Praying For Prosperity: The Jabez Juggernaut
As scandals rock the world of finance, a special genre of Christian books — books linking faith and prosperity — may look like a good antidote.
The BreakThrough Series, authored by evangelical Protestant pastor and author Bruce Wilkinson, is selling out of Christian bookstores. The first book of the series, The Prayer of Jabez, was the non-fiction sensation of 2000. Published by Multnomah Press, it's a slender book about a short and obscure Old Testament prayer buried among the genealogies of 1 Chronicles. It topped the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, sold nearly 10 million copies and became a merchandising monster (you can now get Ja-bez apparel, videos, mousepads and so on).
The second BreakThrough book, Secrets of the Vine, was published in April 2001 and has also enjoyed great success. Essentially an extended sermon about the first few verses of John 15, it's already sold more than 3 million copies. The third book in the series, A Life God Rewards, will be released next month — along with an extraordinary assortment of spinoff products. There'll be A Life God Rewards CDs, prayer journals, study guides, devotionals and a leather-bound collector's edition. Rewards focuses on eternity and, according to the book's Web site (www.pray-erofjabez.com), will show “why it's worth it (at a 1,000% return on investment) to serve God with all your heart for all your life!” Once again, more breaking through, more investing — and, undoubtedly, more chart-topping sales figures.
Even if Wilkinson's books hold little interest for Catholics, their impact on the culture would be difficult to ignore. While most of his sales are to evangelical Protestants, many Catholics are reading the books, too — and urging other Catholics to do likewise. Judging by some online reviews I perused recently, they find the books to be spiritually encouraging and even life-changing. One Catholic writes, “[The Prayer of Jabez] has brought me closer to my religion. As a Catholic in difficult times, it has renewed my faith in God.” Other Catholics openly wonder if the books align with Church teaching but find the benefits too good to resist.
Do Breakthrough books nudge investors toward greater spiritual accountability via a soul audit? Or do they give a Christian veneer to corporate greed?
Neither. Energetic, earnest and occasionally muddled, they are self-help books formed from evangelical Protestant preaching, pentecostalism, motivational workshops and the business world. They represent a growing segment of mainstream evangelical-Protestant spirituality that is theologically simplistic, heavy on emotion and oriented toward quick, concrete results.
The Prayer of Jabez is a classic case of a molehill turned mountain. The prayer found in 1 Chronicles 4:10 is modest and earthbound. But for Wilkinson, the prayer is revolutionary, miraculous, able to unlock God's blessings. Just pray its words every day for a month and see God work miracles in your life. It “distills God's powerful will for your future,” he writes, “[and] reveals that your Father longs to give you so much more than you may have ever thought to ask for.” This exuberant approach has led many critics to point out flaws in Wilkinson's understanding of prayer, God and the Christian life.
And, indeed, the book lacks both context and balance. Prayer is presented as largely a matter of asking, with little thought for prayer that is liturgical, communal or contemplative. There are hardly any references to the Trinitarian nature of God, Jesus Christ or even a basic Gospel message. Wilkinson's interpretation of 1 Chronicles 4:10 is highly subjective and relies heavily on anecdotes, which he uses to build a case for the “transforming” power of the Jabez prayer.
Secrets of the Vine is a better book than The Prayer of Jabez: It's got more substance and less sensationalism. Although it opens with a rather heady claim — “The secrets of the vine that I will show you in the chapters to come are our Father's amazing plan to keep His children flourishing physically, emotionally, and spiritually” — the majority of Vine is more sober and balanced than Jabez.While Jabez is relentlessly optimistic and often unrealistic, Vine emphasizes that the Christian life is filled with difficulties. Sometimes the struggles are due to our sins and God's disciplinary response. On other occasions God prunes away distractions separating us from his will. In this pruning, Wilkinson notes, “God's goal isn't to plunder or harm, but to liberate us so that we can pursue our true desire — His kingdom.”
This is well and good, but there are problems with Wilkinson's understanding of John 15. Believing that salvation, once obtained, can never be lost (a popular, though not uniform, Protestant teaching often termed “once saved, always saved” or “eternal security"), Wilkinson misinterprets John 15:2, which states: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, he takes away.” He claims this refers to branches being lifted up and “cleaned off,” that is, disciplined. Ignored is John 15:6, which states that those branches not abiding in Christ will be thrown away, dried up and burned. Wilkinson's belief that salvation cannot be lost is intriguing since his understanding of grace is much closer to Catholic doctrine than to classical Protestant teaching. He refers to grace as a “life force,” and describes it as the dynamic, internal life given by God, a far cry from the external, legal notion of grace taught by Luther and Calvin. Repentance, he notes, is not a “one-time act,” but a “lifestyle.”
Break On Through
But if the life of grace is dynamic and relational, why believe it cannot be destroyed through sin and neglect? Why insist that Christians who choose to disobey God are on their own, separated from Christ — and yet remain “saved"? On one hand the book is filled with the relational, subjective language common in various evangelical and pentecostal circles; on the other, it clings to the juridical model of salvation shaped by the Protestant reformers. The result is theological incoherence. Instead of a choice between heaven and hell, readers are told they are choosing from among different “seasons,” or spiritual levels: disciplining, pruning and abiding. What could have been a rousing call to holiness becomes a step-by-step system for “breaking through to abundance.”
As in The Prayer of Jabez, there is a basic confusion about what is the goal of the Christian life. Is it attaining personal fulfillment? Glorifying God? Expanding one's ministry? Enjoying abundance? This uncertainty reflects the failure of the BreakThrough Series to contemplate, even in the most elementary form, the nature of God and the reality of the Incarnation. Without a recognition that God's Trinitarian nature is love, sacrifice and self-donation, it is difficult to appreciate how and why the disciple of Christ is called to the same holy life as lived by the God-man: one of self-giving and sacrifice.
There is a palpable longing for the sacraments in Secrets of the Vine. Wilkinson writes, “When you read your Bible, receive, and savor it like food.” References to reading Scripture, keeping a spiritual journal and spending time with God reflect an innate desire for liturgy, confession and the Eucharist.
As a former evangelical Protestant, I recognize this hunger that can only be satisfied by the Eucharist and the fullness of the Christian faith found in the Catholic Church.
These books won't stop the meltdown in money morals, by any means. But their contribution will be a net positive.
Let's pray the BreakThrough Series, despite its flaws and limitations, will bring some readers to an awareness that the abundant life awaits them on the altar of their local parish. Then let's explain, by our actions as well as our words, what that life consists of.
Carl Olson, editor of Envoy magazine, writes from Heath, Ohio.
- August 11-17, 2002