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Prayer of Jabez: A Review
by Daniel Gard
The Prayer of Jabez:
"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).
A great deal of attention has been focused recently on a brief prayer found in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. Coming within a lengthy genealogical section of the book (chapters 1-9), this prayer interrupts the naming of different branches of the tribe of Judah in what appears to be disconnected ancient genealogical fragments preserved by the post-exilic author of Chronicles. Specifically, the prayer of Jabez involves an individual who is, in some unspecified way, related to the Judahites. In all likelihood, this prayer was preserved along with genealogical fragments as part of the heritage of this branch of the children of Israel.
Popularized in a short, best-selling book by Bruce Wilkinson, THE PRAYER OF JABEZ: BREAKING THROUGH TO THE BLESSED LIFE, this recent movement has spawned a website and a growing audience. Unfortunately, the attention being focused on the prayer is largely misdirected from the perspective of historic Christian teaching on prayer.
THE PRAYER OF JABEZ advances several troubling theological propositions. Among these is the assumption that it is always the will of God that the believer should prosper in the things of earth. It is held that whatever your desire is, it is God's will from eternity that you should have it. The Christian faith, on the other hand, has never understood the will of God in such a way except in the "health, wealth and prosperity" movements of modern (Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert and others) and ancient times. This contradicts not only the call of Jesus to take up our crosses and follow him, but His own example in the Garden before His crucifixion as He pleaded, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). In THE PRAYER OF JABEZ, we are instructed to presume that God's will is going to conform to our own.
Second, THE PRAYER OF JABEZ is based on a faulty reading of the Biblical text and, as a result, radically alters the basis of Christian prayer. Specifically, the book assumes that the man Jabez was "more honorable" than his brothers and, for this reason, God heard his prayer and gave him what he desired. Though many English translations use the wording "more honorable," this is in fact not an adequate treatment of the Hebrew text. The English translation that accurately reflects the Hebrew text is, "Jabez was more HONORED than his brothers." This simple mistranslation is foundational to the book's radical departure from the Christian teaching on prayer. For author Wilkinson, it is the character of the one who offers the prayer (being honorable) that assures one of God's hearing and answering. The Christian tradition, on the other hand, has clearly understood that God hears and answers prayer not on the basis of any merit on the part of the one who prays, but solely on the basis of the merit of Jesus.
Third, the book presents prayer as being essentially disconnected from our relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Christ's name is invoked only a handful of times in the entire book and then primarily in descriptive, historical ways. When sin is mentioned as a barrier to God, it is discussed only as something that the sinner himself can make right (Page 85). This truly borders on the ancient heresy known as Pelagianism, in which sin is seen as a mere habit that a person himself can break rather than as a condition of the soul that can be cured only by Jesus Christ.
Fourth, the book understands prayer as having particular virtue if it is repeated often enough. Certain rituals are suggested (praying the prayer daily, rereading the Wilkinson book weekly, taping the prayer on something so that you will see it often, etc). Those familiar with the warnings of Jesus about repetitious prayer and reliance on rituals of our own devising will immediately see the contradiction of the Wilkinson method.
In summary, THE PRAYER OF JABEZ is a particularly dangerous work from a Christian theological perspective. It arises from a thoroughly anthropocentric (human-centered) rather than a Christocentric (Christ-centered) worldview. Although a call to take seriously the power of prayer is always welcome, that call must also take seriously the theological realities of prayer.
Dr. Daniel Gard is Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary-Fort Wayne.
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