Friday, January 14, 2011

What Do Christians Mean When They Speak of Being Blessed by God?

"Blessing" is a complicated word. Its use in the Bible is panoramic and pluriform; there is no one "biblical definition" of blessing (much less of anything else). Moreover, none of the terms diffused throughout Scripture can have a simple one-to-one ratio of definition and interpretation, for all is relativized and redefined in the apocalypse of Christ's cross and empty tomb. What once was meant by "blessing" in old Israel must be submitted to the interruption of the old age by the new, and this reevaluation must first of all be linguistic.

What then might we be able to say about "blessing" in light of the death and resurrection of Israel's Messiah and of the pouring out of his Spirit as a sign of the impending new creation? Well, apart from positive statements, we can certainly rule out certain things. For example, if perfect faithfulness leads to a life of rejection, ridicule, suffering, and capital execution; and if followers of the Faithful One are called to the same way of life; and if the celebrated exemplars of discipleship have themselves time and again been given over to similar torment, torture, dearth, and death -- it seems that we have no logical connection between living faithfully before God and a surplus (or even an apparently ordinary amount) of material or visible goods. We might even be tempted to posit a negative relationship, such that, faithfulness being rewarded with trials and terrors and attacks, a lack thereof could indicate an equivalent lack of faithfulness. But we needn't make that connection, only note the negative boundary.

So: are human beings blessed by God when they live faithfully before him? In the light of the disfigured body on the cross and in the face of centuries of obedient martyrs -- not to mention killing fields and gas chambers and secret mass graves filled to the brim (in frightening consistency) with terrified children and ravaged mothers and brutalized fathers -- our first answer must be a decisive "no," given the cultural overtones of what "blessing" is generally meant to denote. One may be utterly innocent or impossibly faithful and still -- and likely -- be summoned swiftly and painfully to great loss or to unjust death; and this is the way of the world, every day. To imagine that things are otherwise -- to suggest with a straight face that not swearing or lying, or voting right, or tithing right, or not cheating on your spouse, or not cheating on your taxes, or going to church, or being generous, or whatever other bourgeois feel-good return-on-investment religious promise on offer, will result in material or visible "blessing" in this life -- has everything to do with an extraordinarily minute and historically exceptional social location, and nothing whatsoever to do with reality.

In reality, newborns die daily from malnutrition and faithful women die from AIDS contracted from their unfaithful husbands and untold uneducated unthought of hundreds of thousands collapse in exhaustion for want of water and bread. In the same reality, fantastically wealthy men and women live lives of extravagant pomposity, flagrant greed, unaccountable sin, and unheard of luxury, and their stocks keep rising, and their houses stay clean, and their pantries remain stocked.

Christian faith is incorrigibly foolish in this world precisely because it seems so self-evident, on the face of things, that no just God would ever allow such an inordinately unjust set of circumstances to exist, much less to endure with such raging obstinance. Christian faith is in spite of, not as a result of observation of the world's workings. Christian faith says to this overwhelming and treacherous world that Nevertheless, God reigns, and that the new world given glimpse in Jesus -- he the friend of the impoverished, the impaired, the imperfect -- will at last be the only world, will at last remake this same world, is even now sketching light into dark corners of despair.

Is Christian faith blessed in this world? To be sure: blessed by the hand of the God of Jesus, blessed to be courageous before evil and forthright before falsehood and peaceable before violence, blessed to be faithful when all else proves faithless and all the evidence demands unbelief. But blessed in this world according to the ways of this world?

Absolutely not.

And may God forgive us, with food on our plates and clothes on our backs and roofs over our heads, when we believe the lie that this all must somehow be in accordance with the religious rectitude of our lives. "This all" is free, and whatever more comes is free, too. As followers of Christ, we do not believe because we have; we believe in spite of the fact that most do not have. And we continue to believe because the Object of our faith calls us to give what we do have to the have-nots -- without any expectation of return, from them or from God -- and against every other explanation to trust and envision and work toward a world when not-having will have passed away, belonging to the old order of things. It is there, and only there, that we will come to know what true blessing means.


  1. Good thoughts, Brad! Tensions and paradoxes abound within the Christian faith.

    We must "seek first the kingdom of God" before we gain the "daily needs" of our lives. Yet, if we seek God in order to meet our daily needs, then we are not truly seeking God's Kingdom first. Your post reminded me of this, Kierkegaard's insightful, paradox.

    Certainly, if we believe or practice faith because "this all" is added to our life, then our salvation is in doubt. This is also true when Christians claim that they follow Christ because it makes them better parents, spouses, and employees; indeed, if we follow Christ because we gain something, even "good things," then we are self-worshipers. Following Christ means following the one who is glorified when lifted on the cross, and this too, must be the shape of our lives.

    Good Point!


  2. Jarrod,

    Re: "seeking first," my main target in this post is less basic provision (having to do with trust for needs to be met) and more "increase" or "stuff" or "identifiable return" (having to do with confidence that obedience will be rewarded materially or visibly in this life). But in the direction you went with it, agreed.

  3. Amen and amen!

    However, I wonder about this line, "Christian faith is in spite of, not as a result of observation of the world's workings." It seems to me this statement could lead to some troublesome implications about what we can know of and about God through our experience of and in the world. It does seem to me that there are times where Christian faith requires a "nevertheless" response, but aren't there other times when Christian faith is a "because of" response to lived experience in the world? It seems to me that this is absolutely true, and that is part of the reason the small fraction of historical humanity living through modern America are so quick to be confused about God's blessing. We do know God through the lives we live. However, we (in the US) too easily identify that blessing with "blessing" as construed by a consumer culture. The better question, it seems to me, is what the best/appropriate way to know God through the "world's workings" is, rather than whether we in fact do or not.


  4. Jimmy,

    Certainly, faith can be a response to (or the outworking from) lived experience in the world. But I would say that such experiences, however often they occur, remain experiences that are exceptional to the "ordinary"; and that they are in fact few and far between. Another way of putting this is that justice and peace are not the norm in human history. Nor is miracle, nor is grace. That we see and experience them for ourselves is itself a grace, but I think one that is often rare (whether that is internal to the world's workings as fallen, or a result of our own sin, ingratitude, and blindness, is up for grabs).

    Do we "know God through the lives we live"? Sure (with many qualifications!). But always and overwhelmingly as a judgment on the normal ways of things, including our own.

  5. Hmmm...

    So, is sin and evil the norm of human life, then? I'm not sure I buy that, though I know there are many in the tradition who would affirm it. Of course, I may be guilty of Niebuhr's consistent accusation that religious liberals have romantic notions of human capabilities for goodness, but I like to think injustice and oppression are the anomolies of human history that are magnified because of the way we write and tell our stories. It seems to me that those who believe that in the resurrection evil, sin, injustice and violence were defeated, and who hold any strong understanding of the Kingdom being "now," no matter how not yet, must affirm more space for good in the world and God to be known through it. I may be stretching here, but I think this is consonant with Tutu's consistent affirmation that we are "made for goodness" and that this belief requires the faith stance of hope (rather than optimism). That we are made for goodness is actually the nature of the world no matter how different it may look at a specific time. If this is true, it seems to me we can no God through our experience more than you're granting...

  6. I would never want to say sin and evil are the "norm" of human life, but they are certainly normal within and alongside it yes? You're going to have to help me with the statement "injustice and oppression are the anomalies of human history," though. Anomalies according to the will of God and what we were made for, to be sure; but how can we say they are anomalies after the 20th century? After the middle passage? After centuries of slavery? You'll have to articulate for me what that means, or how you mean it -- are we speaking of creation and/or teleology (that is, what God intended or is bringing the world toward), or about the way things are as they happen historically and daily in the rudimentary state of things in human experience?

  7. Sin, evil, injustice are definitely, and sadly, "normal". I, as you know, spend perhaps too much time dwelling on the atrocities of the twentieth century, but they do not define human history or experience. While I agree with you that these events should play an important role in our understanding of God, so, too, must every parent who has sacrificed "happiness" for their children, every martyr who has laid down their lives for God, every time nonviolence has defeated injustice and oppression, etc. etc. One reason why the news is filled with sexual deviance (i.e. Tiger Woods), the rich eating off of the backs of the poor, and violence is because it is still newsworthy - it still rubs against what the majority of people live and do. As to your last question, I think I refer to both. I just found out a childhood friend of mine had her first child in the midst of family and friends who love her and will love the child deeply. I also recognize that somewhere, around the same time, an infant probably contracted AIDS from her teenage mother's breast milk and will die a young death. Both of these realities define human experience in our world, yes? They are both "ordinary" to some extent, I think. In light of this "mixed bag" of human experience can we say that genocide, for instance, or "injustice" more generally is the norm or abnormal? Or is it one norm that stands in contradiction to another? Deeper, for me, is what can we know of God in light of this?

  8. Reflecting, I think part of my original concern is that it seems in your original post God's "good" blessings (and, therefore, our ability to know of God's goodness experientially in this life) are limited too greatly to the eschaton. Perhaps surprisingly, many who have faced some of the world's most persistent and insidious injustices are the fastest to affirm God's goodness through their experience of it in lived experience on this earth. This is what I am trying to hold on to in my questions.

  9. Hm. I don't mean to deny that good or joyful or happy events do not happen, or do not even occur regularly. Perhaps what I mean is this (which I take to be a theological claim): apart from the resurrection of Jesus, it would be extraordinarily difficult to believe that death does not have the final word. That is not to say that, in the meantime, joy and goodness would not be recognized; only that, at the end of the day, it involves no faith to know of the inexplicable suffering and injustice happening at this very moment, while it demands resurrection faith to believe that they will not finally win (and also that their not-eventually-winning is a powerful and life-changing fact for the present and not only for the future).

    In response to your closing four questions: yes; norm; unsure; (not sure what you're asking). Perhaps all of this boils down to: is "justice" the predominant state of things in human history and society, or is "injustice"? I cannot imagine answering for the former.

    If this has more to do with "finding goodness" in the world, or a question of natural theology, I have no interest in denying that God reveals himself in the mundane goodness of a thousand momentary experiences that do not resonate in history books and news reports. I only mean to say, as simply as possible, that (1) injustice is the predominant -- not overwhelming or sole or final -- state of affairs in human history, and thus that (2) resurrection faith cannot simply be read off the general course of history or predominating conditions of existence.

    We might have to switch to email or in-person conversation. Maybe we'll make this into a dialogue for a post. I'm interested to parse out exactly how we stand differently on this, given that I know how seriously you take sin and injustice.

  10. Part of my purpose in the post was to "shift" the perspective from material/visible blessings to another sphere. Part of that sphere is eschatological, but it is also the gifts/blessings from the Spirit, which I listed in terms of courage, peaceableness, love, etc. I want to affirm 100% the fact of God's blessings, and personal experiences of God's overwhelming goodness and gifts, in this life; but your example is exactly what I am after: those who have faced down real wrong, real evil, real opposition have known God's goodness. But not because their bank account swelled! And not because things worked out the way they wanted, or because life was materially bountiful or luxurious or evidently-to-all taken care of! Rather, because God sustained them and was present to them and proved faithful (and so on).

    If I seemed to deny God's goodness in the post, I certainly didn't mean to. At bottom, my aim was to speak against wealthy American Christians speaking of their "blessings" and "increased" blessings in this life in a naive or foolish way, and then (worse) to assume that this is some ordinary state of affairs, and then (worst of all) to make the connection between that quality of life and the moral or religious quality of their personal lives. To all of that I say: Nein!

  11. In response to your last post I can only repeat what I first said: Amen and amen! And I think you're right about death at the end of the day.

    My other questions are really directed at and come out of that one line that stood out to me ("nevertheless" rather than "because of") as needing some probing. I'm definitely not a proponent of "natural theology" as such, but I do want to push a stronger notion of knowing God through embodied experience than seems granted in that paragraph. I think, really, I just haven't batted around ideas with you in awhile and felt the need to!

    And I'm still not ready to say injustice/oppression/evil is even the predominant (rather than the only or "norm" of) human experience or social reality...and I'm not sure stating it so starkly as if it has to be "justice" or "injustice" rather than a mixed bag is the best way to approach the question.

    And while I think you're right that "resurrection faith" can't be read off the pages of history (if Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection aren't included in that history) or human experience, I do think that there are other things about God that can, or at least be inferred...