Riding a tidal wave of surging popularity, few Christian books have burst onto the publishing scene and been as widely received as The Prayer of Jabez (Multnomah, 2000). In only its sixth year of circulation, this brief, ninety-three-page book has sold a staggering ten million copies, pushing its way to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. In its wake, a virtual Prayer of Jabez sub-culture has emerged, complete with journals, backpacks, jewelry, vanilla-scented candles, and myriads of assorted marketing paraphernalia. Unfortunately, many well-meaning evangelicals have been swept up in this trendy phenomenon.
Prefacing this work, author Bruce Wilkinson writes, “I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers. It is brief — only one sentence with four parts…but I believe it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God.… In fact, thousands of believers who are applying its truths are seeing miracles happen on a regular basis.” But is the prayer of Jabez really the single greatest key to a spiritual life that is pleasing to God? Is Wilkinson’s teaching true to the full counsel of God? Hardly.
Those with doctrinal moorings and spiritual discernment know that this simplistic approach to the Christian life is an inadequate means by which to view God, true spirituality, and prayer. True, certain features of the book can be cited positively, such as its much-needed emphasis upon prayer. But The Prayer of Jabez, quite frankly, suffers from a deficient theology. The book is seriously plagued by the following things:
First, an inadequate view of prayer, trivializing its truly profound nature; second, a misguided focus upon prosperity, overtly emphasizing miracles and financial blessings; third, a defective doctrine of providence that fails to see God sovereignly and actively involved in all of life. Polemics aside, however, it will do us well to revisit the prayer of Jabez — not the book, but the biblical text — and discover what this prayer actually teaches.
Tucked away in a long genealogical record (1 Chron. 4), Jabez emerges from relative obscurity as one who “was more honorable than his brothers” (v. 9). A spiritually strong man, he was highly esteemed in his day, more virtuous and upstanding than others. His extraordinary piety is well documented in that a city was named after him, a place where “the families of scribes” gathered (1 Chron. 2:55). Moreover, his name, Jabez, means, “He will cause pain,” a perpetual reminder of the agony he caused during delivery. Yet, despite such a difficult entrance into this world, there was a divinely scripted plan for his life, sovereignly orchestrated for God’s glory and his good.
With complete dependence upon God in prayer, Jabez “called upon…God (Elohim)” (1 Chron. 4:10a), the divine name meaning the Supreme One, Mighty Ruler, and Sovereign Lord (Gen. 1:1). By appealing to this name, he acknowledged that God providentially reigns over all the works of His hands (Ps. 103:19). Moreover, He is the God “of Israel,” closely related to His chosen ones (Amos 3:2). To Jabez, God is both infinite and intimate, both accessible and able to answer his prayers.
In petitioning God, Jabez prayed, “Oh that you would bless me” (v. 10b). That is, he asked God to extend His undeserved favor toward him. Specifically, Jabez asked, “Enlarge my border” (v. 10c), thereby requesting that God would expand his territory by defeating his enemies, the Canaanites, expelling them from the adjacent territory. In the days of Moses and Joshua, God had promised that He would give the Promised Land to Israel. Accordingly, Jabez prayed for this increase in land.
Is it right to ask God for material things? Of course it is. Jesus Himself taught His disciples to pray for their “daily bread” (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). God desires us to petition Him for all good things needed to fulfill His will, even for physical provisions (James 4:2). But, ultimately, God is sovereign and will answer prayer as He wills, not as man wills. To be sure, the motive of every prayer must be for the glory of God, not the greed of man. As lowly servants before our exalted King, we should make certain that our prayers are always humble requests, never haughty demands.
Furthermore, Jabez prayed “that your hand might be with me” (v. 10d), a petition that the invisible hand of Providence would empower him in this heroic endeavor. The truth is, God’s work must always be done in God’s power, or it will surely fail (Zech. 4:6). Moreover, Jabez requested “that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain” (v. 10e). In this, he asked for God’s supernatural protection to be upon him throughout this conflict. To be sure, all God’s servants are exposed to constant danger and desperately need divine protection from Satan’s relentless assaults.
With unwavering faith, Jabez placed this entire matter in the hands of God — and there are no more reliable, or more capable, and no more powerful hands than those of our sovereign God. What was the result of such a humble prayer? Simply this, that God “granted what he asked” (v. 10f). Not because Jabez used the right formula in prayer. Nor because he somehow manipulated God. For God is not a genie to be conjured out of a bottle and used for one’s own personal ends. Rather, God sovereignly chose to be glorified through Jabez in answering his petition. The prayer of Jabez is not a mindless mantra that God always answers, chanted for self-advancement. Instead, it teaches us to seek God faithfully. When He alone is magnified, we will be truly blessed indeed.