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.

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