What are blessings?

December 21st, 2015

A tradition of blessings

Working at a church has its communication requirements just like any other job, and we send a lot of emails and letters. The stewardship of words is very important to me, so I try to be intentional with my “complimentary close” and avoid traditional terms such as sincerely or regards. There’s nothing wrong with these closings, but since I’m called to shine a light on the activity of Christ’s kingdom in our world, I usually pick a word such as peace or grace before signing my name. Lately, I find myself gravitating to the word blessings as a closing. But what exactly do I mean when I use that language? What happens to my heart and mind when someone writes or speaks that word to me?

The terms blessing and bless permeate Scripture. In the Old Testament alone, the word blessing is used more than 600 times and is deeply rooted in God’s covenant relationship with the Hebrew people. Our foundational stories in Genesis 1 tell us that God created great creatures of sea and land, blessed them (verse 22), and then created male and female humans in the image of God and blessed them as well (verses 27-28). Our origins begin not with a curse but with a blessing.

Dictionary.com defines the noun blessing as “a favor or gift bestowed by God” and the verb bless as “to bestow good of any kind upon.” In the Old Testament, we find different kinds of blessings, such as a father blessing his family, a ruler blessing his subjects and priests set apart to pronounce blessings in God’s name. According to the online resource BibleStudyTools.com, three themes are present in these Old Testament blessings: “the greater blesses the lesser”; “the blessing as a sign of special favor . . . intended to result in prosperity and success”; and, finally, the blessing as an appeal for God’s blessing (“May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful” [Genesis 28:3, NIV]).

GotQuestions.org states, “The Hebrew word most often translated as ‘bless’ is barak, which can mean to praise, congratulate, or salute” and, in some instances, is “used to mean a curse.” Its root word is related to the knee and means to kneel in a humble position before God. Jewish writer and professor Brian Tice explains that the Hebrew word blessed “conveys the idea of being strengthened, of our weakness being compensated for with God’s strength.” Tice states that since the knee “is one of the weakest parts of the body,” a blessing from God empowers us “to be able to do what is not within our natural capabilities.” This was a revelation for me. Perhaps rather than using the word blessings as I close my emails, I will offer, “May God strengthen you in your weakest places.”

Blessing God

In the King James Version of Psalm 66:8 (“O bless our God, ye people, and make the voice of his praise to be heard”) and Psalm 103:2 (“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits”), we read examples of a person blessing God. Used in adoration or gratitude, “these occurrences of ‘bless’ are usually translated ‘praise’ . . . in modern versions” of the Bible, according to BibleStudyTools.com. Yet the Jewish tradition to this day continues to place a strong emphasis on Hebrew blessings, short prayers spoken to God to offer thanks for daily events.

Hebrew blessings start with “Blessed art Thou” and are said throughout the day over numerous, seemingly minor occurrences such as eating, washing one’s hands, putting on new clothes, seeing a rainbow, hearing thunder, smelling spices, waking up and going to bed. The talmudic rabbis believe that it was forbidden to enjoy such things without saying a blessing, stating, “If you enjoy something in this world without saying a blessing, it is as if you stole it” (Talmud Berachot 35A).

Spiritual blessings

In the New Testament, the theme of blessings continues but more often with an emphasis on spiritual rather than material blessings — for example, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3, NIV). Paul also encourages the Corinthians, as they navigate how to be Christ’s followers in a hostile environment, to respond with a blessing when cursed and to endure being harassed (1 Corinthians 4:12).

We see Jesus takes the word blessed and, as is his usual practice, flips its meaning. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, the Greek word makarios is used for “blessed” and means a happy state. Happy are those who, regardless of material wealth, find fulfillment in God. Mourning, poverty, hunger, mercy, peace and even persecution become gifts for the children of God. The Greek word eulogeo is also used for “bless” in the New Testament, meaning a good word, a good report from others or a blessing over our food. This is where the word eulogy comes from, when we speak well of someone who has passed away.

Counting our blessings

Gratitude is essential to spiritual formation and growth; and counting, naming and claiming our blessings are powerful ways to be aware of and thankful for the life and love God has given us. Sometimes using the word blessed is just the easiest way to express with joy that something or someone in our lives is good and that “every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above” (James 1:17).

Yet I’m still amazed at how many of us throw this term around casually, ultimately devaluing its meaning. At church last week, I overheard someone in the hallway say, “We’ve been blessed to have a second home on the lake.” Did he just mean lucky? Did he believe all the cards he was dealt worked out well for him, or was this truly a statement of gratitude? Was he willing to share this blessing? I then walked into another room to see a newborn baby with a knit cap on his head with the word blessed at the top. Is this baby more special than others? Is he the next Messiah? Or perhaps his parents just felt immensely thankful to have him.

The power of blessings

For the ancients, a blessing had great power and words had energy, emanating from deep within the soul. Once spoken, a blessing could not be taken back. As Frederick Buechner wrote, “Words spoken in deep love or deep hate set things in motion within the human heart that can never be reversed.” Yet sometimes, we use the phrase bless your heart to convey contempt or pity, or to vaguely cover up an insult (especially in the South!). “Those children just don’t know how to behave, but she’s a single mom, bless her heart.” “Oh, you’re late again to the meeting? Well, bless your heart, it must be hard to drive that old, unreliable car.” In our modern culture, a word that should be reserved for sacred moments has become an ordinary slogan carelessly spoken from our mouths, touted on Facebook, and plastered on clothing, jewelry and home decorations.

In his book Life of the Beloved, Henri J. M. Nouwen says that to give someone a blessing is the most significant affirmation we can give. It goes beyond offering praise or recognizing someone’s talents, but should rather shine a light on a person’s belovedness. For Nouwen, being blessed is an ongoing gift from a loving Creator “who will never leave us alone,” not an occasional nod of approval from a distant God. “The blessings that we give to each other,” Nouwen writes, “are expressions of the blessing that rests on us from all eternity. It is the deepest affirmation of our true self.”

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