THE PRAYER OF JABEZ: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life
Bruce H. Wilkinson
Multnomah, 96 pages, $9.99
THE SECRETS OF THE VINE: Breaking Through to Abundance
Bruce H. Wilkinson
Multnomah, 128 pages, $9.99
A book that begins with ten names ("Adam, Seth, Enoch, Kenan") and continues thusly, with rarely a verb, adverb, or adjective for nine chapters (all the way to "Obadiah and Hanan") doesn't appear to be rich homiletical ground. It causes one to doubt Paul's affirmation that all Scripture is profitable for instruction in righteousness.
It is to Bruce Wilkinson's credit to have discerned something God-inspired in a couple of formerly obscure sentences in the first nine mind-numbing chapters of 1 Chronicles. His The Prayer of Jabez has turned out to be not only an exegetical coup but also a spiritual inspiration to millions.
Lest this sound like clichéd sell-copy: The Prayer of Jabez has sold 3 to 4 million copies (and the number is rising as you read this). And this isn't one of those books people buy but don't read; it is no War and Peace. The little hardback is paperback-small and tract-thin, and a bargain to boot: it lists at $9.99, but many stores have offered it at half price. Pastors are buying it by the carton and giving it away to their congregations: Pete Briscoe, senior pastor of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrollton, Texas, ordered 4,000 copies of the book and audiotape to give to every family for the church's 25th anniversary.
The book's popularity cannot be chalked up to clever marketing. Briscoe's purchase alone would have bought 20 percent of the first print run. Neither was the second run a bold step of Jabez faith: a mere 70,000. Multnomah finally got the picture and started printing in the millions, but by then the publisher was sucking wind to keep up with a phenomenon.
Why one book, and not another seemingly like it, rockets to the top of the charts—and this one has been at the pinnacle of not only Christian Bookseller Association charts but also those of Publishers Weekly, USA Today, and The New York Times—is ultimately a mystery. But, avoiding the cynicism that assumes the masses who buy such books are easily duped by formulaic spirituality, one can hazard an educated guess about the book's success: Content.
The book is a homiletical exposition of the obscure prayer of the obscure Jabez, who is described only as an "honorable man" who received a positive answer to his prayer: "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" (4:10, NIV). Some discouraged interpreters have likened this prayer to psalms that entreat God to dash the heads of Babylonian babies against the rocks, for the plain meaning seems to be that Jabez is asking for military victory and increased land holdings. Thus one exegete writes, "Jabez's prayer was crude and selfish. His conscience was not troubled by the thought that others would suffer if he gained his wishes. But ours should be."
Author Wilkinson, while acknowledging the original setting, manages to transcend it: "The primary interpretation of the verse is to enlarge your business," he said in one of many interviews he's been asked to give recently. "We've applied it to ministry in the broader sense that every believer is called into serving God and others."
Wilkinson, who has been praying the prayer daily since 1972, when he was a senior at Dallas Theological Seminary, has been preaching its message at conferences for years. He's honed it into a four-point sermon:
1. We should seek to be blessed, "throwing ourselves entirely into the river of his will and power and purposes for us. All our needs become secondary to what we really want—which is to become wholly immersed in what God is trying to do in us, through us, and around us for his glory." In other words, we should desire the blessedness that Jesus assumes, in the Beatitudes, is a reasonable human yearning: the yearning for comfort, righteousness, sonship—the kingdom of heaven.
2. We should seek greater "territory," which Wilkinson renders as "O God and King, please expand my opportunities and my impact in such a way that I touch more lives for your glory. Let me do more for you!" In other words, "Not my will, but thine be done."
3. We should depend on God's power to achieve significant ministry through us: "As God's chosen, blessed sons and daughters, we are expected to attempt something large enough that failure is guaranteed. … unless God steps in." Or, as God told Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
4. We should flee temptation. "The further along in a life of supernatural service you get," Wilkinson notes, "the more … you're going to become familiar with the enemy's unwelcome barbs—distraction, opposition, and oppression for starters." We should therefore pray not only for the power to resist temptation, but especially "to keep away from temptation," as in "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
In other words, Wilkinson exegetes Jabez's prayer using the larger themes of Scripture that have perennially comforted and encouraged believers.
Wilkinson, good teacher that he is (he is founder of the popular Walk Thru the Bible ministry, which since 1976 has helped over a million people gain a better grasp of the Bible's content and teachings), has also grounded his lessons culturally. The book is imbued with a boundless optimism characteristic of American religious literature, from Puritan John Winthrop's dream that New England would become "a city set on a hill" (that is, an example that would eventually convert the world) to Robert Schuller's possibility thinking. All such literature assumes the inestimable value of the individual and the ennobling idea that God uses ordinary people to do his extraordinary will.
This individualistic optimism pervades Jabez from sentence one ("The little book you're holding is about what happens when ordinary Christians decide to reach for an extraordinary life—which, as it turns out, is exactly the kind God promises") and continues throughout: "How would your day unfold if you believed that God wants your borders expanded at all times with every person and if you were confident that God's powerful hand is directing you even as you minister?"
Fleeting Ministry Moments
Wilkinson is also a decent, though breathless, storyteller. Unfortunately, his stories are all examples of hit-and-run ministry: California college students ministering in Trinidad for a summer; a youth group evangelizing suburban youth on Long Island for six weeks; and Wilkinson counseling a newlywed on the Isle of Patmos for one afternoon.
Throughout the book, there is no example of enduring faithfulness at humble and thankless tasks—like counseling a troubled couple for years, or caring for an elderly parent in one's home, or daily visiting a dying aids patient for weeks, or toughing it out for three decades in Saudi Arabia, where a lifetime of conversions can be counted on two hands.
To put it another way, in Jabez, Wilkinson is long on the individual's existential meaning and on exploiting the chance, short-term encounter for God, but short on the meaning of perseverance and ordinary suffering. Such themes play a larger role in his sequel, The Secrets of the Vine, his effort to teach readers how to cooperate with God in his bringing about the results promised in the prayer of Jabez. Secrets also retains a spiritual optimism and pragmatism that, frankly, is inspiring at times.
But if exaggerations in Jabez can be chalked up to hyperbole, overstatements in Secrets of the Vine often can lead to serious misunderstandings. For example, Wilkinson implies that if there is major sin in our lives, we won't bear fruit for God. But many recent pastoral sex scandals are shocking precisely because the offending minister was, in fact, bearing a great deal of fruit in ministry.
It is easy to critique a book for what it lacks—and in these two brief tracts, naturally a lot is missing. Still a qualifying adjective here, a cautionary sentence there, would have alerted the reader to the more complex and challenging nature of the Christian life. But perhaps this is too much to ask of a writer and speaker who obviously enjoys his role as a motivator.
Nevertheless, Wilkinson has accomplished much, especially in Jabez, for which we can be thankful. He's managed to get millions of Christians to realize afresh their divine significance, reminding them of the ministries God has for them, encouraging them to think big when it comes to helping others. It's not the whole counsel of God, but neither is it a bad start for those who had forgotten, or never knew, that the living God is as near as a prayer.
Mark Galli is managing editor of CT.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Time examined reasons why the book is a best seller.
The book has achieved unbelievable success for "an overtly preachy book," according to The Washington Post. Likewise, The New York Times Book Review attributes the success to the Wilkinson's resurrection of "the once ubiquitous and now mostly forgotten genre of the published Sunday sermon."
Epions.com gathers readers' thoughts and reviews on The Prayer of Jabez.
In Christianity Today's sister publication, Christian Reader, two missionaries recite Jabez's prayer before stopping a madman on their plane.
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