A Prayer with Wings

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Pity poor Jabez. For some 2,500 years, he languished in one of those endless biblical genealogies, as the 35th "son of Judah" enumerated in the Book of Chronicles, just after the listings for his relatives Anub and Zobebah. Upon reaching him, the biblical author breaks stride, but only for a moment, to acknowledge that he was regarded as "more honorable than his brothers" and that he had a favorite prayer, which the Bible reprints. Then it was on to Chelub and Shuhah.

But as Jesus noted, the last shall be first. After only a year on the market, a slim inspirational text called The Prayer of Jabez, written by an evangelist based in Atlanta, Bruce Wilkinson, and published by a tiny firm in Sisters, Ore., has sold a Grisham-like 3.5 million copies and advanced this week to No. 1 on the New York Times Advice, How-to & Miscellaneous best-sellers list--even though the Times does not count books sold in religious bookstores. Says Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly: "It's a raging success, and I think it's going to continue to build. It could easily become this year's hardcover best seller."

The question Jabez himself might well have posed is, "Why me?" After decades of willful ignorance, the publishing world has learned--via the triumph of the apocalyptic Left Behind series--that titles by and for evangelical Christians can sell angelically. But unlike Left Behind, which trades on the spectacular cast and characters of the Book of Revelation, Jabez is essentially a bulked-up sermon, pouring much of the evangelical mission into the prayer's five short clauses.

Wilkinson, 53, says he first heard about the prayer from a seminary chaplain 30 years ago and has been "praying Jabez" as a kind of evangelical mantra ever since. What he appears to have found most attractive is the prayer's expansiveness. Evangelical life abounds in thou shalt nots and stresses humility before God. By contrast, Jabez's demand that the deity "bless me indeed" seems buoyant and liberating. Reading the volume's back-cover blurb ("Do you want to be extravagantly blessed by God?"), one might even imagine that Wilkinson is selling Prosperity Theology, a widespread if superficial gospel that amounts to praying for dollars. This turns out not to be the case. The riches he has in mind are the wealth of God's spirit, and the more one has, the more one wants to spread it. He interprets Jabez's next request, "enlarge my territory," as a plea for the biggest possible evangelizing field. "Clearly," he writes, "it is His complete will for us to reach the world--right now!"

Wilkinson, who sweetens his thesis with anecdotes from his personal and preaching life, concludes by claiming that daily recitation of the prayer can turn you into...someone like him. Wilkinson, who has preached at Promise Keepers' rallies, asserts that his success in reaching millions via his Walk Thru the Bible Ministries is almost shocking evidence of what God's grace and Jabez praying can do.

Actually, even he didn't guess the book's potential. He says the reason for its surprise success is "the $20 million question" and testifies that the only one who thought it would hit more than 30,000 copies a year was his wife, who felt that "God would perhaps enjoy getting the message out." He suggests that although most Americans believe in prayer, they save it for emergencies, and Jabez's relatively low-key, daily program may be a welcome novelty. PW's Garrett agrees: "It's very evangelical and very American, this whole notion that if you know the right technique, the right form, that prayer will be efficient and effective. Kind of like golf."

There are other factors. The book is a bit of a genre-bender, packing a change-your-life message that evangelicals are used to seeing in 350-page tomes into an easy-to-read 93 pages. At $9.99, it can be bought in multiple copies for friends, like a literary W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do) bracelet. Wilkinson's editor David Kopp reports two influential boosters: James Dobson and his wife Shirley, who heard Wilkinson preach Jabez on a tape during a long drive. Dobson then featured the book on his immensely influential Focus on the Family radio show. Mark Tauber, a religion-book veteran now at the Beliefnet.com website, notes that Wilkinson's 30 years of preaching Jabez at rallies assures "a built-in audience of a million people who have been saying the prayer"--and wonders whether its sequel, based on a verse from the Gospel of John, will sell as well.

Wilkinson and Kopp claim that Jabez is attracting nonevangelical audiences, but that is hard to believe, given the book's use of loaded catchwords and concepts. And with some 20 million evangelicals in the country, it is also moot. Says Carolyn Henninger, a bookstore owner in Gainesville, Ga.: "Jabez has changed my life. I had never prayed for the Lord to bless me, to enlarge my territory. It's phenomenal that people I show the book to come back in and buy extra books they're sharing." Henninger has sold 2,300 copies, and says, "I hope I never run out."