JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Southern Baptists who might have moved swiftly through the genealogical accounts of the Old Testament are taking a serious look at a prayer recorded in 1 Chronicles 4:10 to make a personal application. Most credit the best-selling book “The Prayer of Jabez” by Bruce Wilkinson with raising their own expectations of God. In just 93 pages, the Atlanta Bible teacher provides a commentary of the one-sentence prayer that reads, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil.”
“The book has served to rekindle in me an awareness that nothing is going to be done without the hand of blessing and that it’s OK to ask God for that,” said Tony Chester, pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Ft. Myers, Fla. “I’m more motivated as a pastor to lead our church to be more of a praying church,” he told the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal after reading the book.
Not only is the tiny gift-sized book the top-selling volume for the past five months at LifeWay Christian Stores, it has the number-one best-seller on the prestigious New York Times list and at all Barnes and Noble stores. Publishers Weekly religion editor Lynn Garrett predicts it will become the year’s hardcover best-seller with 3.5 million copies sold already.
The book also has made its way into some unusual places. On May 15, for example, Rod Masteller, senior pastor of Summer Grove Baptist Church, Shreveport, La., delivered a copy of the book to President George W. Bush in a visit to the White House Oval Office.
Wilkinson’s message “must be striking a chord with many, many people,” Chester said, noting how extensively he hears it being discussed among pastors and others. “One of the things that has gotten my attention has been the idea of not being afraid to ask God for a lot. We’re not to be proud or treat God inappropriately, but I really and truly think it honors God when we see him as the source of every blessing and every good thing.”
Wilkinson built his reputation with Walk Through the Bible Ministries as a teacher who offers simple concepts that inspire students to learn more about the Bible. With a section on each of the four phrases of the prayer, the author encourages Christians to seek God’s blessing and provision of increased influence, expressing dependence on him and the need for protection.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary evangelism professor Alvin Reid points to the simplicity of the prayer as the basis for its effective application in a believer’s life. “I know of entire churches that have been affected positively in their evangelism from this simple prayer,” Reid said. “Its simplicity makes it memorable,” he noted, and the focus is on “specific, tangible requests.”
Reid said the request for enlarged borders prompts the Christian to be used of God for greater influence, leading to increased opportunity to share one’s faith. “It does get people talking to God,” he added. “That cannot help but get people focused on evangelism.”
Pastor Mike Landry of Sarasota (Fla.) Baptist Church spoke of the widespread effect the book has had on church members after they were given copies. And another Sarasota pastor, Bill Hild of First Baptist Church, is beginning a series of sermons on the prayer of Jabez.
Praying a Scripture is a habit advocated by Don Whitney, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s associate professor of spiritual formation. “The most salutary aspect of The Prayer of Jabez is that by encouraging the individual Christian to pray for himself the prayer of Jabez found in 1 Chronicles 4:10, Wilkinson is advocating the praying of Scripture,” Whitney said.
Whitney spends a week in his seminary classes teaching students to follow the ancient and biblical practice of praying the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, he said. “And it’s usually the first and most fruitful presentation I make when teaching a conference in a local church on spiritual disciplines. So I am pleased when I see anyone writing about praying through a passage of Scripture.”
Concern from some readers centers on the potential for offering vain repetition in following Wilkinson’s guidance to “pray the Jabez prayer every morning” for 30 days. Convinced that Wilkinson would not endorse “mere rote repetition,” Whitney advised, “Let no one think that they can somehow manipulate God by repeating a prayer that has become to them little more than a magic formula and the sum total of their prayer life.”
Related fears that a prayer for enlarged territory might be seen as a form of “prosperity theology” are negated by Wilkinson’s appeal for a kingdom-oriented motivation of “Lord, use me — give me more ministry for You!”
Without such caution, Whitney said, “We may find ourselves voicing this prayer, but ending up on the short end of ‘You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures'” (James 4:3).
Reid offers a similar caution against a search for a “Christian magic formula” that will provide “a quick way to instant godliness.” He explained that the prayer can be a part of one’s walk with God, but not the totality of it.
Having worked through Wilkinson’s book to incorporate Jabez’s request in his own life, Chester said, “I don’t see the prayer as magic formula. It is a good paradigm for an aggressive kingdom-minded prayer life and since reading it and having those thoughts in my heart, I’ve noticed more opportunities have come up to witness to people. I don’t know if God has simply made me more aware of what was already there or if, indeed, more opportunities are coming my way.”
Lakeland pastor and current Florida Baptist Convention President Jay Dennis credits his church’s attention to the concept of enlarging their territory with a successful relocation to an abandoned shopping mall two years ago. “We prayed, ‘God, do something so big in our midst that it is obviously from you,’ and boy, did he ever deliver,” Dennis recounted. Adapting the First Baptist Church of Lakeland’s name to Church at the Mall, the 400,000-square-foot facility is surrounded by 32 acres of property bordering one of the largest lakes in Polk County.
Dennis had led the congregation to emphasize the prayer of Jabez two years prior to the move. He joined with research assistant Marilyn Jeffcoat of Orlando to recount the experience of answered prayer in a newly released title from Zondervan called “The Prayer Experiment.”
And the prayer that Wilkinson’s book made famous is paraphrased by Dennis to read, “Lord, bless me indeed. Do something so big in my life that it is obviously from you. Increase my influence and opportunities for you. And give me a sense of your continual presence and direction. Protect me and keep me from falling into Satan’s traps. Amen.”