“Read not the times, read the eternities,” said Henry David Thoreau. It isn’t often that the two realms intersect, but they have this year—and not only in the New York Times, but in news media across America—with the runaway success of Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life (Multnomah, 2000). The Prayer of Jabez, as almost everyone knows by now, proclaims the blessings that derive from reciting an obscure prayer buried in a genealogical litany of, well, biblical proportions in the driest book in scripture, 1 Chronicles. The pertinent text, in the New King James Version favored by Wilkinson, reads:
Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested (1 Chronicles 4:9-10).
Wilkinson first recited the prayer as a young seminary student uncertain about his future. The results, he writes, “revolutionized my life,” launching him on a thirty-year career as a minister and writer. They have also spawned a mini-industry of audiotapes, gift items, spin-off books (The Prayer of Jabez Journal, The Prayer of Jabez for Teens, etc.), and a website, www.prayerofjabez.com, packed with accounts of “miracles” by those rescued or revitalized by saying the prayer. One correspondent writes of the prayer’s role in foiling a plane hijacking, another of using the prayer to comfort a child scared by a mouse.
The Prayer of Jabez is, if nothing else, an astute blend of literary archaeology, evangelical cheerleading, and attractive packaging. That Wilkinson brought the Jabez prayer to public attention is admirable enough; like Poe’s purloined letter, it has been in plain sight for thousands of years, translated into hundreds of languages as a portion of the most widely read book in the world, and yet it has remained utterly invisible. Even the Church Fathers, exegetical Argonauts who explored the vast seas of the Old Testament inch-by-inch, overlooked it; I found not a single mention of it in the standard thirty-eight-volume Edinburgh edition of the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers.
Wilkinson has no interest in scholarly analysis; he uses each of the prayer’s four petitions as a springboard for an affable, upbeat sermon whose key message is that God wishes to “release His miraculous power in your life now. And for all eternity, He will lavish on you His honor and delight.” As the 7.4 million copies sold to date indicate, the public has rushed to accept this divine outpouring with opened arms and wallets.
The success of The Prayer of Jabez is the major publishing story of the year, testimony to our intense hunger for a fruitful relationship with God. But of equal interest, I believe, is the extensive (but by no means universal) condemnation of the book by the news media, the intelligentsia, and the professional theological community. Most of the objections take one of four basic forms:
Discomfort with evangelical religion. This is easy enough to spot. One sees it, for example, in the opening sentence of many of the news reports. Thus the Washington Post begins its story in mock-preacher style, asking readers to “Please bow your heads.” The New York Times Book Review’s essay starts in similar fashion: “Our text today is The Prayer of Jabez.” Such openings, blending condescension and wit, put the reader on notice: what follows should be read with one eyebrow arched. That the national media have a hard time with evangelical stories is scarcely a revelation, but it should be borne in mind when analyzing the widespread opposition to Wilkinson’s book.
Discomfort with Wilkinson’s style. Only those with a tin ear can defend Wilkinson’s way with words; his prose is the stuff of billboards (“Friend, have you ever seen the Holy Spirit break through emotional and spiritual barriers right before your eyes?”), as pushy and gawky as a down-on-his-luck Bible salesman. But this is a sin against style, not against God; it says nothing about the efficacy of the Jabez prayer or the fundamental integrity of Wilkinson’s message.
Discomfort with petitionary prayer. Here lies the heart of most assaults on The Prayer of Jabez. A number of liberal theologians object to the very notion of petitionary prayer, considering it to be a “low” form of prayer and contending that God, who is not given to caprice, has better things to do than cater to our transient whims. Moreover, the argument goes, petitionary prayer is redundant, as God already knows our most intimate needs and desires. The answer to these objections, of course, is that no less an authority than Jesus of Nazareth, when asked by his disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray,” responded with a paradigmatic set of petitions, at least some of which (“give us this day our daily bread”; “deliver us from evil”) bear comparison with the Jabez prayer. It’s worth noting, too, that prayers of petition appear prominently in every religion (even nontheistic forms of Buddhism), for every religious community instinctively senses that such prayers have a legitimate place in worship and that they (sometimes) work.
Many critics, however, point their fingers not at petition in general, but squarely at the second clause of the Jabez prayer: “enlarge my territory.” This request, especially in light of Wilkinson’s rather ham-handed declaration that “if Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, ‘Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios,’” has raised the specter of Reverend Ike and his ilk; thus the London Times headline of May 10, “Please Lord, make me rich.” Here theologians go for the knockout, declaring the Jabez prayer and its disciples to be crude, self-serving, and narcissistic.
But these punches miss the mark. Wilkinson emphasizes throughout his book that while praying the Jabez prayer we must want “nothing more and nothing less than what God wants for us.” That is: “not my will, but Thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). In the book and on the website, the vast majority of answered prayers have nothing to do with personal aggrandizement and everything to do with bringing peace and goodwill to others, usually by spreading the gospel. We hear testimony, for example, from a worried mother who discovers that “enlarge my territory” means that her kids will accompany her to Sunday School. This entails, of course, a more-than-literal interpretation of “territory,” which brings to mind those Church Fathers mentioned above. Surely, if they had noticed the prayer of Jabez, they would have offered allegorical, analogical, and symbolic interpretations in addition to a literal reading; they too might have argued that “enlarge my territory,” especially when voiced by an “honorable” man such as Jabez, meant “enlarge the glory of God.”
As for those few who recite the Jabez prayer, or any prayer, out of selfish motives, one trusts that if the prayer is unworthy, God will not answer it. One also prays that those who ask blessings for themselves will do the same for their neighbors. It should be noted, however, that the impulse to ask God for help—for success on a school test, a marriage proposal, a commercial venture—is natural, healthy, and hardly limited to our reportedly narcissistic culture. Consider, for example, this prayer for success in gathering seaweed, collected in the nineteenth century on a remote Scottish isle by the peripatetic anthropologist Alexander Carmichael and included in his Carmina Gadelica:
The people watch and hope and pray for the coming of seaweed, and are anxious at the prospect of impending famine. When the seaweed comes they rejoice and sing hymns of praise to the gracious God of the sea who has heard their prayers:
Seaweed being cast on shore,
Bestow, Thou Being of bestowal;
Produce being brought to wealth,
O Christ, grant me my share!
Discomfort with the promised results of the prayer. Few commentators have addressed this issue, and yet I believe it is the only serious objection to The Prayer of Jabez. “God really does have unclaimed blessings waiting for you,” writes Wilkinson, and few who believe in God and His love for mankind will disagree. But what sort of blessings? Christianity teaches that our final destiny is holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This perfection is not won without suffering and sacrifice, as the testimony of two thousand years of saintly attainment bears witness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it succinctly: “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.”
The Prayer of Jabez hints at the mysterious value of suffering, for instance in Wilkinson’s warnings against spiritual pride, but the message is never spelled out. The abiding assumption seems to be that “blessings” means worldly wealth and happiness, albeit in the service of God. But who would hogtie the Almighty in this way? Every spring the Church celebrates the feast day of Justin Martyr, whose very name proclaims the redemptive suffering bestowed by God. Blessings, it seems, can come in many forms. The Bible doesn’t tell us if Jabez had undergone a similar trial of suffering and self-sacrifice, but curiously enough, his name, like Justin’s, strongly suggests it. A number of scholars have pointed out that Jabez (y‘btz) is a play on b‘tzb, the Hebrew word for pain. As Sara Japhet unpacks the prayer in her I & II Chronicles: A Commentary (1993), the boy’s given name was actually Jazeb, which his mother distorted in “an intentional mispronunciation . . . as an urgent plea to God to avert the name’s inherent dangers.”
Thus Jabez, a man whose adopted name constitutes in itself a petitionary prayer and who, despite the affliction of his accursed birth-name, grows “more honorable than his brothers”—that is to say, closer to holiness. By what means could Jabez’s virtue have grown, if not by the inevitable path of the saints? God has blessed Jabez and granted him his prayer, but this blessing must have entailed genuine metanoia, with its concomitant suffering. As Kierkegaard reminds us, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” So, too, I suspect, the Jabez prayer may change us all, in ways easy or hard to swallow, but always to the greater glory of God.
Philip Zaleski is currently writing, with his wife Carol Zaleski, The Language of Paradise: Prayer in Human Life and Culture, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003.