Last weekend was Independence Day. And in churches, at BBQs, before Pops concerts, mention was made of how ‘blessed’ we are as a country. We have been ‘blessed’ with prosperity, relative peace, security, and freedom. And indeed, we should be thankful for the privileges we enjoy in our beautiful country.
While traveling this past June, I got into a logistically complicated situation. Long story short, because of a careless mistake on my part, I had to get from one side of a major city to another with very little money available to me. Providentially, I had just enough money to take the buses that I needed. On the last bus, I sat back and muttered a prayer ‘Oh thank you Jesus, for this blessing.’
When we express our (hopefully) humble thankfulness for the resources we have, we say ‘I have been blessed with a lot.’
We wish blessings upon other people, and we wish blessings upon our country: ‘God bless America.’
By no means do I want to question the rightness of the attitudes behind these things that we do. We should be thankful for what we have. We should wish others well. We should be humbly thankful for when God seems to be showing us grace and when our needs are satisfied. We should pray for our country and her wellbeing (and the wellbeing of her rulers).
The exegetes are still deliberating this one. But I’m also pretty sure it’s okay to say ‘God bless you,’ after someone sneezes.
I do wonder what we accidentally imply, and what false notions we reinforce, with some of the ways we seem to use the word ‘bless.’ And I wonder if it truly matches Scripture.
When I call my prosperity a ‘blessing,’ what am I saying about those with less than me? What am I saying about those who do not have freedom? Are they not blessed? Am I better than them? Am I in a state of greater Divine favor, than they are? Is Divine favor so closely associated with prosperity, success, freedom? I’m not so sure.
Certainly the Old Testament sometimes associates the state of being ‘blessed’ with a state of prosperity and well being, and as a result of being obedient to God. But the Old Testament also questions that notion – pointing out that the ‘rain falls on the just and unjust alike.’ And the New Testament certainly flips that picture on its head.
I think especially of the Beatitudes in Sermon on the Mount:
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, and He began to teach them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The ones Jesus calls blessed are not the ones who have received much, or who are safe or free. The state of blessedness is a state of suffering, of persecution, of meekness, of being poor in spirit. Those who are called blessed are those who crave righteousness, who seek peace, who are pure, who show mercy. And the promised reward is a heavenly one, not a material one. Indeed, the material state of these people is the exact opposite of what we often seem to mean by ‘blessed.’
Acts 20:35: “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Having and receiving is not a good indicator of blessing. In fact, it seems to represent a state of less blessedness than that of giving. I’m not necessarily saying that one must be poor to be blessed. I’m not sure prosperity and blessedness are mutually exclusive (if so, I’m in trouble). And we should never lose the important practice and posture of thankfulness, of wishing well for others, of praying for good things for others, of praying for our leaders and our country, of praying for peace and security and freedom. We should attempt to ‘bless’ others with acts of kindness and generosity – for indeed love and help are blessings. But we need to be careful with too close of an association in our thinking or our talking between blessing and success/prosperity. It seems quite contrary to how Jesus talks about blessing.
We should humbly live in thankfulness for the things that we have, the privileges we may enjoy. But we should be careful not to associate those things with ‘blessings.’
Indeed, prosperity and success are poor signs of God’s blessing (but they can certainly coincide). Those who are blessed are, Scripturally speaking, usually those who are meek and suffering. When we wish blessings to our country, to our people, to others, do we really know what we’re asking for? We’re asking for peacemaking, for meekness, even for persecution and suffering. I’m not sure a country can possess these qualities. But if it can, to wish for our country to be blessed by God is, biblically, to wish for it to become meek and to suffer. That’s not the picture we usually have in our minds when we call our country ‘blessed,’ or wish for it to be blessed. Often the wicked prosper, and the good suffer. I do think one can expect decline when a society declines morally. I do think God still disciplines us and lets our sins find us out and tear us to bits. But if there is any clear, dependable, dynamic given in Scripture that you can stand on as a rule, it is in fact that those who belong to Christ will suffer as He did. The righteous are sent to the bottom, typically, not to the top. ‘Blessing,’ in God’s eyes is, Biblically-speaking, a pretty confident path to diminishment, suffering, meekness. Not always, I suppose. Sometimes God sees it fitting to give righteous people much (and expects them to use it well!). But we worship a God who humbled Himself and suffered on a cross. How can we expect any less?
The blessing we look to is a Kingdom that has not yet come; an eternal communion with the Three-In-One. We live for what we have not yet seen, but have only tasted. And the path to this place is one that much of the world would not call ‘blessed,’ for it is of suffering, of giving, of loving, of purity, of mercy, of righteousness. But that is the life that God calls ‘blessed.’ That is the path that leads to the greatest blessing of the New Heaven and the New Earth, of God dwelling evermore with us.