I often hear people talk about good things in their lives as blessings, or describe feeling ‘blessed’. But when they do, they’re usually talking about tangible things like their children, their dream home, work or good health. He’s such a good sleeper, we’re so blessed. She got the job! It’s such a blessing. Certainly, these are gifts from God. He loves to give good things to his children and we should absolutely be thankful. But the problem with saying that you’re blessed when the offer is accepted on your ideal house, or when you meet the person of your dreams, is that when it doesn’t happen, you surely have to assume you’re not so blessed after all. Worse still, it can cause other people to wrongly conclude that they’re not so ‘blessed’ because they’re unemployed or their child is sick. So what is blessing, really, and how should we speak about it?
The word used in the bible for being ‘blessed’ literally means for a believer to be envied. Blessing is God’s favour, an extending of his grace, and it begins when we first receive forgiveness and faith is born. Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Romans 4:7-8/Psalm 32) In other words, blessing begins when we trust Christ. If your sins are forgiven, you are unimaginably blessed.
What about blessing beyond that? The more I’ve explored what God says about being blessed, the more convinced I’ve become that blessing is really not to do with earthly benefits at all. Once we’ve come to know him, it’s to do with seeking God and being close to him. The psalms are full of it. Blessed is the one who trusts in Him (psalm 84). Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him (Psalm 34). Blessed are those who seek him with their whole heart (psalm 119) It’s also about being made more like him as we seek to obey him, and he teaches us. Blessed is the man who greatly delights in His commandments (Psalm 112), blessed is the one who listens to me (Proverbs 8:34) and even blessed is the man whom you discipline O Lord, (ouch!) and whom you teach out of your law (Psalm 94). All these blessings are to do with God. He gives good gifts, but He is the greatest blessing.
Not only is blessing not really to do with earthly benefits, it’s often related specifically to suffering. In the beatitudes, Jesus says those who mourn will be blessed, and those who are poor. (see Luke 6) He also says that those who are persecuted for his sake will be blessed, and this is echoed later in the New Testament. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial. (James 1:12) It’s easy to wonder if we want to be blessed after all! But what a profound comfort to those who are mourning, poor, persecuted or suffering a fiery trial. In their pain, they are blessed.
I have a friend who may not seem very ‘blessed’ to people looking from the outside. Aged 18, he was diagnosed with aggressive leukaemia and went from professionally swimming to fighting for his life in hospital in a matter of weeks. Over the next few years he endured treatment after treatment, each one more brutal than the last. Wonderfully, he is now cancer free, but is living with a debilitating chronic condition, a result of the cancer. For five years, he has endured constant pain that prevents him from sleeping, increasingly damaged skin that seriously affects his mobility and causes wounds that refuse to heal. At twenty seven, he cannot work, exercise or travel and he spends hours at the hospital every week. Nobody can tell him whether he will ever get better or not because nobody knows. But he is extraordinarily blessed.
He is blessed because he knows with more conviction and certainty than anyone else I know, that his Heavenly Father loves him and knows what is ultimately good for him. He is blessed because he walks closely with God, driven daily to his knees in prayer. (Spurgeon once said, ‘anything is a blessing that makes us pray’.) He is blessed because he recognises his neediness and dependence on God, and drinks in His word. He’s blessed because he’s forced to collapse regularly into God’s sustaining arms, and has experienced first hand that Jesus is truly enough for him. He is blessed because his eyes are fixed firmly on heaven since this world for him is so painful and broken. God’s blessings are to do with changing our hearts, and God has sculpted his heart into a masterpiece. He is remarkably blessed.
But why must it be through suffering? Isn’t there an easier route to blessing? Sadly, left to ourselves, our hearts are stubborn and cold, and our natural inclination is to try to do everything in our own strength, to walk our own way, to be independent from God. We look for love, security and happiness in all the wrong places, but God longs for us to find it in him, to lean on him and find our strength in him. So we cannot be indignant when He leads us down a rocky path. We will not take refuge in Him unless we learn that our health, relationships or finances are not reliable refuges for us. We won’t learn to seek him with [our] whole hearts until we realise that only he can truly satisfy us. He is the great blessing, and experiencing his presence and tasting his love often happens on a deeper level through difficulty. Of course, suffering itself is not a blessing, and it is not the only way to experience God more deeply, but it is so often within the sphere of suffering that God bends and shapes our hearts to become more like him. That is a blessing! What a comfort then, that when we find ourselves in the fire, we know that God is not against us, but instead is refining and strengthening us through it. Blessings often hurt. But oh how they’re worth it. Good gifts are enjoyable here and now, but blessing lasts for eternity.
Would I choose a life of suffering, to experience deeper blessings and have a heart like my friend’s? No, I’m too afraid. I want to be healthy, financially secure, to have healthy children, a nice house and for my parents to live until they’re a hundred. I want a good marriage, good friends and I want to go skiing and have great hair. My foolish heart desires the gifts, and not the far greater Giver. But I’m relieved that it’s not my call. I’m thankful that my loving God doesn’t always give me what I ask, because he is more interested in transforming my heart than giving me a comfortable life. So when I muster up the courage to ask for God to bless me, to know him better, to rely on him more deeply, I shouldn’t be surprised when he does just that.