How Should We Pray? Thoughts on the Prayer of Jabez

It’s one of the most popular Christian books of all time, selling nearly two million copies when it came out in 2000. I know I’m late to the party, but I recently read this book and I’ve got some thoughts on it. 

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Jabez Who?

Firstly, I’m intrigued that author Bruce Wilkinson chose to write this book at all. I’ve heard that it took off far more than he ever imagined…and it makes sense. Jabez is a random character. Not your average Biblical hero, he is mentioned only once in the Bible – in two little verses.

Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.” Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “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.” And God granted his request.

1 Chronicles 4:9-10

There you go, folks. That’s it. That’s all we know about Jabez and the only time he is mentioned in the Bible.

Selfish Prayers

Wilkinson considers this prayer powerful and profound. He says that maybe more believers should be praying “selfish” prayers like this one.

“Oh Lord, please bless me!”

He suggests that there are “unclaimed blessings” in heaven just waiting for us if we take the time to ask. So he suggests that we pray this prayer every morning, and read the book weekly. Wilkinson promises that God will intervene and perform miracles and divine appointments in our lives if we simply ask.

Well, Jesus did say “seek and you shall find” (Matt. 7:7) and James did say that “you have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).

However….

I think it’s pretty clear in other parts of the Bible that God doesn’t always have an easy road for us. It isn’t for lack of asking, it’s so that ultimately our strength will come from him and he will be glorified.

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position.

James 1:9

Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?

James 2:5

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

John 9:3

Jesus is talking about a man who was born blind in John 9:3. People ask, “who sinned, him or his parents?” but Jesus makes it clear that humble circumstances…yes, even suffering, isn’t merely punishment God deals out. Rather, it is a chance for him to display his healing and his power. Then Jesus changes his life by healing him. The Pharisees argue about the healing, but the man insists, “There is one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see!” (John 9:25)

On the surface it seems that Wilkinson isn’t preaching a prosperity gospel message. He writes “This…has nothing in common with the popular gospel that you should ask God for a Cadillac, a six-figure income, or some other material sign that you have found a way to cash in on your connection to him.” But just a few pages later Wilkinson backtracks “If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed ‘Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios.'” Huh? So clearly the request to “enlarge his territory” is more than just asking for more ministry opportunities. “If you’re doing your business God’s way,” Wilkinson says, “it’s not only right to ask for more, but he is waiting for you to ask. Your business is the territory God has entrusted to you.”

Think of it this way: instead of standing near the river’s edge, asking for a cup of water to get you through each day, you’ll do something unthinkable – you will take the little prayer with the giant prize and jump into the river!

Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez

Hmmm…. “a cup of water to get you through each day.”

Sounds kind of familiar. Kind of like “give us this day our daily bread.”

Except he’s saying that that isn’t enough.

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Honestly my biggest hangup with this concept isn’t related to the prosperity gospel.

It’s the fact that we’re being directed to pray something other than the prayer Jesus taught us: The Lord’s Prayer.

Sure, Jabez was a good (albeit random) guy in the Old Testament who God blessed for reaching out to him.

But Jesus was a perfect savior who didn’t leave us guessing when it came to our prayer life. The disciples asked him how to pray and he answered very specifically:

This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

Matthew 6:9-13

I think this is profound because a lot of us already pray like Jabez.

“Enlarge my territory. Help me. Save me. Heal me. Me, me, me!”

Jesus’ prayer reminds us that it isn’t all about me. It’s about God, his kingdom, his will, and his power.

Jesus asks for three things: daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from evil.

Jabez asks for three things too: enlarged territory, God’s hand with him, and to be free from evil / harm / pain.

Jesus didn’t pray “enlarge my territory.”

He prayed “give us our daily bread.”

There’s a stark contrast between what we think we need, and the power of “enoughness.”

There’s a big difference between the our greed and our need.

Additionally, there’s a difference between “deliverance from evil” and “keep me from evil.”

It’s the difference between walking through and avoiding.

Between keeping through and keeping from. 

In Psalm 23 David paints a picture of us walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” without fear. Maybe that’s a more accurate picture of what a lot of our lives look like.

Isn’t the absence of fear more important in our daily walk than the absence of trials?

Jesus was tempted and Jesus went through many trials in his life. (Hebrews 2:18)

If Jesus was the perfect example, and his life wasn’t free of temptation and trials, what makes us think that praying one little prayer will give us exemption?

The prophet Isaiah called Jesus the “suffering servant.”

Jesus even asked for it to be taken away in the garden of Gethsemane. (Luke 22:42)

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

God didn’t take away the pain and suffering, but Luke says that God did send an angel to comfort Jesus. (Luke 22:43) He wasn’t alone. God was there with him.

Another Thing

One unrelated thing that really bothered me about this book was the advice Wilkinson gave to a “well-dressed businesswoman” he met at an airport on page 79.

The woman was flying home to divorce her husband “who had been unfaithful to her and hurt her in other ways.” The author sees this as a God-ordained appointment to save this woman and her marriage.

But I can’t help but wonder. What if she didn’t want to be saved?

“I laid out some biblical principals and promises for her. I prayed with her. And by the time we landed in Asheville, she had broken through to forgiveness. She was still hurting, but she was at peace, determined to give her marriage the commitment it deserved,” Wilkinson writes.

The commitment it deserved? He had been unfaithful to her.

How is she to blame when her husband is already not giving her the commitment she deserves?

What if she was faithfully committed to an abusive, manipulative person?

The author gets to pat himself on the back, feeling that he has done his good deed for the day. But how can he possibly give marriage advice to someone he just met, a stranger who might be putting on a strong face in the midst of infidelity and emotional and /or physical abuse?

I don’t want to get into a rant here, but that whole story upset me greatly. Women deserve more than guilt and religious talk when they are faced with abusive marriages. I think they should be able to run to the church for protection and guidance, not be forced to run the other way due to condemnation and suspicion.

Is God in the Numbers?

For supposedly rejecting the prosperity gospel, Wilkinson seems pretty caught up in the numbers of his ministry. He reports time and time again of his ministry asking for blessing and God coming through – with large numbers.

I don’t doubt that sometimes God can use large ministries and reach the masses. But lately I’ve become a believer that God uses small people in small places to build his kingdom. That’s the power of growing…not bigger and bigger but smaller and smaller.

When we become smaller and smaller our pride can’t get in the way.

Jesus himself entered the world through the smallness of a helpless, “illegitimate” infant.

He could have descended from heaven as a grown man, riding on the clouds and engulfed in flames. That would convert people! That would win the crowds!

But he chose humility. He chose to be humiliated, even unto death. (Philippians 2:8)

Conclusion

How are we to implement this in our own lives? What are we to do with this information?

I’ve decided that while Jabez is cool, Jesus is better.

While the prayer of Jabez isn’t terrible, The Lord’s Prayer is what Jesus actually taught us to pray. 

That said, I think there is absolutely no harm in doing both.

God desires our prayers even if they aren’t perfect. 

The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

Romans 8:26

No matter how we choose to pray or what we end up saying, I think the bottom line is that God will listen.

Even when we don’t know what to say, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf. None of us is perfect. We’re all going to get tongue-tied and not know what to say.

While I don’t recommend this book as life-changing literature everyone should read, I believe in a God of grace.

There is enough grace for all of us if we reach out.

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