The Prayer of Jabez
Two verses tucked away in an obscure corner of the Old Testament, I Chronicles 4:9-10, tell the story of Jabez and his prayer. Dr. Bruce Wilkinson has sold over four million copies of The Prayer of Jabez, the book that explains the “prayer that God always answers” (p. 7). Dr. Wilkinson divides the short prayer into four distinct requests: “bless me indeed” (that is, pour out every bit of blessing that You have intended for me); “expand my territory” (that is, take my ministry, business, and so forth and give me new opportunities to do big things for You); “may your hand be with me” (that is, use Your power to sustain these blessings); and “keep me from evil” (that is, remove temptations from me so that I will not sin). According to Dr. Wilkinson, making these requests every day insures that we will get all the blessings God intends to give us. The Prayer of Jabez is without question a publishing phenomenon. However, is it true? Does it provide the key to getting “exponentially expanding blessings” (p. 75)?
Although I agree with Dr. Wilkinson that God has the power and the desire to bless His people, ultimately I think The Prayer of Jabez presents a profoundly misleading picture of how God blesses us. At the heart of my disagreement is a fable Dr. Wilkinson tells. A man dies and goes to heaven, where Saint Peter shows him a heavenly warehouse filled with boxes, each marked with a person’s name. Looking into the box marked with his name, the man sadly discovers all the blessings God had intended to give him but he had never received. Dr. Wilkinson asks (p. 25), “What if you found out that God had it in mind to send you twenty-three specific blessings today, but you only got one? What do you suppose the reason would be?” To Dr. Wilkinson the reason is very clear: you didn’t get those twenty-three blessings because you didn’t ask for them. Here, then, is the message of The Prayer of Jabez: life could be so much more rewarding if we would “release God’s power” (p. 48) to give us all that He wants us to have.
The idea that untapped blessings are waiting for God’s people has always been attractive. How do we explain the fact that God is good, and yet life can be so hard and unsatisfying? Easy: God wants us to have richer, more blessed lives, but He is unable to do so because we have hindered Him in some way. The key to reaping the blessings is to do something to make it possible for God to bless us as He wishes. Dr. Wilkinson’s book is one in a long line of proposals for what that something is. Some have argued that spiritual disciplines (fasting, meditation, solitude, and so on) are the key to the abundant life. Some say that we must “sow a seed” in order to receive God’s blessings—in other words, we have to give money. Dr. Wilkinson’s solution is to pray the four petitions of the Jabez prayer continually; a constant flow of requests makes it possible for God to bless us as much as He desires.
Dr. Wilkinson doesn’t biblically defend the idea that God’s people are missing out on unclaimed blessings; he assumes it is true and uses that assumption to explain the prayer of Jabez. That very assumption, however, I cannot accept. I see a very different picture in the pages of Scripture. The God of the Bible sent Christ to die for His people in order that He might pour out His blessings upon them, and nothing—nothing—will prevent Him from doing so. No warehouse of unclaimed blessings exists; every blessing God intends for me is addressed with my name and delivered to me personally.
Dr. Wilkinson means to portray God as generous and giving when he says that God has more for us if we would only ask. However, I find the picture of God implied by The Prayer of Jabez to be bleak and discouraging. Take for example what Dr. Wilkinson says about sin and temptation (pp. 67-68):
In my experience, most Christians seem to pray solely for strength to endure temptations… Somehow we don’t think to ask God simply to keep us away from temptation… [God] longs to hear you plead for safekeeping from evil. Without a temptation, we would not sin. Most of us face too many temptations—and therefore sin too often—because we don’t ask God to lead us away from temptation.
Speaking for myself, the struggle with sin has been a painful battle throughout the course of my life as a Christian. Deep groans and bitter tears have accompanied the cries of my heart to God that He would give me strength in that battle. Am I to understand that He has been helpless to come to my aid because I have been asking for the wrong thing? Was I wasting my time praying for moral strength when I should have been praying to avoid temptation altogether? Is this the love of God at work, leaving me to struggle helplessly because I had not yet learned to phrase my request right? This concept of God seems very far from the God of the Bible. In Romans 8, Paul describes instead a God so determined to bless me that His own Spirit prays for me, because I don’t know how to pray for myself.
And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? (Romans 8:26-32)
This is not a picture of a God who is hindered by my failure to pray the right prayer; this is a God who decided, quite apart from me, to be on my side and let nothing stop Him from blessing me. The world around me may be seeking my harm, and I may not know how to take the tangled mess of my life and turn it into a blessing, but God Himself is at work to make every bit of it work for my good. This passage is not saying that God might work everything for my good if I figure out how to pray; it says He is working everything for my good, period. Christ’s death has reconciled me to God, and since God is now totally on my side, nothing—not even my own mistakes—will stop Him from freely giving me every blessing He intends for me.
We often miss the breathtaking totality and inevitability of God’s blessing because we have the wrong picture of how God intends to bless us. For God’s people, all of life is a journey toward our ultimate blessing. Look at the majestic opening of Peter’s first letter. As believers we rejoice because we have a “living hope,” an “imperishable inheritance” “reserved in heaven,” a “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Today we rejoice, even though we may be “distressed by various trials,” because our faith is being tested like gold in the fire, and the proof of our faith will result in “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” As a result, we live today with our eyes fixed firmly on the future. “Therefore, gird your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Wilkinson consistently portrays blessing in terms of growth and success: ministries that grow larger, stock portfolios that grow more valuable, books that sell more copies. God certainly may choose to bless us with such things; in fact, as a Jew Jabez was an heir to promises concerning mundane physical needs such as land and security. Ongoing revelation, however, has made it clear that the focus of God’s blessings is elsewhere. God is determined to bless His people with growth in grace and a sanctified heart, leading to our eternal inheritance in God’s kingdom. Many of God’s chosen saints have toiled in ministries that did not grow and started businesses that failed. God used those “failures” to strengthen their hearts and teach them perseverance and a love for God’s kingdom, which is exactly the blessing He intended all along.
I am not saying there is no need to pray; God often works His will in our lives by bringing us to pray for the very thing He intends to give us. (Just as He also works His will in our lives by bringing us to pray for things He does not intend to give us, so that our faith may be tried and strengthened.) Dr. Wilkinson is not wrong to point to the prayer of Jabez as a model for our own prayers. But what kind of faith does Jabez model for us?
How we answer that question depends on the picture of faith we bring to it. Dr. Wilkinson seems to assume that there are three kinds of people: (1) unbelievers, who will perish in the judgment of God; (2) believers who settle for second best, who have just enough faith to be saved from Hell, but who miss out on God’s miraculous blessings; and (3) believers who believe in the power of God to bless abundantly in this life, who believe that God wants them to have more and more and more, and who ask for it specifically. To Dr. Wilkinson, then, Jabez is a model of the third kind of person. Jabez doesn’t settle for average; he knows that God has a bigger blessing for him, and he doesn’t hesitate to ask for it.
In contrast, I believe there are only two kinds of people: those who believe and those who don’t. Hebrews 11:6 says: “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for the one who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” Every believer comes to God believing that God exists and that He is a source of blessing. Jabez is not singled out because he looked to God for a bigger blessing than others did; he is distinguished because he had faith, where others had none.
In the end, I would say that every believer is already praying the prayer of Jabez, rightly understood. If we are looking to Christ for salvation, then we are looking to God for blessing and an expanded territory and God’s hand with us and freedom from evil. Like Jabez, we believe that God is the source of blessing, goodness, and security. We have an advantage over Jabez, however; we have been told a lot more about God’s ultimate purposes and how He fully and finally will answer our prayers for blessing. No temporal blessing is worth comparing to the blessing, security, and freedom from evil to be found in God’s eternal kingdom, and every true believer is looking forward to joining Jabez in that place where God will bless us indeed.
Copyright July 2001 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.