. Horton, Made In America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism (Baker; 1991)
  • Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (Yale U. Press; 1996)
  • George M. Marsden, Religion and American Culture (2nd ed.) (Wadsworth; 2000)
  • R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (Oxford U. Press; 1994)
  • Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans; 1995)
  • Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking; 1986)
  • Gregory A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church (Baker; 1996)
  • Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (U. of Chicago; 1987)
  • Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton U. Press; 1999)
  • John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day (Baker; 2002)
  • Paul C. Vitz, Psychology As Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (2nd ed.) (Eerdmans; 1994)
  • David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Eerdmans; 1993)
  • David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans; 1994)
  • David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Eerdmans; 1998)
  • Marsha Witten, All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton U. Press; 1993)
  • Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (U. of California Press; 1998)

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