Say a Little Prayer for Me - "The Prayer of Jabez":
Christianity has always played a significant role in American life. We are a country settled by Puritans, after all. And even today polling data show that the U.S. remains among the most religious nations in the Western world. This is not to say, however, that Americans are orthodox believers. On the contrary, the faith that most of us espouse is a uniquely American brand of piety.
Consider, for example, "The Prayer of Jabez." The book, a 92-page sermon by Atlanta evangelist Bruce Wilkinson on a single verse from an obscure corner of the Old Testament, has thus far sold in excess of four million copies, and its popularity shows no sign of waning.
What accounts for this extraordinary success? The Biblical passage itself offers little insight, informing us only that Jabez, the 35th son of Judah, made the following prayer to the God of Israel: "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, and that I may not cause pain."
The surprising popularity of Mr. Wilkinson's book arises not so much from his commentary on this rather unremarkable prayer as from the lesson he draws from the line that immediately follows it in the Bible. There it is written that, as a result of Jabez's prayer, "God granted him what he requested."
Mr. Wilkinson teaches his readers that if they recite the five-line prayer once a day, God will ensure that they experience prosperity, just as Jabez did millennia ago. With Mr. Wilkinson's (and, through him, God's) help, you, too, can "enlarge your territory."
"The Prayer of Jabez" is thus equal parts homily and self-help. Mr. Wilkinson encourages us to "ask for more--and more again--from our Lord." The important thing in life is "knowing who you want to be and asking for it." Nothing is too much to ask for, and nothing is too mundane. For no matter what you request, God will happily "credit your account." Mr. Wilkinson even recounts how, stuck in a traffic jam, he prayed for God to "make my flight late so I can catch it." And so it was.
Of course there is nothing wrong with encouraging people to pray--even if the prayer primarily takes the form of a request for personal blessings. As St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, prayer is, at least partially, a "raising up of one's mind to God." If "The Prayer of Jabez" inspires otherwise faithless Americans to lift their minds to something nobler than their everyday pursuits for a few minutes each week, then it will have done some good. Still, Mr. Wilkinson's almost exclusive focus on praying to God for personal benefits ultimately threatens to counteract such positive effects.
Theologians tell us there are many kinds of prayer. At the most basic level, we can offer a prayer of worship in which we submit to God's love, will and law. We can offer him thanksgiving. We can praise him for his goodness. And then there is petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to intercede in the world on our behalf or on the behalf of others.
It is this last form of prayer on which Mr. Wilkinson concentrates--and which has proved to be most theologically problematic. One need not be a cranky secularist to see that God does not always answer our petitions--or at least that he frequently doesn't do so in the way we initially hoped he would. Moreover, petitionary prayer seems to assume that it is possible for us to change God's mind--to sway him to our side by, as it were, asking him nicely for a favor. Such selective intercession seems to be conduct somewhat unbecoming an all-powerful, generous and loving God.
Traditionally, theologians have gotten around these problems by arguing that authentic Christian prayer must always acknowledge our necessary submission to and dependence on the will of God, whose mysterious ways are often beyond our ken. But Mr. Wilkinson, like so many of the rest of us, has little patience for talk of human limitations. When he does mention our dependence on God, it's primarily to pronounce that, in the end, humility is "just another word for power." Such sentiments certainly contribute to the book's populist appeal, but they also rob it of the resources needed to resolve the very theological conundrums it generates.
Not that Mr. Wilkinson shows signs of understanding or caring about such issues. Despite its biblical trappings, "The Prayer of Jabez" is a book of New Age spirituality--a gospel of personal empowerment. Mr. Wilkinson does not profess to offer rational reflection on the divine and its place in human life; he wants merely to make folks feel good about themselves. His book thus manages to amplify what is arguably the least Christian aspect of contemporary American popular culture.
That Mr. Wilkinson and his legion of admirers apparently find nothing particularly inappropriate about treating God as a means to their worldly satisfaction teaches us something important about American Christianity today--and thus something essential about America itself.
Mr. Linker is associate editor of First Things.