The concept of blessing pervades everyday life in our culture. In 2014, Jessica Bennett provided a comical commentary on social media’s obsession with the notion of “being blessed.” She quips, “There’s nothing quite like invoking holiness as a way to brag about your life. But calling something ‘blessed’ has become the go-to term for those who want to boast about an accomplishment while pretending to be humble, fish for a compliment, acknowledge a success (without sounding too conceited), or purposely elicit envy. Blessed, ‘divine or supremely favored,’ is now used to explain that coveted Ted talk invite as well as to celebrate your grandmother’s 91st birthday.” 1 In many sectors of society, the idea of blessing has been co opted as a spiritual-but-not-religious key term that aligns all too easily with our country’s love affair with moralistic therapeutic deism.2 As Bennett says, for many people, the term has become simply a way of letting the world know our good fortune while alluding to some far-off divine force at work.
In this addition to the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, William Osborne traces the theme of blessing throughout the Bible, equipping readers with a fuller understanding of God’s benevolence for everyday life.
While blessing has climbed the pop charts of Christian terms used outside the church in recent years, it seems that few within the Christian community pause to wonder whether or not this popular notion of blessing is biblically accurate. Sadly, this lack of reflection has left the church vulnerable to those eager to define the concept in ways that are problematic and unreflective of the Bible’s presentation.
Blessing and the Prosperity Gospel
For many people, the word blessing—or blessed—has become inseparable from the Christian movement often referred to as the prosperity gospel. In her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Kate Bowler cites a Pew Study indicating “that 43 percent of all Christian respondents agreed that the faithful receive health and wealth.”3 It is difficult to draw doctrinal lines around this movement, which sometimes is referred to with phrases such as “the Word of Faith movement” or “name-it-and-claim-it theology.”4 However, regardless of the label, the impact of prosperity teaching on the American church cannot be denied. This impact has expanded well beyond the borders of the United States; through international telecasts and satellite radio stations, the message that God materially blesses the faithful can be heard around the clock on almost every continent.5
Unsurprisingly, the prosperity movement is not without its appeals to the authoritative witness of Scripture. Many of these prosperity messages quote the Bible, and books are lined with verse references for “biblical support.” Is this, in fact, the Bible’s message regarding what it means to be blessed? Does the Bible teach that faithful Christians will experience divine blessing through health and wealth? In order to answer these questions, we must develop a sound biblical theology of blessing. Instead of grabbing one quick verse and claiming that this verse promises prosperity and health, we want to understand the idea of blessing as it is presented within the whole scope of God’s word. Just like themes such as law, sacrifice, and covenant, the theme of blessing must be understood within the full biblical story, if it is to be understood biblically at all.
The way human beings experience God’s blessing changes with the redemptive storyline that traverses the major peaks of creation, fall, redemption, and final restoration.
A Biblical-Theological Look at Blessing
Any serious reader of the Bible quickly realizes that there appears to be a difference in the way the Old Testament speaks about blessing and the way the New Testament presents the idea. Even if we don’t hold to a prosperity-like overemphasis on the physical manifestation of old covenant blessings, we can easily engage in over-spiritual explanations of how old covenant physicality is replaced by new covenant spirituality. How do we navigate this transition from divine blessing looking like more cattle and crops to what Paul calls “every spiritual blessing” in Ephesians 1? While there is certainly a transition that takes place within the Bible’s presentation of blessing, a biblical-theological approach recognizes that God’s blessings have always been both spiritual and physical. In both God’s initial plan for creation and the eagerly anticipated new heavens and new earth, we see these two aspects of God’s benevolence toward his creatures. Divine blessing in the Bible is always physical and spiritual because it is fixed upon the reality of the fullness of life in the presence of God.
The way human beings experience God’s blessing changes with the redemptive storyline that traverses the major peaks of creation, fall, redemption, and final restoration. However, blessing always flows out of God’s benevolent creative design for his creatures and coincides with obedience to his will.
- Jessica Bennett, “They Feel ‘Blessed’: Blessed Becomes a Popular Hashtag on Social Media,” The New York Times, May 2, 2014, wwww.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/fashion/blessed-becomes-popular-word-hashtag-social-media.html.
- See Christian Smith and Melinda L. Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of America’s Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012).
- Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 6.
- See Christopher J.H. Wright, et al., “A Statement on the Prosperity Gospel,” The Lausanne Theology Working Group, www.lausanne.org/content/a-statement-on-the-prosperity-gospel/.
- During the writing of this book, other responses to the concept of blessing and the prosperity gospel have emerged. See Tina Boesch, Given: The Forgotten Meaning and Practice of Blessing (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2019); Costi Hinn, God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019); David Jones and Russell Woodbridge, Health, Wealth, and Happiness: How the Prosperity Gospel Overshadows the Gospel of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2017).
This article is adapted from Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God by William R. Osborne.
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