August 9, 2002
Nietzsche and The Prayer of Jabez
-- Brian Britt
Since its appearance two years ago, Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2000) has sold over six million copies and has led to the creation of a small industry -- the Breakthrough Series -- based on prayers that guarantee immediate results. The Christian inspirational book instructs readers to recite a biblical prayer for personal success and prosperity. Asking, "Is it possible that God wants you to be 'selfish' in your prayers?" Wilkinson joyfully answers "Yes." The link between Christianity and prosperity has many precedents, but rarely has an inspirational book promising immediate gain achieved such massive popularity. The Prayer of Jabez is not only a new and popular version of the gospel of wealth; it is a remarkably Nietzschean take on Christianity.
Jabez's prayer appears in a genealogy in 1 Chronicles: "Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!" (4:10). Named after the pain his mother experienced in childbirth, Jabez requests and receives a blessing, as if to ward off any curse his name may entail. The brief episode artfully balances fortune and misfortune, inviting reflection on the power of names and divine will, and on the relationship among monotheism, territory, and social boundaries. Wilkinson's treatment of the prayer focuses on the words of the prayer, offering the reader a simple equation between piety and prosperity.
Wilkinson, a Christian minister beaming with self-assurance, could hardly be more different from the cynical and often vicious Nietzsche. Yet both criticize Christian self-denial and boldly promote self-interest and a "will to power." According to Wilkinson, "God favors those who ask. He holds back nothing from those who want and earnestly long for what He wants." Ordinary Christians are contrasted to great ones, along the lines of Nietzsche's "superhuman" and "noble man": "Great men of the faith think differently than the rest of us." In Wilkinson's view, being a better Christian means asking for and receiving more "blessings." If there is an inherent contradiction in Christianity as a world power based on self- and world-denial, Nietzsche's analysis and Wilkinson's formula recognize and seek to address it. Nietzsche views the contradiction as a cultural disaster, while Wilkinson urges Christians to exercise their power more widely.
Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche's real target is not Christianity itself but the institutional church, which is "precisely that against which Jesus preached." He writes, "Christianity has developed into a soft moralism: instead of 'God, freedom, and immortality,' we have now. . . the belief that, in the entire universe, benevolence and honest sentiments will finally prevail: this is the euthanasia of Christianity." For Nietzsche, this distorted Christianity produces a slave mentality: "While the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself. . . the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself." The noble man, personified by Napoleon and later co-opted by Nazi ideology, is the "noble ideal as such made flesh"; he is the "synthesis of the inhuman and superhuman." Like Wilkinson's Jabez, Napoleon embodies power by claiming territory, though Wilkinson would claim a divine mandate that Nietzsche's noble man would not.
Despite Nietzsche's contempt for Christian institutions, his work shows greater religious insight than The Prayer of Jabez. Ressentiment, the "euthanasia" of Christianity, and the famous "death of God" in Nietzsche's The Gay Science, remain provocative, aphoristic suggestions, challenging the reader to imagine a better alternative. Complete with troubling and ambiguous elements, Nietzsche's analysis offers Christianity something more valuable than instant gratification. In the hands of Wilkinson, the Nietzschean critique becomes entitlement to honor, "power," and "territory."
Like the biblical story of Jabez -- and unlike a quasi-magical prayer for prosperity -- Nietzsche's works, layered with irony and hyperbole, demand analysis and reflection. In religion and philosophy, appearances can deceive, and simple questions rarely yield simple answers. Nietzsche's writings challenge Christianity to reflect on itself and "what Jesus preached," not simply to pursue power and prosperity.
Brian Britt is an Associate Professor of Religion at Virginia Tech, and Director of the Religious Studies Program. A full list of citations from his article is available upon request.