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FIRST-PERSON: How an obscure Hebrew became a New York Times bestseller

WASHINGTON (BP)–Books on spirituality are popular these days, and most Americans say they pray regularly. But who would have guessed that a book based on the prayer of an obscure Bible character would be a No. 1 New York Times bestseller?

“The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life,” by Bruce Wilkinson, doesn’t seem to have much going for it. There’s no elegant prose, no gripping narrative. It’s subject, Jabez, is just another name tucked away in the endless genealogical lists of First Chronicles. Though Jabez was from the tribe of Judah, he wasn’t exactly a Hebrew superstar. He was neither a prophet nor a priest. He won no great military victories.

But he composed a prayer. “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain.” The Bible tells us God answered the prayer of Jabez. We are not told how. That’s it. That’s all we know about him.

But that was enough for author Bruce Wilkinson, who’s been reciting the prayer of Jabez for decades. Wilkinson unpacks the contemporary meaning of the prayer and shares personal examples – some remarkable, some not so remarkable – of its power in his life.

The book has gotten the attention of White House staff. You might see it lying out on a coffee table, or hear it discussed at a prayer group meeting in the Old Executive Office Building.

Why the popularity of this little missive on prayer, and why now?

Much of the book unabashedly challenges the reader to pursue influence. For Jabez, that meant enlarging his territory. In Washington, of course, it means accumulating political power. Wilkinson intends a broader application: the idea that our relationships, our experiences, and our work can, and should, be caught up in the larger purposes of God. That’s a throwback to an earlier, more religious age, which counted all of life’s activities as opportunities to respond to the Divine Call. It is a welcome message in a culture that makes the bottom line of our work the bottom line.

There’s another reason for the book’s success. Jabez asks God to keep him from evil, that he might not cause pain. Now there’s a refreshing thought: Live a life untainted by deceit and not entangled by selfish ambition. Here is a figure who seeks after influence, even greatness, but not at the price of his own moral ruin. In the immediate post-Clinton era, perhaps it’s not so surprising that this Old Testament nobody would emerge as a national role model.
Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation. His column is adapted from a radio commentary that aired May 3 on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

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  • Joseph Loconte