The Jabez Formula

Jabez title graphic

(This originally appeared in the Winter 2002 edition of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 16)

Bruce Wilkinson is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. He founded Walk Thru the Bible Ministries in 1976. His ministry now conducts some 2,500 conferences each year to assist students in their understanding of Scripture.1His ministry has undoubtedly helped many in their understanding of the Bible. His recent book, The Prayer of Jabez,2 has sold over seven-million copies.3 There are Jabez plaques, calendars, and leather bound editions. However, its popularity has not been without controversy. Some have claimed it is nothing more than “Word Faith” theology in an evangelical wrapper. While I believe this is an unfair claim,4 I do believe there are serious concerns that need to be addressed. 

Miracles Trivialized

Miracles are something everyone would like to experience. But miracles, by their very definition, are rare and irregular. One should not expect to see a miracle. That is not to say miracles are not possible. God certainly has and can divinely interact with His creation at any time. Throughout the Bible, God used miracles to confirm His prophets to Israel.

Bruce Wilkinson asks rhetorically “…when was the last time you saw miracles happen on a regular basis in your life?”5A miracle by Wilkinson’s definition is “an intervention by God to make something happen that wouldn’t normally happen.”6 Without God there would be nothing that could happen normally! Jesus Christ created all things and holds all things together (Col. 1:17-18). The biblical idea of a miracle is much narrower. God gave miracles “to accredit God’s message and messenger.”7 Miracles were not the norm in Israel. People took note of them because they weren’t a regular occurrence. This primary misunderstanding of miracles leads Wilkinson to an improper theological understanding of 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, the so-called prayer of Jabez.

Wilkinson refers to the so-called miracles as “Jabez appointments.”8He describes situations where God used him in chance encounters with others. These are hardly miracles by biblical standards. He describes situations such as speaking to a woman about marriage troubles before boarding a plane. Once they get into the plane, a man lets Wilkinson have his seat so they can continue their conversation.9 None of the events that occurred in this story were beyond the laws of nature. A better explanation of what happened here is the outworking of the providence of God. God used natural events to speak to this woman. It is true God supernaturally did this from His perspective. It is equally true that everything God does is supernatural, because He is supernatural.

A miracle is quite different. Norman Geisler, President of Southern Evangelical Seminary, defines a miracle as a “…divine intervention into or interruption of, the regular course of the world that produces a purposeful but unusual event that would not have occurred otherwise.”10 A miracle is an act of God that suspends the natural laws. A man giving up his seat on a plane for another is generous, but not miraculous. Wilkinson does not agree. He believes God performs miracles through nature, or as he says it “…miracles don’t have to break natural law to be a supernatural event.”11 He then cites Jesus calming the storm and Elijah making the rains stop as examples of miracles that did not impose on the normal laws of nature.

All storms come to a natural end. The winds gradually die down, the clouds drift away, and the raindrops stop. But, this is not what occurred in Matthew 8. Jesus rose from His slumber, He rebuked the winds and the waves, and they became perfectly calm. This was not a natural end to the storm. One does not expect a storm to end when someone commands it to stop. The miracle was not merely that the storm ended, but that it ended at the command of Jesus.

As for Elijah, he was a prophet of God. He spoke what the LORD commanded—namely when it would (1 Kings 18:1) and wouldn’t (1 Kings 17:1) rain. Wilkinson’s argument uses these two passages as pretexts to underscore his belief that miracles need not break natural law to be considered as such. These passages show that the LORD completely controls the precipitation that falls upon the earth. They do not suggest, as Wilkinson believes, that miracles can regularly happen within the normal course of daily events.

Wilkinson believes every Christian should pray as Jabez did to expand his territory—the territory of his spiritual influence within his business and all other areas of his life. Certainly this is a worthwhile prayer, one believers should pray. We are commanded to give all of our self as a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1-2). The mistake Wilkinson makes is believing miracles, or “Jabez appointments” as he calls them, are the indicator whether or not we are expanding our spiritual influence. “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.”12

Our spiritual influence is not based on the number of “Jabez moments” that occur in our life, but rather on the intentions and motives of our heart (1 Cor. 3:9-15). God’s perfect will is found in the obedience of His commands (John 15:10). Furthermore, we are not called in Scripture to “release miracles.” God used men to perform miracles, but He released them for His good purpose.

Another problem that occurs when events are misinterpreted as miracles is that true miracles are degraded. The miracle of creation becomes on par with two people sitting together on a plane unexpectedly. In addition, it undermines the authority of the prophets. For if everyone can expect a miracle in their life, then on what basis should Israel have listened to Moses, Joshua, and the other prophets? The very Word of God was authenticated by true, divine miracles (Mk. 2:10-11, Jn. 3:2, Acts 2:22). Miracles do not, by definition, happen on a regular basis. We are not to expect a miracle, rather we trust in the providential care of an Almighty God.

Miracles are a shadow of the power of God. They point the world to their Creator. Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary describes a “miracle” as any event “which appear to violate natural laws but which reveal God to the eye of faith at the same time.” 13 When mere uncommon events are misclassified as miracles, God’s power is not fully understood when a true miracle does occur.

Hermeneutics Compromised

The application of Scripture is lifted in highest esteem in the church of today. A sermon or Sunday school lesson is not considered complete without a practical application explained. What tends to get cheated with such an emphasis on application is the meaning of a passage. The relevance of a Scripture passage can only be properly understood if the correct interpretation is made. The manner one interprets the Bible is called hermeneutics.

A good hermeneutical method considers several things. First, the genre of literature must be known. A poetical passage from Psalms is treated different than the historical narratives of Acts.

Second, the context of the passage is vital. One must not lift a verse out of context to prove an idea. Any single verse must be understood in the context that it was written. Third, the meaning of the text is found in the text not in the reader. Meaning comes from the text; it is not put upon the text. The Bible contains objective truths outside the mind of the reader. A student of the Bible must never study it subjectively.

Sadly, subjective interpretation is a common method for some contemporary Bible teachers. Bible students are all too often asked what a passage means to them rather than what it means. Proper hermeneutics commands the reader to discover the meaning of the text prior to making a personal application. Then, and only then, can the reader make a correct application to their life.

Unfortunately, Wilkinson uses poor hermeneutical methods in the Prayer of Jabez. Jabez is mentioned in two verses of the Bible:

“Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother named him Jabez saying, ‘Because I bore [him] with pain.’ Now Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that You would bless me indeed and enlarge my border, and that Your hand might be with me, and that You would keep [me] from harm that [it] may not pain me!’ And God granted him what he requested” (1Chron. 4:9-10).

From this passage, Wilkinson asserts the following subjective deductions: Jabez’s life started bad, no one knew him, he prayed an unusual short prayer, and things turned out well for Jabez.14 Did these propositions come from the text? The prayer was short, but was it unusual? How does Wilkinson know this? By examination of the text, it is Jabez’s mother who had the “bad time.” She is the one who had the pain not Jabez. And on what basis does Wilkinson assert that no one knew Jabez? Where is this in the text? He could mean that readers of the Bible today did not know Jabez until he introduced him to us. This would be an example of the reader determining the meaning. In other words, since we had never heard of Jabez, contemporaries of Jabez must not have known him either. This is illogical reasoning.

Wilkinson’s hermeneutics of 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 is weak. He chooses to use eisegesis* instead of exegesis**. He adds his own meaning to the text rather than letting the text speak for itself. When biblical text is misinterpreted poor applications will certainly follow. This is precisely the case with Wilkinson’s practical applications.

Wilkinson incorrectly deduces from the text that Jabez started slow in his walk with God but finished strong. What made this supposedly incredible turn-around? According to Wilkinson, it was his prayer. “Clearly, the outcome can be traced to his prayer. Something about Jabez’s simple, direct request to God changed his life and left a permanent mark on the history books of Israel.”15 Thus, if it worked for Jabez, it can work for us.

Wilkinson further explains how the prayer works by giving six steps to “follow unwaveringly…for the next 30 days.16 

“1. Pray the Jabez prayer every morning, and keep a record of your daily prayer by marking off a calendar or a chart you make especially for the purpose.
2. Write out the prayer and tape it in your Bible, in your day-timer, on your bathroom mirror, or some other place where you’ll be reminded of your new vision.
3. Reread this little book once each week during the next month, asking God to show you important insights you may have missed.
4. Tell one other person of your commitment to your new prayer habit, and ask him or her to check up on you.
5. Begin to keep a record of changes in your life, especially the divine appointments and new opportunities you can relate directly to the Jabez prayer.
6. Start praying the Jabez prayer for your family, friends, and local church.”17 

When the results of the prayer occur also seems clear to Wilkinson. When he was asked on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast how people react when the prayer doesn’t seem to be answered, this dialog with James Dobson took place: 

Wilkinson: “I encourage people to not get discouraged, God begins answering the prayer in the middle of the second week.”

Dobson: (laughter) “Is that right?”

Wilkinson: “He does.”

Dobson: “You can really be that specific?”

Wilkinson: “Oh, there are so many hundreds of people, and I encourage people when I preach to them to commit to pray this 30 days in a row. And there are massive numbers of people who are doing this.”

Dobson: “The same prayer?”

Wilkinson: “The same prayer every morning.”18

Is this what God expects of us? Is this what the whole counsel of Scripture teaches? It seems clear from the Bible it is not. A sanctified life is not lived by following a formula. To be conformed to the image of Christ is a pilgrimage. As the Apostle Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil. 3:12). The Christian life is lived by faith in God. It is being obedient when the circumstances in life do not seem in favor of our well-being or happiness. It is finding joy in the things of God, not the things of this world. I agree with Wilkinson that our faith and ministry should expand as we mature as followers of Christ. But to propose that by following a certain formula for a specific amount of time leads to the desired results is beyond what Scripture teaches.

Many of the suggestions Wilkinson gives are helpful. Daily prayer and accountability are needed in our Christian walk. However, it is a fallacy to believe that centering these ideas on a specific prayer will unleash God to work in your life. God is looking at the intent of the heart, not the words of the mouth. The prophet Isaiah spoke “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by me” (Isa. 29:13).

First Chronicles 4:9-10 does not teach the formula for successful Christian maturity. It teaches only that God chose to answer the prayer of a man named Jabez from the tribe of Judah. 

Pragmatic Methodology

The foundation for the pragmatic method for discovering truth is results. If a specific answer or choice leads to the desired result, it is then declared true or right. For a theologian to use the pragmatic method while interpreting the Bible would be inappropriate. For example, “all things” in Paul’s command to “…consider all things loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:8) would mean “all things that I do not need” when understood pragmatically. This, however, is not the meaning of the passage. Paul means everything is lost when compared to Jesus Christ. Not just the things we don’t need in the world, but absolutely everything.

Wilkinson uses the pragmatic method to justify his understanding of Jabez’s prayer. Much of the book is devoted to stories about what he calls “Jabez encounters.” These stories are offered as proof that praying like Jabez works. Managing editor of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, believes these stories do not paint the larger picture of the Christian walk. “Wilkinson is also a decent, though breathless, storyteller. Unfortunately, his stories are all examples of hit-and-run ministry: California college students ministering in Trinidad for a summer; a youth group evangelizing suburban youth on Long Island for six weeks; and Wilkinson counseling a newlywed on the Isle of Patmos for one afternoon.”19

Wilkinson believes 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 should be the model prayer for Christians. Jabez received more land when he prayed. The Christian can have increased ministry if they pray like Jabez. Wilkinson believes his experience in life proves this to be true. “How do I know that it will significantly impact you? Because of my experience and the testimony of hundreds of others around the world with whom I’ve shared these principles.” 20He further believes the success of his ministry stems from his understanding and application of 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. He says, “Just by looking at what is happening, I can assure you that God still answers those who have a loyal heart and pray the Jabez prayer.”21

The Bible agrees with only one of the two conditions Wilkinson offers. A “loyal heart” toward God assures our prayers will be answered. If we abide in Christ we will be given what we ask for (John 15:7). To abide in Christ is to conform our will to His. We do not presume to understand the thoughts of God. We are also instructed to not put God to the test (Ps. 78:17-18). In other words, we do not have the power or authority to call God into our plans. Our plans are to be adjusted to His. Although he repeatedly says only to ask for an expanded ministry and not to define it, Wilkinson does not always allow God to define his encounters. In his stories he determines when (at the airport before his flight22), where (told students to pray for Trinidad23), and how (flying in a DC-10 24).

The interpretation Wilkinson gives to 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 has worked for himself and many others. Are we then to conclude any interpretation that works must be true? Author Norman Vincent Peale believed our lot in life is largely directed by thinking positive or negative thoughts. By thinking positively, we can have good things in our life. He wrote in his “Introduction” to The Power of Positive Thinking25 that in “… this book’s thirty-fifth anniversary, the publishers tell me it has been translated into 33 languages and sold more than 13-million copies and the message of the book is being put on audio and videocassettes.”26 While positive thinking seemed to work for Peale, it does not make it true. Our days are not determined by our own thoughts, they are ordained by God (Ps. 139:16).

We must not forget truth is not determined by what is expedient. If the sole test for truth is whether or not it is livable, then Mormonism and Atheism could not be demonstrated to be false. For the Mormon can live a pure life and be in harmony with his beliefs as could an Atheist live a selfish, vulgar life and be in congruency with his beliefs. This does not make Mormonism or Atheism true. So, The Prayer of Jabez does not stand or fall based on how it works, rather it is to be tested against an objective standard—namely the Bible. For something to be true it must be so for all times. A pragmatist looks only at the contemporary world. Truth stands the test of time, now and forever. If it is true today, it will be true forever. “Of course all truth must work, but not everything that works is necessarily true.”27 

Conclusion

The information given in Scripture about Jabez is obscure. We know little more than he was from the tribe of Judah and that God answered his prayer by expanding his territory. Wilkinson adds his own assumptions and possibilities to the passage, which leads him to the conclusion everyone should pray this prayer. Augustine warns against such methods of studying Scripture. He believed “…it is far safer to walk by the light of Holy Scripture; so that when we wish to examine the passages that are obscured by metaphorical expressions, we may either obtain a meaning about which there is no controversy, or if a controversy arises, may settle it by the application of testimonies sought out in every portion of the same Scripture.”28 It is biblical testimonies that shed light on the obscure words of Scripture not human experience as Wilkinson promotes. In context, 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 is within a genealogical listing. It is in this context Jabez should be understood.

Genealogies can function to explain three general areas: domestic, political, and religious.29 A purpose genealogies do not serve is to broaden our understanding on how the Christian life is to be lived. Unfortunately, this is what The Prayer of Jabez tries to do by transforming Jabez’s prayer into a method rather than a manner we are to follow. Certainly, expanded ministry and more opportunities to communicate Christ are to be a part of the life of the believer. We are commanded to preach throughout the world (Matt. 28:19-20) and be alert for opportunities with unbelievers (Col. 4:5-6). The difficulty is not in these conclusions, but rather in the method they were derived.

The Lord Himself gave us an example how to pray (Luke 11:1-4). It seems reasonable to deem the prayer of Christ as infinitely more powerful than the prayer of an obscure character in the Old Testament. The Lord’s Prayer is not to be recited as a mantra; rather Christ was showing in what manner we should pray. We should acknowledge God is holy, we are sinful, and God is the provider of our daily needs.

Did God record Jabez’s prayer so that we may repeat it and have our influence expanded? A better understanding of this prayer can be found by examining other passages of Scripture. Throughout Scripture blessing is tied to obedience and not to some ritualistic prayer. Take, for instance, these words of Moses to Israel: “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all of His commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God” (Deut. 28:1-2). Theologian R.C. Sproul in his book Knowing Scripture30 writes, “Nearness to God is blessing; absence of God is curse.”31 It seems more plausible Jabez was obedient and God was faithful to bless him. So, God chose to bless Jabez because of his obedience that produced his prayer not because of the prayer itself.

Now is the time for followers of Christ to begin to take seriously the command to be equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17). We must not simply be able to quote verses or tell the story of a particular Bible character. We must begin to understand the entire counsel of Scripture. Then we will understand the importance of a miracle, the meaning of Scripture, and that truth is found outside of our own experiences.Ω

*eisegesis: an improper method of exposition by which the expounder introduces his own ideas into the interpretation of a text (Webster’s).

**exegesis: the exposition, critical analysis, or interpretation of a word, literary passage, etc., especially of the Bible (Webster’s).

Randall Birtell is the Scranton, KS co-Branch Director of MCOI (along with Randal Ming). He is also completing his Master’s Degree in Apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC.

© 2015, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.

  1. http://www.prayerofjabez.com/BreakthroughPages/AboutBruce.html on August 9, 2001
  2. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000)
  3. http://www.prayerofjabez.com on August 16, 2001
  4. Wilkinson himself has repeatedly denied that the Jabez prayer is for more material wealth. He states the prayer is for increased ministry and that material blessing may come
  5. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 16
  6. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 43
  7. Don Campbell, Wendell Johnston, John Walvoord and John Witmer, The Theological Workbook (Nashville, Word Publishing, 2000) 247
  8. Don Campbell, Wendell Johnston, John Walvoord and John Witmer, The Theological Workbook (Nashville, Word Publishing, 2000) 37
  9. Don Campbell, Wendell Johnston, John Walvoord and John Witmer, The Theological Workbook (Nashville, Word Publishing, 2000) 79-82
  10. Norman L. Geisler and Ron M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996) 76
  11. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 43
  12. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 44
  13. Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986), 717
  14. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 14-15
  15. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 15
  16. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 86
  17. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 86-87
  18. James Dobson, “A Life Changing Prayer”, as heard on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast (March 5-62001), tape CT337/25977
  19. Mark Galli, “Significance in a Small Package,” Christianity Today, 11 June 2001, 97-98
  20. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 11
  21. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 90
  22. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 79
  23. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 33
  24. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) 33
  25. Norman Vincent Peal, The Power of Positive Thinking, new condensed ed. (New York, NY: Center for Positive Thinking, 1987)
  26. Norman Vincent Peal, The Power of Positive Thinking, new condensed ed. (New York, NY: Center for Positive Thinking, 1987) 2
  27. Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1976) 115
  28. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago, IL: William Benton, 1952), 668
  29. NIV Study Bible notes (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 581
  30. R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977)
  31. R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977), 89

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