The first time Bruce Wilkinson and a collaborator tried to write about the prayer of Jabez, their efforts grew into a fat manuscript of Bible teaching, catchy anecdotes, and personal exhortations...and stayed in a drawer for 20 years. The book didn't work, he decided. He didn't even want to show it to a publisher.
But Wilkinson didn't stop there. In a way, he couldn't. Since his seminary days, he had been preaching about Jabez, an obscure man in the Old Testament who had prayed a simple prayer that got remarkable results. Furthermore, Wilkinson had made Jabez' four-line prayer his life's plea, praying it every day for decades with remarkable results of his own. So eventually, he tried again.
As Bruce's writing partner on his second attempt, I have been asked why a small book by a previously unsuccessful author about a little-known Bible character is breaking records. In the year since its publication, Jabez has become the fastest-selling hardback in the world.
Just what is the promised benefit "that can be yours for $9.99," as infomercials might put it? To get a bigger picture, let's back up a minute and look at the biblical text and how Bruce applies it. Everything we know about Jabez is found in just two verses buried in the seemingly endless genealogies of 1 Chronicles. Marked by a name that means pain, Jabez decided to ask for plenty. In a bold but brief prayer, he reached for favor and significance, believing that the God of Israel was both generous and strong. Apparently, by wanting what God wanted for his life and asking for it with all his heart, Jabez not only saw his prayers answered but was commended in scripture as "more honorable than his brothers."
Building on this kernel of a story, Wilkinson draws on his own experiences and other biblical support to propose that Christians change the way they think in some key areas:
But does that mean, some ask, that you have to be thinking about ministry, or for that matter, be a Christian to pray the Jabez prayer? Not at all, says Wilkinson. "Obviously, Jabez was a Jew, not a Christian," he notes. "Jabez would have been a farmer or a herdsman, and the primary interpretation of the verse is that he wanted to enlarge his business. We've applied it to ministry in the broader sense that every believer is called into serving God and others by every possible means. But God loves all people equally, and will go to great lengths of kindness to invite us into a deeper relationship with Him through Christ."
Neither does Wilkinson worry that some might try to use the prayer to manipulate God when their intentions are dishonorable. "There's no magic in the words," he says, "and God has a remarkable power to say no for our own good. The prayer just reflects four things that God wants for everybody."
One day last week, the webmaster of the 'Prayer of Jabez' website received 286 emails for Dr. Wilkinson, nearly all of them beginning, "Dear Bruce, I just have to write you to thank you..." or some version thereof. To me, the impact of the book shows that the daily experience of God in our lives can be as real as granite or as the day's headlines, although we experience it in a different way. Perhaps all the interest in prayer in the past decade has actually done spiritual seekers a disservice. Too many have treated prayer as a nice option for re-arranging one's emotions instead of a radical invitation from a Father with a heart as big as the world.
But safe and small is not the kind of prayer, or scale of living, that Jesus taught. "Ask, and it will be given you," He said. "What man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?... How much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" (Matthew 7:7, 9, 11, NKJV).
"Asking is the beginning of receiving," wrote inspirational author Jim Rohn. "Make sure you don't go to the ocean with a teaspoon. At least take a bucket so the kids won't laugh at you."
Jabez would have liked that advice. I think he would have called it front-page news.