Weekly Edgework #87 - February 27, 2006

Jabez Unraveled

How well I remember the splash the book, “The Prayer of Jabez,” by Bruce Wilkinson, made when it was first published in 2000 by Multnomah Publishers. It was an immediate hit in the evangelical community and beyond – especially after James Dobson endorsed the book during an interview with the author on a Focus on the Family broadcast. The main argument Wilkinson made in the book was that all those who pray the prayer of Jabez daily – word-for-word – as found in I Chronicles 4:10, would automatically find their lives blessed in extra-ordinary measure. That prayer made by an obscure figure in the Old Testament was as follows:

Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.

The book advocating that prayer as a daily mantra has now sold over 22 million copies, along with millions of attendant trinkets designed to remind people to recite that daily prayer. In the process Bruce Wilkinson has become rich beyond his wildest dreams. This of course is proof that the prayer that worked for Jabez worked for Wilkinson, and that it can work for all of us. By all counts it seems to have been an American, evangelical success story.

Many of us had major reservations about Wilkinson’s thesis when the book first came out. However raising those concerns in the context of the euphoria created by the Jabez phenomenon was largely a pointless exercise. It seemed that saying anything to critique the book branded one as unduly critical and unbelieving. There was not much we could do but hunker down to let the storm pass.

What we found objectionable about this new-found secret to success has, in the intervening years, been articulated by many Christian leaders around the world. Google for “Prayer of Jabez” and you will find nearly 400,000 entries, a lot of them alerting us to the fallacies of Wilkinson’s thesis. And there are many areas of concern. It bypasses the Lord’s prayer which includes a call for confession and repentance. It guarantees that your dreams will come true, if you pray the exact words daily. It assumes that God is reluctant to bless us until we discover this obscure prayer. It turns prayer into a mantra made successful by much repetition. It claims that seeking God’s blessing is our ultimate act of worship. It appeals to the self-centered mentality of contemporary North American society. It is essentially “prosperity gospel lite” for those immune to the Benny Hinn variety. And this is only a small sample of the problems thinking Christians have identified in the message of the book.

The greatest tragedy related to the Jabez fiasco, however, are the thousands – perhaps millions – of people for whom the formulaic mantra just didn’t work. Any honest person open to the realities of life soon discovers that prayers used as magic formulas for success will not always work – no matter how sincerely they are made or how much faith is involved. When Jabez is allowed to trump the heros of faith recorded in Hebrews chapter eleven, red flags should come up immediately. All these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised…Some indeed suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonments. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword…wandering over deserts and mountains and in dens and caves of the earth.

The Times of UK stated recently that the Jabez mantra has struck a welcome chord with both well-to-do and cash strapped Americans: greediness is next to Godliness. In his book, “The Mantra of Jabez,” Douglas Jones states the Jabez phenomenon captures everything that is silly about contemporary evangelical Christianity…Practice the Jabez mantra and soon you will feel an adrenaline rush that you can call the Holy Spirit and use to justify any fool thing you want to say.

The latest chapter in the Jabez saga is reported on in the December 19, 2005 issue of The Wall Street Journal as follows:

In 2002 Bruce Wilkinson moved to Africa and announced his intention to save one million children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. In October, Mr. Wilkinson resigned in a huff from the African charity he founded. He abandoned his plan to house 10,000 children in a facility that was to be an orphanage, bed-and-breakfast, game reserve, bible college, industrial park and Disneyesque tourist destination…

Mr. Wilkinson won churchloads of followers in Swaziland, but left them bereft and confused. He gained access to top Swazi officials, but alienated them with his demands. And his departure left critics convinced he was just another in a long parade of outsiders who have come to Africa making big promises and quit the continent when local people didn’t bend to their will…

Perhaps Mr. Wilkinson’s most successful venture in Swaziland was a conference in June – funded by a $108,000 grant his group received from the U.S. government – aimed at engaging churches in the fight against HIV.

It is reported that Mr. Wilkinson is at present mulling over what went wrong with “the blessing” he was so sure he had in hand in Africa. And so he should. As should we all. This is not a time to gloat over a colossal failure of attempted aid for orphans in Africa. Nor to celebrate smugly the troubles of one of God’s children. But it is time for a moment of theological reflection.

First we should ask ourselves what we can learn from this unfortunate chain of events in our recent history. One thing, I think, is to be wary of contemporary prophets who oversimplify the Christian pilgrimage. Proclaiming simplistic formulas as the answer for all of the problems of the world simply doesn’t work. When a book of the Jabez variety hits the charts in a few months time, we should not take it to mean that its content is indeed sanctioned by God. In fact we might do well to suspect that it is so popular because it is subversively simplistic. But will we learn that as a people of God? I’m not sure. What do you think?