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Prayer was answered? Don’t pin blame on God

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"The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life" intrigued me because this 4-inch by 6-inch book has long been perched atop the New York Times best-seller list.

Jabez consists of 91 pages exploring I Chronicles 4:10, "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." Jabez is a man with a heck of a genealogy (also covered in the book) who inspired the author's premise that has sucked in quite a few rubes, to wit: Ask for stuff and you'll get it. I've just saved you $10.

Author Dr. Bruce Wilkinson takes the book to 94 pages by adding I Chronicles 4:10 in large print, info on his Web site, and a list of new products. Coming soon: The Prayer of Jabez Leather Edition; The Prayer of Jabez for Teens (I envision, "OK, Dude, so, like, I've read about You and those miracles and things that I first thought were bogus, but now they sound sweet, so bless me or whatever because, like, I am all just way bummed. Definitely."); and The Prayer of Jabez Gift Edition???

I said nothing when O.J. Simpson's mother, Eunice, said of her son's acquittal, "I know that prayer is the answer," and his niece, Tracy Baker added, "God is good, see?" God did not put together a jury of peers possessed of the analytical skills of Scooby Doo. I never wrote about Sean "Puffy" Combs saying, "I feel blessed," when he was acquitted of being a gunrunner. I even held my tongue when Mike Espy, former Clinton secretary of agriculture, was acquitted on charges of taking $35,000 worth of tickets, flights, luggage and scholarships for his girlfriend, and said, "Each and every day I read the 27th Psalm. And it basically says that the Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?" For one, federal prosecutors bearing anti-corruption laws. Those who gave Mr. Espy the gifts were convicted or entered guilty pleas, but Espy's crackerjack jury let him walk. Before Rep. Gary Condit invokes prayer for serial adultery, I must speak.

The Jabez crowd and the underworld with their faith-promoting indictments are missing something. The doctrine of unclean hands applies in religion. Seeking miracles in your murder, bribery and weapons trials is slightly askew with repentance theory. Prayer is not a means of avoiding consequences. Prayers of the righteous acknowledge fault and include a promise to sin no more, not one to search for the real killer. The Man upstairs is generally philosophically aligned with the prosecution. Those in the hoosegow had a Jabez prayer but no Johnnie Cochran.

Praying for your heart's desire and divine intervention on non-felony matters is also problematic. The Jabez bookette includes a story of Wilkinson trying to get to the Atlanta airport for a flight. Caught in traffic and frustrated, he prays, "Lord, please make my flight late so I can catch it." His flight is late because, he tells us, there was an important chat he was to have with a rich woman ("leather roller bag"; "Italian leather accessories"; "perfectly tailored dress") about not divorcing her adulterous husband. He sent her off their late flight with resolve to save her marriage. We never learn the outcome. Apparently the counseling service is limited to late flights.

Could I query after those affected because the flight was late? Who missed a child's school performance? Whose livelihood was affected by a missed deadline or meeting? Does Wilkinson honestly believe that our God would intervene so arbitrarily? Would not divine intervention come for a child suffering a brutal death when her father sets her on fire, as happened here in Phoenix? Instead he steps in to make a plane tardy for a chat with a well-accessorized woman?

Wilkinson and the ne'er do-wells who invoke his name on the courthouse steps of acquittal misunderstand. Their trivialization of a powerful force is deeply offensive. God is egalitarian in his answers to prayers of the faithful and obedient. Their prayers are different. They don't ask to pass an exam when they haven't studied. They ask for calmness to do the best with what they have. They don't ask for exoneration on a hefty speeding ticket. They accept consequences. They ask for self-control with a lead foot. He helps, guides and comforts on an equal opportunity basis. He calms but does not intervene on Atlanta flights or jury verdicts for the guilty. He helps, always, when we ask righteously. But, blessings come from faith and actions, not the asking.

Another fellow from the Old Testament deserves a book. Job, stricken with disease, stripped of his wealth, and deserted by his family (probably packing their rolling leather bags), still praised his Creator in prayer, never wavering in his faith. Eventually Job had everything restored. There's at least a 91-page storyette in this: The Faith and Actions of Job.

Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Her e-mail address is mmjdiary@aol.com