It is unfortunate in a day when our President wants the federal government to tithe to the institutional church (faith-based programs), because the people of God have failed to do so, that an evangelical pastor would sound a call for millions of American Christians to ask for greater blessing from God, without first sounding a call to repentance for the faithless use of God's blessings already. In his book The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life, Bruce Wilkinson tells his readers that American evangelicals should follow the example of the Hebrew Jabez, and pray for God's blessing. Considering the number of book copies sold, it seems American evangelicals have responded to Wilkinson's exhortation with an overwhelming, "Amen!" In fact, a well-known Christian mail order and internet book distributor contains, as I write this article, 54 reviews of Wilkinson's book on their website, most of them favorable. These reviews include acclamations like:
Get the book and read it every week. Pray the prayer everyday and enjoy the blessings that will come your way.
I especially like the last sentence in Jabez's prayer. "And God granted his request."
It [Prayer of Jabez] provided so much insight into how much God wants to do through us and it also showed me how to allow God to do this.
The Prayer of Jabez really works!
Comments like these reflect the pragmatic and hedonistic view of God's Word held by many professing Christians. Too many of these Christians succumb to the evangelical marketers of God's Word, who sell the truth of Scripture like the latest diet pill, car wax, or carpet cleaner. "Hey, it really works!" However, God gave us His Word to trust and obey, in its entirety. When we focus on God's blessings, we often forget His warnings. So, when we learn about Jabez, who is a fine example for us, we must heed the same warnings from God's law-word that Jabez would have heeded. By doing so, we may further our training in righteousness far beyond what Bruce Wilkinson offers us in his book.
The God of Jabez
Bruce Wilkinson prefaces his book by saying, "This petition [the prayer of Jabez] has radically changed what I expect from God and what I experience every day by His power."1 However, I don't believe Jabez viewed his God as One from Whom he expected things, but One Whom he obeyed. The Scriptures say, "Jabez was more honorable than his brothers" (1 Chr. 4:9) The root of "honorable" in this verse is the same root used in the word "honor," which the prophet spoke to confront Eli's disobedience to God. Eli disobeyed the law of God by allowing his sons, who were ministering as priests, to take the fatty portions of the sacrifices, which were to be offered to God as the best portion. The prophet said, speaking for God, "those who honor Me I will honor" (1 Sam. 2:30). It is the sense of obedience (or the lack thereof) that the word "honor" conveys regarding Eli's actions. Similarly, it is the sense of obedience that the word "honorable" conveys regarding Jabez. Jabez was a man who obeyed God's law. Therefore, we can presume that Jabez emphasized, contrary to Wilkinson's emphasis, what God expected from him, rather than what he expected from God. Wilkinson fails to understand that it was Jabez's obedience to the law, which was a gift of God by grace through faith, that set him apart as honorable. Wilkinson says it was the prayer itself that set Jabez apart.2 Jabez "earned" his more honorable place because of his prayer.3 Given his Arminian assumptions, Wilkinson is consistent in applying a causal relationship between our words and God's actions. Wilkinson links the effectualness of his own "prayer for salvation" with that of the prayer of Jabez.4 In other words, just as God saved Bruce Wilkinson in response to his prayer for salvation, so He blessed Jabez in response to his prayer for blessing.
Following this line of thinking, Wilkinson says that we can expect God's blessings because we pray thus.5 Wilkinson's Arminian theology has led him to a legalistic view of prayer. God is obligated to answer our prayers and bless us. The overwhelming tenor of his book is the believer's responsibility to enable God to bless him. He presents God as a frustrated philanthropist who wants to bless His people, but they just won't let Him! Wilkinson confesses: I don't want to get to heaven and hear God say: "Let's look at your life, Bruce. Let me show you what I wanted to accomplish through you but you wouldn't let me." What a travesty!
It is a travesty that Wilkinson presents a god that is not the sovereign God of Scripture. His thesis runs contrary to the uniform testimony of the Bible and contradicts the psalmist who said that God "does whatever He pleases" (Ps. 115:3), and Nebuchadnezzar who said that "No one can restrain His hand" (Dan. 4:35).
Furthermore, Wilkinson's exegesis is out of order. Jabez was declared honorable prior to and regardless of his prayer. The blessing that followed his prayer was an intensification of God's freely given favor, which already rested upon Jabez. God blessed Jabez according to the good pleasure of His will and ordained Jabez's prayer as the means by which to bless him more. In the same way, Bruce Wilkinson was able to pray his "prayer for salvation" because God had already saved him. God justifies and blesses His people according to the good pleasure of His will (Eph. 1:7-12). Therefore, it is more proper to emphasize that which Jabez obeyed more than that which Jabez prayed. This brings us to God's law and raises an important question that Wilkinson does not address, "As an honorable man, what would Jabez have tithed?"
Clearly, as an honorable man, Jabez would have tithed according to God's law. That tithe, when considered in its totality, consisted of 15%-18% of a person's annual income. This money provided for worship, education, and other social needs.6 Now, Jabez tithed to be sure, and at 15%, no less. He asked for God's blessing and was right in so doing. Moreover, it pleased the Lord to bless a faithful servant. It is the faithfulness of Jabez that Wilkinson fails to stress in his book, in as much as he overlooks the faithlessness of the modern evangelical church in America. We cannot arbitrarily choose a blessing like that which God bestowed to Jabez, and utterly ignore the example of his obedience. In fact, rather than asking God to give us more, we must seriously consider our measure of faithfulness with that which God has given already.
The next time you take home a paycheck, look at how much of it goes to Social Security and Medicare. Moreover, sit down sometime and calculate how much of your tax dollars pay for public education. These considerations alone should tell the people of God in America that we have failed to tithe. These matters: care for the elderly, care for the sick, and the education of our children, are matters which the people of God must provide through means of the tithe. The fact that the state has taken them over demonstrates our failure to tithe properly. So, instead of being faithful servants of our God, we have been wicked servants. Should we then pray for more blessing, from which we can neglect to tithe even greater amounts? Would more of a blessing help to reform our ways, and cause us to tithe as we should? Not without repentance. Therefore, it is better for the American evangelical church to look away from The Prayer of Jabez and to the Scripture for its call to action.
The Parable of the Talents
As wicked servants, we must heed the warning of our Lord when He told the parable of the ten talents. The central theme in Jesus' parable of the ten talents is faithfulness with what a master gives his servants. The master gives each of his servants an amount of money, and then travels to a far away land. When the master returns, he settles up with his servants. Two of his servants have used his money well and have made a profit. The master blesses each saying, "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord" (Mt. 25:21,23). However, the third servant has been foolish, using his master's gift to no profit whatsoever. So the master declares to him, "You wicked and lazy servant" (v. 26). The master also says, "Cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (v. 30).
When Jesus tells this parable, it is in the context of His teaching regarding His second coming and judgment. Jesus is speaking of Himself as the Master who will return one day to judge how His servants have used His blessings. Later in the same chapter, we see that the profit Jesus has in view is precisely the social needs mentioned above, which our civil government must now provide due to our own failure. Jesus speaks of the Son of Man's return, and His commendation of faithful servants (those on His right hand) in a way that parallels the master's commendation of the two faithful servants in the parable. He says:
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, "Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me." (vv. 34-36)
The faithful servants will then reply to Jesus,
Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? (vv. 37-39)
To which Jesus will respond, "Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (v. 40).
The Lord Jesus defines what the profit on our blessings is to be, namely, to provide for the social needs mentioned. (This does not limit our ministry of the Word to the social needs around us. Salvation is not to be found in social well-being by means of social programs. Salvation is by grace through faith, by means of the Spirit-blessed proclamation of God's Word. A Biblical ministry proclaims God's Word and calls people to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus. The point of the parable is to instruct us in the use of the financial means with which God has entrusted us, not the use of the gospel message per se. The proclamation of the gospel, calling people to repentance and faith, is not primarily in view here, although it should be incorporated into any social program.) In light of Jesus' warnings, what is most necessary for the modern American evangelical church? How do we measure up to His standard of judgment expressed in the parable of the ten talents and the verses following? That is the question Bruce Wilkinson does not address in his book. He will not call God's people to repentance for being less than faithful, even wicked, servants. Instead, he calls us to ask for more blessing. In doing so, he leads many to be like the person James warns against, who asks amiss and spends what he receives on his own pleasures. Perhaps many have misunderstood Bruce Wilkinson, or perhaps they've understood him only too well. In today's culture, a book that appeals to the selfishness found in the church and society may sell very well. Whereas, a Biblically faithful book that calls Christians to repent and tithe according to God's law will not likely reach the best-seller list. Bruce Wilkinson's book has been on that list for weeks.
1. Bruce Wilkinson, Preface to The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000).
2. ibid., 10.
3. ibid., 76.
4. ibid., 11.
5. ibid., 84.
6. R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1973), 510.