In the “BreakThrough Series” Bruce Wilkinson attempts to share with believers the keys to punching through spiritual staleness into the realm of victory and blessing. Subtitled, “Little Books, Big Change,” the object of the series speaks for itself. It seeks to pack radical concepts of Christian living into a light, warm and readable format. The Prayer of Jabez is no more than 93 pages, the text on each page being as small as 1/4th of an 8 by 11 sheet of paper. Just as the name of the series, the preface to the book promises great things; Wilkinson states: “I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers. It is brief – only one sentence with four parts – and tucked away in the Bible, but I believe it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God” (emphasis mine). With this lofty goal, the book embarks on a seven chapter exploration of each part of Jabez’s prayer, found in 1 Chronicles 4:10. Each part seeks to principlize a particular portion of the prayer, and then apply it to the life of a New Testament believer.
The methodology of walking through the prayer, phrase by phrase is but one of the books strengths. Wilkinson’s general tone and fervor throughout The Prayer of Jabez is exactly what the series promises – spiritual life breathed into a realm of Christian living that can easily become hackneyed and uninspired. Wilkinson’s passion in the book obviously stems from a high view of prayer. For him prayer is effective and life changing – a very real act of God; a serious means of breaking into human circumstances with divine resources (hence his emphasis on the supernatural and “miraculous” nature of prayer, cf. pgs. 23, 43). Another strength of the book is its unyielding focus on ministry as a lifestyle. The heart of the prayer that the author seeks to expound is paraphrased on pg. 32: “O God and King, please expand my opportunities and my impact in such a way that I touch more lives for Your glory. Let me do more for You!”
This focus is consistently illustrated in every example cited as an answer to the Jabez prayer. The author chronicles examples of answers to the prayer in missions to Trinidad (pg. 33-35), ministry to an unbelieving stranger on a cruise ship (pg. 37-38), ministry to a Christian woman on a train trip (pg. 42), taking on the Walk Thru the Bible ministry (pg. 46-47), success in a Long Island youth evangelism ministry (pg. 56-60), ministry to an unbelieving woman in an airport (pg. 79-82), and the launching of a world- wide ministry called WorldTeach (pg. 89). Praying for God’s will and the expansion of His kingdom, and not for worldly accoutrements is certainly a considerable strength for the book (see pg. 24).
Yet, with all of its positive features, The Prayer of Jabez is plagued with serious problems. Probably the most significant problem in the book is the most fundamental assumption of the whole series – that there is one elusive key to unlock the secret of God’s will for your life and open the floodgates of His blessing. Wilkinson is confident that the entirety of God’s will can be boiled down into the various features of this one prayer. In attempting to illustrate this assumption, the author proceeds to paint every aspect of the Christian life with a Jabez-colored brush.
The statement previously mentioned as appearing in the preface, namely that this prayer is “the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God” is reinforced vigorously throughout the book. Pg. 11 boldly proclaims, “ . . . the Jabez prayer distills God’s powerful will for your future.” Again, on page 24 he states: “ . . . the Jabez blessing focuses like a laser on our wanting for ourselves nothing more and nothing less than what God wants for us.”
For Wilkinson, Jabez’s prayer encompasses what it means to lead a victorious Christian life and to be in the will of God. He even goes as far as to say that the very purpose of redemption is to experience the blessing of “Jabez praying,” which he describes this way:
Your spiritual expectations undergo a radical shift, though it might be only slightly apparent to someone else. You feel renewed confidence in the present-tense power and reality of your prayers because you know you’re praying in the will and pleasure of God. You sense in the deepest recesses of your being the rightness of praying like this. You know beyond a doubt that you were redeemed for this: to ask Him for the God-sized best He has in mind for you, and to ask for it with all your heart (pg. 91).
Acts of divine providence (God’s preserving and governing of the world through second causes) in providing ministry opportunities are renamed as “Jabez appointments” (pg. 37) and “Jabez experiences” (pg. 38). Instead of sin hindering a lifestyle of obedience for the glory of God, the author couches it in terms of hindrance to a “Jabez blessing”:
You should know that when you sin after experiencing the Jabez blessing, you’ll experience a deeper grief over your disconnect from God than you ever thought possible. It’s the pain that comes from having once tasted the exhilaration of God working in you at a higher level of fulfillment and then turning back” (pg. 85).
Perhaps the most peculiar oversimplification occurs on page 90, where Wilkinson relates the success of his WorldTeach Ministry, stating:
Humanly speaking, this kind of growth is unexplainable. We are only weak humans who seek to be clean and fully surrendered to our Lord, to want what he wants for His world, and to step forward in His power and protection to see it happen now. I don’t know what you call that, but I have always called it the miracle of Jabez.
The “miracle of Jabez?” Perhaps. Others have chosen to simply call it obedience to Matthew 28:19-20. But Wilkinson is determined to see Jabez in every nook and cranny of the Christian life. And it is precisely that determination that colors every experience he relates in the book – witnessing opportunities become “miracles of Jabez”, and personal success in ministry is not so much attributed to God’s faithfulness and a general pattern of prayer and watchfulness, but to the recitation of the prayer of Jabez. “ . . . I promise you that you will see a direct link: You will know beyond doubt that God has opened heaven’s storehouse because you prayed” (pg. 84, emphasis mine).
Praying the prayer of Jabez is likened unto standing before massive gates recessed into a large wall, blocking the road to blessing. The prayer of Jabez is prayed, and the gates swing wide open into another, more victorious life. Such an illustration is unrealistic as it is picturesque – rather than being an uphill battle, or a struggle of faithfulness (Mark 14:38), the prayer of Jabez is almost given magical properties:
As you repeat the steps, you will set in motion a cycle of blessing that will keep multiplying what God is able to do in and through you. This is the exponential growth I referred to at the close of the previous chapter. You have asked for and received more blessing, more territory, more power and more protection. But the growth curve soon starts to spike upwards. You don’t reach the next level of blessing and stay there. You begin again – Lord, bless me indeed! Lord please enlarge . . .! And so on. As the cycle repeats itself, you’ll find that you are steadily moving into wider spheres of blessing and influence, spiraling ever outward and upward into a larger life for God (pg. 83-84).
This conception of prayer is seen again on page 29, “prayer is only limited by us . . . through a simple, believing prayer, you can change your future. You can change what happens one minute from now” (emphasis mine). And again on pg. 76: God “holds nothing back from those who want and earnestly long for what He wants” (What about 2 Co. 12:7-9?).
In short, strain as it might, the Jabez’s prayer could never handle the weight that Wilkinson puts upon it – prayer alone cannot entirely sanctify a believer (where is the discussion of the sanctifying power of the Word, the mutual stimulation of fellowship, and the manifold other spiritual disciplines that make up the Christian life?). Anyone who expects such results will be badly disappointed. What’s more, Wilkinson’s claim that the prayer of Jabez distills God’s will for the Christian life is further confounded by the fact that nothing in the prayer actually mentions the ultimate purpose of man, which is worship (cf. John 4:21-24, Ecc. 12:13-14). Such a focus is obscured by the ubiquitous emphasis of the believer’s influence or usefulness for God. Not even the Disciples Prayer of Matthew 6, a clear model of prayer for the Church, could be made to handle the inflated significance given to the prayer of Jabez.
Even if the prayer was a legitimate summary of the will of God, and assuming it was repeated to the letter, according to the daily regimen of recitation prescribed by Wilkinson (pg. 87), the results may seem less spectacular than the author makes them sound. Stripped of the words “miraculous” and “supernatural,” all of the encounters cited as “Jabez experiences” are nothing more than sharing the gospel as one has opportunity – and opportunities can be prayed for without reciting the prayer of Jabez. Wilkinson’s definition of a “miracle” ends up amounting to any circumstance in which an opportunity for ministry arises. Such a circumstance is arbitrarily designated as “something that wouldn’t normally happen” (pg. 43), and glibly compared to actual miracles (where God directly acts to interrupt fixed laws of nature), such as Christ walking on the water (pg. 43); the result is that opportunities to share tips for a good marriage with a man named Terry on an island cruise ship is not much different than the Messiah’s suspension of natural laws in order to tread upon liquid as if it were solid ground.
In the end one is not sure whether Wilkinson even handled the text of 1 Chron. 4:10 at all, since it mentions nothing of witnessing opportunities or a desire to be used of God to expand His spiritual kingdom. The questions of how the answered requests for a literal border expansion by a descendent of Judah has anything to do with a New Testament believer’s desire to see people come to Christ remain unanswered throughout the book. No steps are taken to substantiate that the principles drawn from the text actually stem from its interpretation its own literary historical context. Indeed, if the first chapter be taken woodenly, it would seem that there was no attempt made at interpretation at all. Wilkinson says,
“Something in the prayer of Jabez would explain the mystery of why God answered his prayer – it had to. Pulling a chair up to the yellow counter, I bent over my Bible, and reading the prayer over and over, I searched with all my heart for the future God had for someone as ordinary as I. The next morning, I prayed Jabez’s prayer word for word. And the next. And the next. Thirty years later, I haven’t stopped” (pg. 10-11).
Instead of carefully walking the reader from the passage in its original context across the bridge of interpretation, and to the application on the other side, Wilkinson teleports the reader from the text to the application, avoiding the bridge altogether. The principles expounded throughout the rest of the book appear out of thin air. So with what, one wonders, does Wilkinson support the principles explained in the rest of the book? The bottom of page 11 becomes their solitary defense throughout: “How do I know that it [the prayer of Jabez] will significantly impact you? Because of my experience and the testimony of hundreds of others around the world with whom I’ve shared these principles.” The bottom line with The Prayer of Jabez is that the author has sought to repackage well-known principles of Christian living – dependence upon God in prayer, a heart for the lost that seeks ministry opportunities, etc – as a revolutionary, head-in-the-clouds technique that guarantees spiritual success. These principles are imported into 1 Chron. 4:10 without adequate warrant, and mixed with overstatement and empty hype for purposes of persuasion. Had the book’s faults been limited to a slick, superficial repackaging, it could still be recommended for its biblical content. Unfortunately, the exaggeration and overstatement which so characterizes the book unwittingly obscures fundamental truths about how prayer works and provides no substantial insight for those faced with the average, daily Christian grind of sanctification.