We first heard of the book in our small group Bible study. We had just finished one study, and someone suggested we read a new book called The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson. It was short and easy to read, and lots of Christians were supposedly reading it. So we agreed, and began our study and discussion.
The book was a bestseller, and for a long time. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s based on a rather obscure text in 1 Chronicles: “And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, '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, that I may not cause pain.' So God granted him what he requested.”
The focus in our Sunday School class and the worship services was primarily one phrase in that text – enlarge my territory.
My church wasn’t alone. Far from it. The book swept evangelical churches all over the United States (and beyond, for all I know). There were study guides, audio CDs, all the usual stuff that comes with a bestseller. Time Magazine did a one-page feature on the book phenomenon.
Somebody’s territory indeed got enlarged.
Never had I seen my church, or any other church, go so overboard over a book. If the sales figures are any indication, the entire church in America went overboard.
I likely offended a few people by referring to the book as the “gospel of Jabez.”
In retrospect, it was a book almost tailor-made for suburban American churches and their middle-class and upper-middle-class members. You could justify material well-being as God’s special blessing, his “enlargement of your territory.”
Some of us, and I hope it was more than some, were appalled. A very thin, almost non-existent line separated the message of Jabez from the name-it-and-claim-it, prosperity gospel: if you have sufficient faith, you will be materially blessed, and you will be blessed in this lifetime. All you have to do is ask God to “enlarge your territory.”
Jabez had little to say to the poor in America or in the world. It had little to say to people who were suffering, or to the unemployed. And it should have had precious little to say to the rest of us, too.
Material blessings are not a sign of how good a Christian you are, or whether you have sufficient faith. The real question is not whether you have them or not, but whether they possess you or not.
A.W. Tozer invites us to consider Abraham.
“He (Abraham) had everything, but he possessed nothing,” writes A.W. Tozer in The Pursuit of God. “There is the spiritual secret. There is the sweet theology of the heart which can be learned only in the school of renunciation. The books on systematic theology overlook this, but the wise will understand.”
Abraham withheld nothing from God, not even his own son. And he didn’t have to ask God to enlarge his territory
To have everything, but to possess nothing.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re reading Tozer’s The Pursuit of God. To read more posts on this chapter, please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.