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Catholic Critics Question Evangelical ‘Prayer of Jabez’ Phenomenon

BY Tim Drake

October 28 - November 3, 2001 Issue | Posted 10/28/01 at 2:00 PM

 

SISTERS, Ore. — The prayer itself, hidden among the huge genealogy of 1 Chronicles, escapes notice. But the book The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life can't be ignored. It has become a multimillion-dollar publishing phenomenon.

Not only has the book by Bruce H. Wilkinson sold more than 8.5 million copies to date, but it has also spawned a Jabez devotional, Jabez Bible study, Jabez video and audiotapes and Jabez merchandise. Now, a series of at least seven spinoff books for children, teens and women are forthcoming.

It is a phenomenon fueled largely by the book's believers, such as currently reigning Miss Minnesota, Kari Knuttila, a Catholic who credits the prayer, in part, for her title.

“My mother had given me the book and a prayer card before the statewide competition. I read a couple of chapters each night and finished the book on the day of the pageant,” said Knuttila. “The book made me think about expanding my territory and what I could do as Miss Minnesota.”

Stories such as Knuttila's fill the publisher's Web page.

Bill Mintiens, brand director for Wilkinson's products with Multnomah Publishers, credits word of mouth and “pass-along value” for the success of the book. “Once someone was touched by the book, they either recommended it or gave their book to someone else,” he said. “That fueled the fire of people buying many, many copies of the book.”

The Rev. Pete Brisco, senior pastor of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrollton, Texas, ordered 4,000 copies of the book to give to every family for the church's 25th anniversary. “My desire was that we be a praying church,” he said. “I just think the prayer of Jabez is a great way to order prayer.”

“People are not excited about the book,” author Bruce Wilkinson has said. “They're excited about what happens to them when they pray Jabez. They get a whole new vision of what can happen to them. God can bless them a whole lot, but they must ask for it.”

From Judah to Dallas

The prayer, found in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, interrupts the naming of different branches of the tribe of Judah and reads, in the translation used by the book, “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.”

The prayer is one that Wilkinson, founder of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, has prayed since 1972 when he was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary. In the book, Wilkinson explains how the prayer has blessed his own ministry. The book is only the first in a three-part series being published by Multnomah.

Not everyone, however, is heaping praise upon the book. “It is a minor prayer by a minor figure from a minor part of the Bible,” said James Akin, senior apologist with Catholic Answers. Among his criticisms, he cites the book's incorrect translation and faulty exegesis.

Akin points out that Wilkinson uses the New King James Version of the Bible — the only translation which makes Jabez's prayer appear more selfless than it actually may have been.

“The exegesis that Wilkinson offers, both at the translation level and the interpretation level, is bad,” said Akin. “In both cases he uses options that best suit the picture he wishes to create even though they are not supported by the evidence.”

As a case in point, Akin suggested that “Wilkinson's spiritualizing elements of the prayer, such as ‘let me have more influence than you,’ is a very foreign concept in the ancient Hebrew mind-set. The point of the prayer may very well be that Jabez was praying to the God of Israel rather than some other god or idol,” added Akin.

Others, such as fellow Catholic Answers' apologist Jan Wakelin, are concerned with the prayer's emphasis on material wealth.

“Simply put, God favors those who ask,” Wilkinson writes. “He holds back nothing from those who want and earnestly long for what he wants.”

“It smacks a little of the Prosperity Gospel,” said Wakelin. “What about atheists who have been blessed with wealth they never asked for?”

Gospel of Self

The Prosperity Gospel dates back to the Word of Faith and Christian Science movement founded by Mary Baker Eddy and popularized by Norman Vincent Peale. The movement fell into decline with the fall of televange-lists Jim Bakker and Oral Roberts.

Mintiens disagreed with such a characterization. “People that put the book into the prosperity doctrine box have simply not read the book.”

Countered Akin, “There is nothing bad about the prayer itself, but making it the central part of people's spiritual life fundamentally misunderstands the prayer's presence in the Bible and elevates it to a stature that Scripture does not intend it to have.”

He said its massive marketing effort is successful because of “an absence of ritual prayer in Protestantism. It is an attempt to manufacture blessing and spirituality through a form of ritual prayer that Protestants are typically deprived of.”

The prayer has also led to the publication of both a parody and a critique. HarperSanFrancisco recently published “Praying Like Jesus: The Lord's Prayer in a Culture of Prosperity.” Written by American Baptist minister James Mulholland, it challenges the overwhelmingly popular pattern prayer exemplified by the prayer of Jabez.

“In a materialistic, self-centered culture,” writes Mulholland, “such a prayer will always be attractive. Unfortunately, when we reduce prayer to gaining blessing, we make prayer a device — a tool designed to manipulate God. The better the tool, the more blessing we receive.

“Blessing, rather than being an attribute of God, becomes a commodity sold in the marketplace of religious culture.”

Tim Drake is the editor of www.catholic.net and writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.