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J. Daryl Charles on a Little Book with a Big Problem
While the religious book publishing industry is currently experiencing something of a boom, one book—all 93 pages of it—has taken the industry by storm, putting its publisher, tiny Multnomah Press of Sisters, Oregon, on the map overnight. As of this writing, sales of Bruce Wilkinson’s best-seller, The Prayer of Jabez, are somewhere between eight and ten million (it is difficult to be precise, since the volume is flying off the shelves as fast as the shelves allow themselves to be stocked).
While people outside the Protestant Evangelical community might wonder what all the fuss is about, The Prayer of Jabez (PJ ) needs no introduction to Evangelicals, who, based on sales, really do believe that the book is not merely the best thing since, but better than, sliced bread.
Long before I actually picked up a copy of the book to read for myself (based on moral principle, I absolutely refused to purchase what would have been sales number 8,473,529 of PJ), my initial impression of the book stemmed from how it is being marketed. One religious book distributor is selling PJ in packs of ten—which helps explain why the book is selling like hotcakes. Evidently, the excitement being generated by mass sales has created something of a “Jabez culture” within Evangelicalism.
Inside the back cover of PJ, for example, I read that I can order The PJ Leather Edition, The PJ Journal, The PJ Devotional, The PJ Bible Study, The PJ for Teens, and The PJ Gift Edition. The latest religious book catalog informs me that I can now buy The PJ for Kids, The PJ for Little Ones, and yes, Jabez: A Novel. (Of course, I personally am awaiting The PJ Canadian Version for Parents of Children with RADS [Religious Attention Deficit Syndrome]). If that’s not enough, another catalog tells me the good news that the “extraordinary [Jabez] movement” has now been “captured in song” and is available on CD.
Jabez’s Grand Appeal
I was clearly one of the few Evangelical Protestants who had not yet read the book by the time the fall of 2001 rolled around. But my students forced the issue. “What do you think of The Prayer of Jabez?” was the constant query being thrown my way, whether in class or through e-mail. After all, teaching theology at a pan-Evangelical institution, I could hardly claim ignorance on (or indifference to) a matter that was touching every corner of the religious tradition of which I am a part.
What was so utterly captivating about this tiny volume that was taking Evangelicalism by storm? Wherein lay its grand appeal?
When I finally read The Prayer of Jabez, I discovered that the author is to be commended for his desire to be “used by God.” Zeal is certainly not a quality he lacks. Additionally, the reader cannot help but sense that the author has a high regard for scriptural authority; in his view, the Bible is to be believed, period. Finally, the reader is struck by the extraordinary passion with which the author seeks—and exhorts the reader to seek—divine favor. These attitudes stamp themselves indelibly on every page of the volume.
Conspicuous as these virtues are, however, they are not enough to offset the book’s flaws—flaws that run deep and require some commentary.
Several recurring themes are troubling: in particular, the author’s emphasis on the miraculous as normative and the book’s very self-centered (rather than Christ-centered) focus on receiving personal blessing. (Both are reminiscent of the “health-and-wealth” heresy prominent in some conservative Protestant circles in the 1970s and 1980s.) The former gives an unrealistic and unhealthy impression of normal Christian living, while the latter reinforces psychotherapeutic tendencies that dominate contemporary culture.
Given the absence of any nuanced definition or understanding of “blessing,” several questions scream at the reader. For example, is God not blessing me when I must taste death or walk through a dark valley? Can blessing be imparted at all by means of suffering? Where is God’s blessing when I must grapple with divine hiddenness or silence? And what is to be said for St. Paul’s “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound,” an attitude that offers us “the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:11–12)? Perhaps the apostle had it all wrong after all.
These questions cannot be answered rightly with the book’s definition of blessing. Properly understood, the divine intention is that we mature, not that we seek after “blessing.”
Not Ready for Enlargement
The author’s guiding assumption that God wants to “enlarge” my “territory” and “expand” my “influence” is also troubling. He never stops to consider that perhaps a person is not ready for “enlargement,” in which case to “pray for larger borders” is ill-informed, ill-advised, ill-suited, and thus, unwise.
In truth, to find contentment in one’s present state, which manifests itself, despite the author’s emphasis, in not asking for “enlargement,” has nothing to do with belief in the miraculous. To the contrary, to be preoccupied with the miraculous, as the author asks of the reader, is a salient mark of immaturity. God’s calling for people of faith, it must be stressed, does not necessarily entail “enlargement” or “expansion” for all; such teaching confuses size or amount with divine favor and is unbiblical (though it is very American).
Moreover, the author’s “promise” that “you will know beyond doubt that God has opened heaven’s storehouses because you prayed” (emphasis his) flirts with the theological distortion that divine favor depends on my efforts rather than the divine initiative and the divine purpose. Consider this statement: “God’s bounty is limited only by us, not by His resources, power, or willingness to give.”
As Christian believers struggle with the paradox of divine sovereignty and human moral freedom, this insight from PJ is supposed to help us past inconvenient and nagging theological complexities. Thus, not divine resources and the divine intention, but our manipulation of God for our own designs (despite the author’s disclaimer that receiving blessing pleases God), determines the measure of blessing that comes our way.
The needed adjustment here, it seems to me, is to stress what PJ leaves unsaid, namely, that which we find in Jesus’ parables. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25) is instructive for several reasons, not least of which is that it helps believers define their entrusted sphere of service in the Kingdom of God as well as the awareness of how they are particularly gifted (ten talents, five talents, two talents, etc.).
PJ’s emphasis on not having because we are not asking enough also shows itself in the manner in which the author admonishes us to ask. Consider this promise: “When you start asking in earnest—begging—for more influence and responsibility with which to honor Him, God will bring opportunities and people into your path.” The danger in this sort of statement is that it equates intensity of request—begging—with receipt of the desired blessing.
In standard Evangelical, fideistic fashion, it suggests that sincerity, not informed theological reflection, produces the desired effect. This approach mirrors a severe and debilitating misunderstanding of God’s character and believers’ position as adopted sons of God (cf. Galatians 4:1–7). And it results in the author’s well-intended but unfortunate conclusion to the book’s penultimate chapter (lamentably titled “Welcome to God’s Honor Roll”): “I encourage you to rush back into God’s presence and make things right, whatever it takes. Don’t squander even for a minute the miracles that He has started in your life. Indescribable good still lies ahead for you and your family.”
In addition to the book’s unbalanced accent on human beings moving the arm of God, its approach to normative Christian living is distorted. Consider, for example, this statement: “The most effective war against sin is to pray that we will not have to fight.”
The fact of the matter is that discipleship entails, indeed demands, that we “fight” (which is to say, war with) and resist temptation. St. Paul is unambiguous that this conflict is not a war of flesh and blood (Ephesians 6). James 1, moreover, emphasizes that this battle with temptation is both normative and character-building. The catalog of virtues in 2 Peter 1 concurs: We persevere in order to become more godly.
Later in the book, Wilkinson claims that “Jabez, whose prayer earned him a ‘more honorable’ award from God, might have made the case that God does have favorites.” What shall we make of this theological contention? At the very least, it dangerously misunderstands (and distorts) what constitutes genuine faith. And in phrasing my assessment in this way I believe I am being kind.
Curiously, the author seems not to have pondered why Jabez is not numbered among the “heroes of faith” highlighted in Hebrews 11. Many of these individuals, after all, were not “enlarged” or “expanded.” In fact, the writer of the Epistle is emphatic: “All of these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised.”
These substantial problems go hand-in-hand with the fact that nowhere in the book does the author engage in any serious discussion of theology. In no place does the author reflect on God’s character, the implications of Christ’s atonement, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the rigors of Christian discipleship and cross-bearing, or New Testament models for petitionary prayer.
As a teacher I am further disappointed that the author did not contextualize Jabez in biblical history. He does not discuss the function of the Hebrew genealogy (in which Jabez is presented). Nor does he consider the possibility that Jabez’s prayer is specific to his personal situation (viz., notable suffering and hardship within the familial context), and, therefore, not to serve as a universal prescription.
In the final analysis, PJ offers people what they want to hear and avoids what many need to confront. It joins a growing list of best-sellers in the religious book publishing industry, almost all of which belong to the “inspirational/devotional,” “historical fiction,” or “breakthrough/unlock your potential” genres. PJ, as the subtitle indicates (“Breaking Through to the Blessed Life”), belongs to the last and endorses a view of Christian living that can accurately be called “Christian magic.” PJ’s author promises us: “Through a simple, believing prayer you can change your future. You can change what happens one minute from now.”
Doubtless many who have benefited from their reading of PJ will object that I am too critical of the book. After all, the author is sincere and, at least in some Evangelical circles, is deemed to have served God effectively in the past. Nevertheless, in my view the book’s strengths are outweighed by one deeply troubling tendency: It magnifies—and distorts—half-truths, which inevitably masquerade as “the gospel truth.”
For now, at least, I won’t be “praying Jabez” along with my many Evangelical brothers and sisters. I’m just not sure I’m at all ready to have my territory enlarged.
J. Daryl Charles is an associate professor of ethics and culture at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He is the author of Virtue Amidst Vice (Sheffield Academic), The Unformed Conscience of Evangelism (InterVarsity), and most recently, Between Pacifism and Jihad (InterVarsity, 2005). He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.