It may seem a bit mean-spirited and curmudgeonly to talk about prayer by being negative. After all, there are so many positive things to say. But sometimes, talking about the negative – refuting popular but unbiblical (mis)understandings of prayer – can help us to understand more of the truth about prayer.
In the last 15 years, one book on prayer has been more influential in mainstream Christian circles than any other: The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson.
The book was released in 2000, so its moment has passed. But its influence remains, and it continues to sell around the world (it’s now passed 10 million copies).
What’s it about? You might be surprised to know that The Prayer of Jabez is based entirely around two small verses in 1 Chronicles – yep, the same 1 Chronicles that Christians always use when they need a go-to reference to talk about the supposed obscurity of the Old Testament. “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 Chr 4:9-10)
How has Wilkinson built an industry on this prayer? “I challenge you to make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life,” he writes. “To do that, I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit. Dear Reader [he lost me at ‘Dear Reader’], I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers. It is brief – only one sentence with four parts – and tucked away in the Bible, but I believe it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God.”
It sounds nice, and might make you feel warm, fuzzy, and excited. But the problems with this view of prayer are many. For example:
- It encourages us to presume upon God (“a daring prayer that God always answers”?), rather than acknowledging that God remains sovereign, and sometimes says no to our requests. There is a big difference between approaching with confidence and approaching with presumption.
- It turns prayer into a formula by which God can be manipulated – almost ‘hypnotised’, as one review puts it – into answering, directly contradicting Jesus’ own teaching on prayer in Matthew 6. Formula and manipulation might be what some world religions mean by ‘prayer’, but it’s not what the Bible means.
- It rips the actual prayer of Jabez – which, in itself, is a good and commendable prayer – completely out of context, and so teaches Christians exactly the wrong way to read the Bible (pick a random verse for some moral guidance or a dose of inspiration). “[Wilkinson] writes as if he has unearthed some long lost secret amulet from the caves of the Old Testament that will unlock God’s vault of blessing for us.”
- Sadly, the way things have played out in Bruce Wilkinson’s life go a long way towards undermining the book’s central claims – more of that here.
- Should we really expect ever-increasing happiness and unending prosperity in our ministry? What would the apostle Paul’s testimony and experience tell us? Would it all have looked very different if he’d prayed Jabez’s prayer every day? What about Jesus’ experience?
Don’t let the privileges of prayer lead you into confusion, or into abusing this incredible privilege. Make your prayers genuinely biblical – not a superficial, self-help misuse of the Bible. “Prayer is not like a good recipe: simply follow a set of mechanical directions and everything turns out right in the end.” (D.A. Carson)
Heavenly Father, thank you for the privilege of prayer. Please help me to never abuse this privilege, or to think I can manipulate you into giving what I want. Please help to pray with humility, with a real trust in you, and with my heart focused on your desires and priorities, not my own. In Jesus’ name. Amen.