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Prayer is not a magic spell
on 29 June 2005
There has been a lot of excitement over the book `The Prayer of Jabez', by Bruce Wilkinson. I must confess to you, my sister and brother readers, that I am not one who is excited about this book, on the whole. It presents difficulties for me theologically and methodologically. I will probably have legions of people decrying my treatment of the book. There are redeeming qualities about the book, to be sure, but overall it gives me great unease. Permit me to tell you why.
Before the reader even gets past the preface, there are problems here. Is Wilkinson saying there are prayers that God doesn't answer? Is Wilkinson saying that, by following the form of the prayer of Jabez, you will get whatever you ask for? Perhaps he would retreat to the security of the answer that `God sometimes says "no" to our requests in prayer.' If that is true, then this prayer becomes no different in that respect than any other prayer. The prayer of Jabez is not a magical incantation to force God to make or do whatever it is one asks of God.
Now, one of the benefits of a book like `The Prayer of Jabez' is that it does, in fact, encourage people to pray. It brings God back into the lives of people, inside and outside of the church, who have somehow put God aside. It reorients the life and redirects attention toward something more worthy. To that extent, it is worthwhile. Most things that do this are worthwhile.
`The Prayer of Jabez' also helps to demonstrate another point about prayer - it need not be long, drawn-out or complex. Prayer can be simple. In fact, in my life some of the most effective prayers have been even simpler than the four-part prayer of Jabez. What having a prayer in parts does do is to highlight a process, a development, a continuing progression of prayer that for many people is a new idea. So again, there is something worthwhile here.
But one also has to confront, early on in the text, that the prayer of Jabez is effective because Jabez was an honourable and worthy man. The passage from the book of Chronicles that Wilkinson highlights begins with 'Now Jabez was more honourable than his brothers'. This sets up a works-righteousness model that leads the reader/pray-er to think that, unless a great deal of effort is made toward being worthy, there will be no efficacy of the prayer. Aren't the prayers of the unworthy heard by God? Who among us is worthy?
True, Wilkinson makes some strives to overcome this danger later in the book, but this rather gets lost in the shuffle for most readers. More attention needs to be devoted to the freely-given grace of God, that is available regardless of worthiness, regardless of our status, and regardless of our form of prayer.
My concern for the text is that it seems a plea for selfishness, and it appeals to many people at that level. While Wilkinson does state that this increase should be sought and then used for the furtherance of the will of God, not enough attention is devoted to this point. Stockbrokers will see that it is okay to ask for higher values. People will view it as okay to ask for more of whatever it is they want. And this book gives example after example of instances where this prayer did precisely that.
It is a wonder that there are no examples where the prayer of Jabez didn't work. There are lots of minor examples and several major examples of success, but one must forgive my insistence on some research methodology here - where are the counterbalancing examples?
The prayer of Jabez worries me in that is seems different in character and tone to the prayer I consider to be far more central - the Lord's Prayer. In this prayer, we are not asking God to increase our territory and give us what we want. We are asking to be given what we need. Particularly in the English translations (but also many other languages), the Lord's Prayer is immediately a common prayer, a communal prayer, -- the use of the word our at the outset makes it one that concerns us all, and the petitions continue to include the community - give us today our daily bread. The prayer of Jabez, by contrast, is individual. No wonder it appeals to those in Western society who hold the good of the individual as sacrosanct.
Ultimately, it is the assumption of the magical quality of the prayer of Jabez that makes me uneasy. It is as if you can conjure up whatever you want with a simple formula. The book starts on this theme and ends on this theme. That is what most who talk about the book seem to carry away. What happens if you don't get your wish? Does that mean your faith isn't strong enough? Does that mean you aren't worthy enough? Does that mean God doesn't care about you? These are important questions that get lost in the shuffle as readers around the world get starry-eyed with excitement that finally there's a way to make God do what we want God to do.
I hope that those who have a good experience with the prayer of Jabez will look to the God of grace rather than the magic spell. I hope that those who do not have a good experience with the prayer of Jabez will not feel abandoned by, and thus in turn abandon, God and prayer.
To the extent that this book renews the importance of prayer and consideration of God in one's daily life, it is worthwhile. However, it suffers serious flaws which, in my opinion, make is a dangerous book for the inexperienced, who seem to be the primary audience.