May 3, 2001
By Joseph Loconte
Books on spirituality are popular these days, and most Americans
say they pray regularly. Many citizens will pause today to
participate in a National Day of Prayer. But who would have guessed
that a book based on the prayer of an obscure Bible character would
be a #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
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
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. A welcome message
in a culture that makes the bottom line of our work the bottom
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 unentangled
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
Loconte is the William E. Simon
Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage
Originally aired on National Public Radio's All Things Considered (05/03/01)
Books on spirituality are popular these days, and most Americans say they pray regularly. Many citizens will pause today to participate in a National Day of Prayer. But who would have guessed that a book based on the prayer of an obscure Bible character would be a #1 New York Times bestseller?
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society
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