Recently, The Prayer of Jabez became a best seller. Some ministries and Bible study groups are studying it enthusiastically, and many people give it as gifts. Despite its unusual popularity, some accuse it of being at variance with Biblical teachings.
The author, Dr. Bruce H. Wilkinson, focuses on a short prayer made by Jabez, a largely unknown Old Testament figure: And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying: Oh, that You would bless me and enlarge my territory that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil that I may not cause pain. So God granted him what he requested (1 Chronicles 4:9-10 [NKJV].)
Jabez, which means pain in Hebrew, was named by his mother after the pain he caused during childbirth”not a good start to life. Wilkinson says: Things started badly for a person no one had ever heard of, he prayed an unusual one-sentence prayer, and things ended extraordinarily well.
He suggests that there is something special about this prayer, for he claims to have seen extraordinary blessings over the years he has practiced it. In short, his analysis is as follows:
- Oh, that you would bless me: God's nature is to bless. He gives countless blessings every day, some of which we do not receive because we do not ask for them. God wants to give us His blessings, but for some reason people do not ask for them. In short: God's bounty is limited only by us, not by His resources, power or willingness to give.
- and enlarge my territory: Jabez asks for this so he can touch more lives in God's service. Most people working in God's service are trapped in the simple arithmetic that sums up their abilities, experiences, and other personal characteristics and then equate that with their territory. But Wilkinson states that if people make God's Will their highest priority, God will help them with extraordinary blessings. Those who want to expand God's kingdom will be washed in God's blessings, which far exceed their own abilities.
Wilkinson writes: The most exhilarating miracles in my life have always started with a bold request to expand God's kingdom, a lot. When you take little steps, you don't need God. It's when you thrust yourself in the mainstream of God's plans for this world”which are beyond our ability to accomplish”and plead with Him”Lord, use me”give me more ministry for You! ”that you release miracles. At that moment, heaven sends angels, resources, strength and the people you need. I've seen it happen hundreds of times.
- that Your hand would be with me: When faced with actually beginning a huge task, many people fall into despair. Wilkinson says this is good, for depending upon God and praying sincerely to Him ensures success. When a much-younger Wilkinson felt this way and went to a trusted old man for advice, he was told: Actually, the second you are not feeling dependent (on God) you've backed away from truly living by faith.
He also relates a task undertaken by him and his students that turned out to be a huge success. He ties the success of such seemingly impossible undertakings to the participants' recognition that they are weak and can succeed only if God steps in.
- that You would keep me from evil: Ordinary believers tend to seek God's protection during their fight with evil. Wilkinson thinks Jabez found a shortcut: God's protection from evil. In short, we will not sin if we do not feel tempted. Thus, Jabez asks God to protect him from temptation rather than to help him fight evil. As those who move closer to God face more temptation, and thus gain self-confidence and stop depending upon God, Wilkinson thinks that Jabez wanted God's protection.
While easy-to-read and bearing a powerful message, many religious figures and other people knowledgeable of the Bible consider it misleading. For example:
- The intent of The prayer of Jabez is unclear to us. The Prayer of Jabez is translated differently in several translations and only a few translations are compatible with the author's interpretation. There is not enough biblical support for author's claims. For all we know, the prayer of Jabez looks like a completely selfish one. For starters, Jabez never says that he wants to be in the service of God.
- The author does not give enough emphasis on other prayers in the Bible, especially prayers of Jesus. It is almost like the author claims to have the magical prayer that God answers all the time. Although the author warns against using the prayer as a magic key, the rest of the book is at odds with that assertion. People may put faith in the prayer, not in God. Praying Jabez's prayer as a ritual is propagated throughout the book.
- To be delivered from evil is biblical, but lacking. No matter how much you pray, you are bound to face evil and temptation. Praying for help in fighting against temptation should also be emphasized. Also, many of Christians had a problem with the statement Without temptation, we would not sin. Since, according to Christian faith, man is born sinful, he does not have to do anything to be in a state of sin.
- The prayer is self-centered, but some Christians think that prayer should be God-centered. Most Christians do not think that there is anything inherently wrong in praying for one's own needs. However, the fact that Jesus started and finished his prayer by praising God should be stressed. Here is an example: Pray, then, in this way: Our Father Who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen (Matthew 6:9-13, NASB).
Clearly, praise of God is not very apparent in The Prayer of Jabez.
Some ideas expressed in this book are found in Islam. While researching this article, I interviewed Christians from different denominations on their views of prayer. When I asked if God would answer a non-Christian's prayer, most said: Yes, for God is everyone's God and may choose to answer His servants' prayers any time He wills. However, one person replied that God only answers a righteous person's prayer. If God appears to answer a non-righteous person's prayer, it is because that person does the necessary things or because God makes it happen, as it falls under His Will regardless of their prayer.
Muslims do not rule out such conditions, and Islam does not teach that God listens only to Muslims. For example: Or, Who answers the distressed one when he calls upon Him and removes the evil, and He will make you successors in the earth. Is there a god with Allah? Little is it that you mind! (27:62) and And when My servants ask you concerning Me, then surely I am very near; I answer the prayer of the suppliant when he calls on Me, so they should answer My call and believe in Me that they may walk in the right way (2:187)
Yes, as the stories of the Prophets and righteous people show. For example:
- And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House: Our Lord, accept from us, for You are the Hearing, the Knowing. Our Lord, make us submissive to You, (raise) from our offspring a nation submitting to You, show us our ways of devotion, and turn to us (mercifully), for You are the Oft-returning (to mercy), the Merciful. Our Lord, raise up one of their own as a Messenger who shall recite Your communications to them, teach them the Book and the wisdom, and purify them, for You are the Mighty, the Wise. (2:127-29)
- Our Lord, don't cause our hearts to deviate after You have guided us aright, and grant us from Your Mercy, for You are the most generous Giver. (3:8)
- God does not burden a soul with something greater than it can bear. It receives every good that it earns, and suffers every ill that it earns. (Pray:) Our Lord, don't condemn us if we forget or fall into error. Our Lord, don't place upon us a burden like the one You placed upon those before us. Our Lord, don't place upon us a burden that we can't bear. Expunge our sins and forgive us. Have mercy upon us. You are our Protector, [so] help us against those who oppose faith. (2:286)
The Prophet also left behind many prayers related sleep, eating, seeking protection from evil or an enemy, seeking forgiveness, asking for paradise, seeking refuge from poverty, certain diseases, and others related to all facets of life. Islam does not present any prayers as as magic formulas for acceptance, but merely some sample prayers that God likes believers to perform. While the wording is important, what really counts is sincerity: (Jesus said:) And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words (Matthew 6:7) and (Muhammad said:) God does not accept the supplication of a person whose heart is busy with other things (Tirmidhi, Daawat, 66).
Muslims believe that certain conditions have to be met for the prayer to be answered: It is addressed to the One True God, does not join another deity with God, and does not ask for what God has prohibited.
However, God answers prayers as He wills. Similar to what Christians believe, He may grant it as it is, grant something better, or may not grant it since the outcome will be bad: But it is possible that you dislike a thing that is good for you, and that you love a thing that is bad for you. God knows, and you do not (2:216).
Also, God may choose not to interfere or change the flow of events. We see this when the various Prophets and their followers were persecuted. When one Muslim asked the Prophet to pray for deliverance, the Prophet replied, that this is the fate of all sincere believers and that they must be steadfast and patient in God's path. Thus God allows apparently bad things to happen and delays the prayer's acceptance. The Prophet said: Each person's prayer is granted if he or she does not grow impatient and say: I prayed, but it was not granted' (Muslim, Dhikr 6593).
Christian and Islamic traditions consider it most appropriate to start a prayer by glorifying God. For Muslims, this is reflected in the first surah, which has to be recited throughout the five daily prescribed prayers: In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. All praise is due to God, Lord of the Worlds. The Compassionate, the Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment. We serve You and implore You for help. Keep us on the right path. The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favors. Not (the path) of those who have earned Your Wrath or of those who go astray (1:1-7)
The first four verses praise, thank, and glorify God. The fifth one is either a statement or prayer to reach a certain quality. The last two are supplications. The Prophet told his Companions to start their prayers by praising God, and his own prayers were intertwined with glorifications of God. Many prayers reported in the Qur'an also start with praise of and thanks to God.
In the Islamic tradition, one can ask for earthly things: The Messenger of Allah said, Each of you should ask for his or her needs from Allah, even if your shoelace breaks, because if Allah does not facilitate it, it will never be possible (Tirmidhi, Da awat, 149). However, the Qur'an criticizes prayers that focus on earthly things alone: Some say: Our Lord, give us (Your bounties) in this world, but they will have no portion in the Hereafter. Others say: Our Lord, give us good in this world and in the Hereafter, and defend us from the Fire's torment. To them will be given what they have earned. God is quick in account (2:200-02) and No soul dies except by God's leave, the term being fixed as by writing. If someone wants a reward in this life, We shall give it. If someone wants a reward in the Hereafter, We shall give it. And swiftly shall We reward those who (serve Us with) gratitude (3:145).
Thus, Muslims do not take Paradise for granted. Rather, they hope to enter it through gaining God's good pleasure, good deeds, and avoiding evil. Even the Prophet said he could enter Paradise only by God's Mercy. Prayers focusing on the Hereafter are not common in the Christian tradition; however, they are central in the Islamic tradition. The Islamic belief in individual accountability is a driving force in a practicing Muslim's daily life.
Prayer is a basic human need and a powerful way to establish a connection with God. It is also a signature, for how one prays gives important clues about one's relationship with God. For example, the reported prayers of righteous people and Prophets show a far deeper understanding about how God acts. Prayer also unifies people of different faith communities, as seen in during the interfaith services held after the September 11 tragedy.
The Prayer of Jabez, despite its shortcomings from both Christian and Islamic perspectives, is an important book. People should read it and contemplate its message. All of us need to acquire a more accurate understanding of the different faiths that drive our neighbors and other people. Viewing all Muslims as terrorists due to the actions of a few or raising our children to hate or fear members of other faith communities damage all of us. Maybe one day the media will realize this.