Book Review: The Prayer of Jabez, by Bruce Wilkinson
Like most of evangelicalism, I have recently heard much about the bombshell best-seller by Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez. Apparently the book has found a wide audience among Christians and is selling like crazy now. One Southern Baptist paper that I’m looking at right now has it listed as the #1 best-seller in all Lifeway Stores nationwide for the month of March. In all honesty, I fear that tells us more about the Christian community today than it does about the profundity of Wilkinson’s book. What Wilkinson says isn’t really profound at all, though he bills it that way. Using Jabez’s prayer in I Chronicles 4, he points out four principles—1) that God wants us to pray for His blessing, 2) that He wants us to pray for His blessing on our ministry to people, 3) that He wants us to pray for spiritual power in our ministry efforts, and 4) that we should pray to be delivered from evil.
None of those principles are false in themselves. In fact, all of them are taught elsewhere in the Bible. In Acts 4, we see believers praying for blessing on themselves as they proclaim God’s word. In Matthew 6 and 7, Jesus tells us that God knows even our physical needs, that we are to pray for “our daily bread,” and that we should ask the Father to “deliver us from evil.” There is nothing unbiblical about praying for God’s blessing on our lives and ministries. What is unbiblical is that people are treating this prayer—and Wilkinson in no way discourages the idea—as some kind of magic formula that will somehow hypnotize God into blessing us. He writes as if he has unearthed some long lost secret amulet from the caves of the Old Testament that will unlock God’s vault of blessing for us. Wilkinson prays the Jabez prayer “word for word,”(p.11) and he tells stories of people who have been “praying the prayer” for any number of years. “Bruce,” says one man, “I heard you preach the message of Jabez fifteen years ago, and I haven’t stopped praying it. The change has been so overwhelming I have just never stopped.” Wilkinson then writes, “Across the table, another friend agreed. He said he’d been praying Jabez’s little prayer for ten years with similar results. The man next to him . . . said he’d been praying it for five. I told them, ‘Friends, I’ve been praying Jabez for more than half my life!” (p.16).
Even worse, the thrust of the book is that the Jabez prayer cannot fail to “get results.” The very first sentence of the Preface says this: “Dear Reader, I want to teach you to pray a daring prayer that God always answers.” What a ridiculous and unbiblical sentence! And it remains unqualified through the whole book. Christians need to recover the idea that faith is not defined as believing that God will give us what we want if we just believe hard enough. How many times do we read of God not blessing someone, even someone who is one of His children? Paul, for example, prays three times (no less!) in II Corinthians 12 for God to remove his difficulties. God refuses, and is glorified even more for not doing what Paul asked! Job prays for God to alleviate his suffering. God refuses and again is glorified all the more. Even the Son of God Himself prays that the cup of suffering would pass from Him. Again, God refuses and thereby saves His people from their sins. Was it lack of faith in these people, or maybe the fact that they didn’t pray Jabez’s prayer in particular? The truth is probably closer to the fact that God is sovereign, and His plans for His children do not always include ease, comfort, and apparent success. Many times, God’s refusing to answer our prayers as we would like results in greater glory to Him than if He had done what would make us happiest. God does not always bless us, and he certainly does not always do so at our bidding.
Finally, the theology of prayer that Wilkinson teaches in the book is entirely unconnected to the Christian gospel. Jesus Christ merits three mentions in the book, one on p.47 where an old man tells Wilkinson he is “walking with Jesus” and the other two on pages 67-68, where Jesus is used as an example to prove the point that we are to pray for deliverance from evil. There is no mention at all of the cross or that it is precisely Christ’s death, resurrection, and intercession that cause God to even hear our prayers. Paul writes in II Corinthians 1:20, “No matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through Him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.” That kind of Christ-centered teaching is absent from the book.