May 25, 2001
By Mark Wingfield
DALLAS (ABP) -- Does God intend to give his children certain blessings but only if they ask?
Does reciting the same prayer to God every day provide power?
Does praying daily for God to bless you and enlarge your territory violate the dictates of Christian humility and sacrifice?
Has the so-called "health and wealth" theology found a back door into Baptist congregations?
These are some of the theological questions raised by the breakaway popularity of Bruce Wilkinson's bestseller, "The Prayer of Jabez."
The book has been widely embraced by Baptist ministers and laypeople in recent weeks and has become the basis of small-group Bible studies and sermons in some churches.
In the book, Wilkinson, founder of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries in Atlanta, urges readers to "reach for an extraordinary life" by praying the prayer of Jabez daily.
He has prayed the prayer of Jabez every day for 30 years, he writes, and has found it to produce wonderful results in his life and ministry.
"The Jabez prayer distills God's powerful will for your future," Wilkinson admonishes.
The book breaks the prayer of 1 Chronicles 4:10 into four parts.
The first is "that you would bless me indeed."
"God really does have unclaimed blessings waiting for you, my friend," Wilkinson writes. He explains that praying for God's blessings for yourself "is not the self-centered act it might appear, but a supremely spiritual one and exactly the kind of request our Father longs to hear."
To "bless," according to Wilkinson, means to "ask for or to impart supernatural favor. When we ask for God's blessing, we're not asking for more of what we could get for ourselves."
Although by praying the prayer of Jabez, "your life will become marked by miracles," Wilkinson urges readers not to see the prayer as a means to get specific things. Jabez, he notes, "left it entirely up to God to decide what the blessings would be and where, when and how" they would be received.
To illustrate the importance of asking for God's blessing, Wilkinson tells a fable about a man named Mr. Jones who dies and goes to heaven, where he discovers a ribbon-tied box with his name on it. Inside the box, he learns, are "all the blessings God wanted to give him while he was on earth, but Mr. Jones had never asked."
Wilkinson explains: "Even though 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. That's the catch--if you don't ask for his blessing, you forfeit those that come to you only when you ask."
The second part of the prayer is to "enlarge my territory."
This means to "ask God to enlarge your life so you can make a greater impact for him," Wilkinson says. "When you start asking in earnest -- begging -- for more influence and responsibility with which to honor him, God will bring opportunities and people into your path."
The third part of the prayer is "that your hand would be with me."
This emphasizes the Christian's dependence upon God and inability to do God's work in human power alone, Wilkinson explains. "The hand of the Lord is so seldom experienced by even mature Christians that they don't miss it and don't ask for it. They hardly know it exists."
Finally, the prayer asks "that you would keep me from evil."
This is a prayer not to face temptation, Wilkinson says. "Most of us face too many temptations -- and therefore sin too often -- because we don't ask God to lead us away from temptation."
In conclusion, Wilkinson asserts that God does have favorites. "Equal access to God does not add up to equal reward. â€¦ Simply put, God favors those who ask."
The nature of Wilkinson's message has drawn immediate comparisons among some critics to the health-and-wealth gospel of the televangelists. But Baptist advocates of the book say that's not what the book teaches at all.
"I don't see it as being prosperity theology," said Ted Elmore, director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas prayer office. "There are ample places in the Old and New Testaments where God does indeed want to bless his people."
Johnny White, associate pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, acknowledged the book "skates on the edge of health and wealth," but he does not believe that was Wilkinson's intent.
In using the book at Trinity, where 750 people recently discussed it in home Bible studies, "we've tried to focus on the natural human tendency to turn inward. We've tried to draw from that passage the outward focus -- bless me that I might reach out."
Even though he likes and advocates the prayer, it should not be seen as a "quick fix" or a "magic formula," said Jeff Williams, pastor of First Baptist Church of Denton, Texas.
At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, prayer and spiritual formation professor Dan Crawford has been teaching about the prayer of Jabez for 15 years. When he does, however, he presents it as "a biblical example of when a man prayed a bold prayer and God said yes."
While he believes God answers all prayers, Crawford asserted that God doesn't always answer all prayers in the affirmative. "Sometimes God says no; sometimes God says wait."
The value of the Jabez model is to encourage Christians to pray boldly, Crawford said. It should not be construed as a "hocus-pocus magic formula," he warned.
Even so, scores of people are reporting that they have discovered life-changing results by praying the prayer of Jabez. Reviews of the book on Amazon.com, for example, are replete with dramatic testimonies, as is the book's own Web site, www.prayerofjabez.com.
Elmore said he and other members of his family have found personal blessings through the prayer of Jabez. Yet he understands how the prayer and the book might be misused.
"The danger is not with the prayer of Jabez itself," Elmore said. "The danger would be in interpretation."
A person who feels the need to pray this specific prayer as a formula to achieve God's blessing is "a person who's more concerned with prayer than the God who answers prayer," he said. "Our confidence is not in prayer; our confidence is in God."
White, likewise, has found the prayer of Jabez personally beneficial. And he's heard from other members of Trinity that they have too.
Yet it's not the only thing he prays, he said. "It would be missing the point to think this becomes the mantra of life."
Christians should not fall into using the prayer of Jabez as a "ritualistic prayer," Crawford added.
"It's biblical to see God as wanting to give us good things. That's throughout the Scriptures. I don't think it's totally dependent upon us asking for it in some kind of ritualistic prayer. It may depend more on faithfulness and how the circumstances fit in to God's overall plan.
"Sometimes God gives to us that which to him is good but to us doesn't appear as we want it," Crawford said. "He works things for his good."
With more than 4.4 million copies of the little book now in circulation and no end in sight to the sales explosion, Christians who attempt to draw attention to what they see as potential theological dangers in the book often get a chilly reception.
Jim Holliday, pastor of Lyndon Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., writes book reviews for the Kentucky Western Recorder. He recently reviewed "The Prayer of Jabez" and panned it with a one star rating out of five possible stars.
Even members of his own congregation have questioned his judgment.
Yet he stands by his critique. "The book makes too much out of the prayer of Jabez," he asserted.
"If I were going to spend every day in a prayer discipline, I would much rather spend it with the prayer Jesus taught us," Holliday said. "There's probably more to be mined there in terms of spiritual development than in Jabez."
Holliday's view is shared by Mike Gunn, pastor of the non-denominational Mars Hill Christian Fellowship in Seattle. The contemporary congregation with roots in the Bible church movement has posted a bruising critique of Wilkinson's book on its Web site.
Gunn calls Wilkinson's book "a new low in the poor theology department" and nothing more than a fad.
"There are many great books on prayer," Gunn writes. "'The Prayer of Jabez' is not one of them. â€¦ Stay away from anyone who pulls out an obscure verse from a genealogy and builds a theology around it."
Meanwhile, the marketing machine behind Christian publishing is working overtime to develop spin-off Jabez products. Versions geared to women, teens and children are planned, as are Bible study guides and videos. Plaques and cups already are available.
For his part, Wilkinson expressed shock at the success of the book, which began germinating in his mind 30 years ago as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary.
"We can't claim any credit or brilliance," he told the Dallas Morning News. "It's just God deciding Jabez prayed this prayer thousands of years ago, and maybe now it's time to get it answered."
Associated Baptist Press. Used with Permission.