Day 115: No Magic Prayers: The Problem With The Prayer of Jabez (1 Chronicles 3-5)

9 Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” 10 Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And God granted what he asked. 1 Chornicles 4:9-10

I was working for a Christian publisher in 2000 when Bruce Wilkinson’s little book The Prayer of Jabez was released, and subsequently became a phenomenon. Seemingly overnight, the Christian market became flooded with PofJ merchandise. In addition to secondary titles– (Prayer of Jabez for Women, Prayer of Jabez for Kids, Prayer of Jabez for Teens, etc); there were T-Shirts, bracelets, necklaces, keychains, coffee mugs, and neckties. There were Bible studies, musicals, retreat planning kits, and study Bibles.

If you have ever worked retail, you know the game of stocking the shelves next to the cash registers with impulse purchase items– cheap trinkets that you throw in the cart at the last minute because you need a graduation gift, or because it’s your mail carrier’s birthday, or just because your child behaved herself while you were shopping. And so for a few months, the Prayer of Jabez owned that space. And the market was happy to accomodate. Like WWJD and Chicken Soup for the Soul before it; and Duck Dynasty and Jesus Calling after, the Prayer of Jabez was marketing gold for a season. Even now, more than twenty years later, there are 753 products related to the Prayer of Jabez listed on Amazon.

To be fair to Bruce Wilkinson, this wasn’t all his fault. All he did was write a book. The Christian retail industry took the book, blew it up, and then ran it into the ground. Cynical side note: This happens all the time. Christian, you aren’t a demographic. You aren’t a commodity. You aren’t a voting block. You are a follower of Jesus. Refuse to be pandered to!

But the book itself is fundamentally flawed. It turns the prayer of Jabez– a prayer one Israelite prayed and which God answered–and makes it a universal promise, good for all times for all people in all situations. The preface begins with, “Dear Reader, I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers!” What follows are stories of people who succeeded simply by repeating Jabez prayer for months and years.

But as David Schrock points out in a post on The Gospel Coalition blog, Jabez and the Soft Prosperity Gospel, “In contrast to the bestselling book, the biblical story of Jabez tells how God comforts those in remarkable pain. But marketed to upwardly-mobile Christians, The Prayer of Jabez told this Israelite’s story as if he was one of us. But that’s the problem: Jabez isn’t like us. He doesn’t live amid our modern materialism. And his prayer can’t be directly applied to us without seeing how it relates to his own situation first and then to Jesus Christ.”

The article goes on to emphasize the importance of interpretation. Context matters. The name Jabez, as Tara-Leigh pointed out in today’s podcast, means “pain,” and Jabez specifically prays that the Lord would keep him from harm that would bring him pain. And God didn’t grant what Jabez asked because he prayed it over and over again like a mantra, but because he was “more honorable than his brothers.”

Beloved, there are no magic formulas and no shortcuts. God desires a relationship with us that is so much more than the relationship we have with a vending machine. And sometimes, that relationship will lead us into places of suffering and pain rather than shielding us from them. The end goal is that we become more like Christ, not that we enlarge our territory. If you are going to pray the prayer of Jabez from 1 Chronicles, you should also pray the prayer of Paul from Philippians:

10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10-11

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