Recently a friend asked me what I knew about The Prayer of Jabez. I’d never considered writing about it before now because I thought it was already played out. It was popular when I was in college (which was some time ago). But I should have known that popular books filled with shallow and/or errant theology always return. These books have more lives than cats.
So let’s get down to business. Here are two fundamental problems with The Prayer of Jabez.
1. Taking one verse out of context, from a passage that is not a passage instructing us how to pray, and turning it into a magic formula for prayer is not proper handling of God’s Word.
Do I need to say more? This really should have been enough to prevent this book from becoming the runaway hit it became. Sound exegesis requires examining biblical passages in context. It requires determining if they are historical narrative, poetic, prophetic or some other kind of text. Historical narratives are not generally prescriptive texts (commands to be obeyed) so alarm bells should ring when someone takes a single verse out of an historical text and tries to use it as a pattern for behavior. Yes, God answered Jabez’ prayer. That teaches that God is loving and kind and that he answered Jabez’ prayer because he wanted to. It does not mean if we try to claim this verse for ourselves that God will do the same thing for us.
2. The kind of prayer promoted by The Prayer of Jabez falls dangerously close to, if not into the false teaching of the prosperity gospel.
The Prayer of Jabez claims, “I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers.” The word always in that sentence is presumptious.
It is the same sort of presumption that false prosperity gospel teachers use when they essentially teach the Bible as a book of promises you can claim for material blessings if you just have enough faith. Prosperity gospel teaching turns God into a genie who is at your beck and call rather than the Holy God who has shown mercy on sinners, offered forgiveness and eternal life – but does not promise financial prosperity, or health or a trouble-free life to anyone. While the author, Bruce Wilkinson, cautions people not to pray selfishly, that may not be enough to stop people from implementing The Prayer of Jabez in the very same manner as prosperity gospel followers.
While God always hears our prayers, he is not obligated to answer our prayers the way we want. We are also not taught to pray in vain repetition like the “heathen” do, yet the Prayer of Jabez teaches that you should repeat the same prayer daily.
It is tempting, this God as a genie concept, because our hearts are so selfish. David W. Jones said it well when he wrote, “It may be easy for you to spot the spiritual charlatans on television, selling their modern-day indulgences, proof-texting biblical passages, and promising us our best life now if we just have enough faith in faith. But don’t forget that what makes the prosperity gospel so attractive is that it caters to the desires of the fallen human heart. It promises much while requiring little. It panders to the flesh.”
For more detailed critiques of The Prayer of Jabez:
Grace to You: Details the good things about the book (it encourages Christians to pray), but also the bad.
Challies.com: Talks about how much influence the book has had and points out the major problems.