Whenever some alarming thing happens that affects us as a nation – the attacks on 9-11, or when our troops are engaged in battle – leaders from across the political spectrum feel it necessary to end their speeches by saying, “God bless America.” What exactly does that mean? What does blessing entail?
Christians tend to cover a lot of ground with the word, “blessing.” “It was a blessing,” we say of the inspiring worship service we’ve just attended, or our west coast family’s recent visit, or of some hardship that has finally ended. What do we mean by that? Are we just saying that it was nice?
Contemporary Christians are not the only ones with a fondness for using the “blessing” words. The biblical writers used them nearly 900 times. Admittedly, many of these uses occur in narrative passages and some of those come from people who meant very little by them or even meant the opposite of what they said. Yet the sheer volume of blessing language suggests that there is an important meaning behind the words.
In the Bible, the blessing language begins in the first chapter of the first book with the words, “God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” The Old Testament scholar Christopher J. H. Wright claims that blessing “is constituted by fruitfulness, abundance, and fullness on the one hand, and by enjoying rest within creation in holy and harmonious relationship with our Creator…”
So, is that what I am saying when I respond to a sneeze with an impromptu, “God bless you”? I am earnestly wishing you the benefits of fruitfulness, abundance, fullness, and rest? Wow.
I recently read Genesis 26, which continues the story of the biblical patriarch Isaac. In the course of the chapter, Isaac is said to be blessed four times. God himself tells Isaac that he will bless him. The people around him perceive that he is blessed. He experiences fruitfulness, abundance, fullness, and rest.
However, as I read, I noticed that the four-times-blessed Isaac also endured four trials and hardships in the same chapter: four times blessed, and four times burdened. It occurred to me that I have always assumed that blessing entails the absence of conflict and difficulty. Genesis 26 refutes that idea.
I know of someone who has had a life that many people would envy. He graduated from one of the nation’s premier universities. He holds a prestigious teaching position in a large university. He has written books and received numerous awards. And yet his life has not been free of hardship. One of his children has suffered from an incurable illness, which has caused his family profound grief. Can it be true that this man, who has suffered so much, has been blessed?
I think the biblical answer must be yes; he has been blessed. He has experienced fruitfulness, abundance, fullness, and rest. But he has also experienced trouble, turmoil, and fear. Blessing does not mean the absence of difficulty.
I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with cancer. Is she blessed? What about the business owner who has had to lay off employees because of supply chain shortages? The biblical answer could still be yes, they are blessed.
There is, however, another side to this coin. We cannot assume that the person with enormous wealth, multiple homes, and stellar health is necessarily blessed. The presence of these good things does not prove blessing any more than the presence of bad things refutes it.
The fact is that many biblical characters who were said to be blessed went through terribly difficult times. Peter, who was declared blessed by Jesus himself, was executed. Mary, the mother of Jesus, declared “blessed among woman” by St. Elizabeth (and by many millions of people since) had a sword-pierced soul. Jesus tells the poor, the persecuted, and those who mourn that they are blessed.
The thing is to believe it. For suffering, conflict and, eventually, death itself, will come. People can live certain of the blessing; I have seen it. Those I have personally known all had one thing in common: they trusted the one through whom all blessings flow: Jesus.
(First published by Gannett.)