Last week’s Sun, a supermarket tabloid, bore the following headline: “Miracle Prayer Really Works! Prayer brings riches!” and showed the faces of four people who’ve said the prayer and have had cash windfalls.
The 92-page sermon, by Atlanta evangelist Bruce Wilkinson, focuses on a single verse from an obscure corner of the Old Testament. The prayer is found in the midst of a lengthy genealogical section (chapters 1-9) in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. The prayer interrupts the naming of different branches of the tribe of Judah and reads, “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother 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.”
Wilkinson, founder and president of Walk thru the Bible Ministries and a popular Promise Keepers speaker, tells how he has used the prayer daily for more than 30 years and testifies to the changes it has wrought in his own life. Wilkinson then challenges readers to recite the prayer each morning as a kind of mantra to gain blessings in their own life.
While encouraging people of the power of prayer is a good thing, Wilkinson’s approach is problematic for several reasons.
First, Wilkinson seems to assume that it is always the will of God that the believer should prosper in the things of earth. Whatever we desire, it seems, it is God’s will that we should have it. This certainly seems to contradict Christ’s call for us to “take up our crosses and follow him” and Christ’s own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
There are many types of prayer – worship, praise, thanksgiving, and petitionary. The “Prayer of Jabez” is clearly the latter and it is important for us to realize that God does not always answer our petitions, or answers them in a way other than we would like.
Second, the prayer seems disconnected from Christ. It makes no mention of the prayer which Christ himself asked us to pray – the Our Father.
Finally, by encouraging readers to recite the prayer daily, Wilkinson is practicing what so many evangelicals accuse Catholics of practicing – repetitious prayer. He has turned the “Prayer of Jabez” into a kind of Protestant Hail Mary.
One can’t help but wonder if a prayer book on the effectiveness of the Hail Mary would sell 4 million copies? It’s not likely. Catholic Christians need not become wealthy to realize the power of prayer. The Church has always encouraged the laity to pray. In fact, it encourages them to pray the daily prayer of the Church – the Liturgy of the Hours.
On the question of “vain repetitious” prayer in Matthew 6:7, Christ was not forbidding repetitious prayer as much as he was condemning prayers offered to false gods by the pagans. We know this to be true because Christ himself prayed repetitiously. He gave us the Our Father; in Matthew 26, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asks his Father repeatedly to let this cup pass; and he most assuredly would have prayed the Psalms, which like a litany, can be very repetitive.
The popularity of the The Prayer of Jabez says a lot about evangelicals’ doctrinal vacuum. On the one hand, they attack Catholic Christians for what they describe as their “vain repetitious” praying of the Hail Mary – a prayer taken from Scripture which reflects upon Christ, while on the other hand they extract an obscure prayer from the Old Testament, seemingly disconnected from Christ, and encourage people to pray it daily for material wealth.
Don’t get me wrong. Prayer is to be encouraged. After all, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that prayer is a “raising up of one’s mind to God.” Therefore, if the “Prayer of Jabez” inspires faithless people to set their minds upon God, then it will have done some good. However, if it encourages people to focus on God for personal benefits alone, then it misses the entire purpose of prayer.
(Tim Drake is author of the book There We Stood, Here We Stand: 11 Lutherans Rediscover their Catholic Roots.)