Blessed had become a dirty word as far as I was concerned while my wife and I struggled with unexplained infertility. Hearing the things that people saw as evidence of God’s favor had put a bitter taste in my mouth. I wasn’t bitter things were apparently going their way and God possibly had a direct hand in making sure things worked out for them. I was bitter about what it implied. If getting the job or the house or the car or the new pair of jeans at the right price meant that you had God’s favor, then what did it say about the unemployed, the homeless, the people that have to ride the bus, and those who get hand-me-down pants? Are they not favored? If they don’t have God’s favor then does that mean they’re cursed?
This came to a head for me one Sunday morning during baby dedications when it was repeated a few times that babies are a blessing. Not to say that children are not a blessing. Still when you’re sitting there childless and enduring months of infertility treatments, it’s like a punch to the gut. It’s easy to wonder if maybe, just maybe, God has cursed you. It’s easy to start wondering if there is something you did to really tick God off and he’s not going to bless you until you make amends. I’m sure I’m not the only Christian who has had dark moments like this when you look at what seems to be the overflow of the lives of others claiming God’s abundant blessing and wonder where you went wrong.
It’s not as if this kind of thinking doesn’t have a biblical precedent. Look no further than Leviticus 26, subtitled “Blessings for Obedience, and Punishment for Disobedience”, to see where it comes from. In an ancient world dominated by pagan religious practices shaped by the pursuit of the gods’ favor, God did this to show his people and the nations that he was the one true God. So when the prophet Elijah predicts that it won’t rain for three years, except by his word, it wasn’t to simply punish the people. It was to demonstrate that God was real and Baal was not (1st Kings 17.1-7), which is exactly what happened three years later on Mount Carmel (1st Kings 18.20-41).
Of course if we understand Jesus’ ministry in light of these things we understand that the New Covenant, established by Jesus’ death and resurrection, does not include the if you do this, then I will do this equation. Because Christ was obedient unto death, we have God’s favor. Because Christ was punished for our disobedience, God is with us. And because Christ, our mediator has ascended to the right hand of God, those of us who are being sanctified always have God with us (Hebrews 10.12-17). In other words we are blessed in good times, bad times, ugly times and everything in between.
So when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven”, he’s saying God is with those who we assume according to Leviticus 26, he is not. When he says, “blessed are the hungry”, he is saying God is with those who we assume are cursed. In fact Jesus completely turns Leviticus 26 on its head, and he warns against assuming that just because things are going you’re way, [“Woe to you who are rich”, “Woe to you who are full now”, “Woe to you who laugh now”, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you”] that you’re blessed and experiencing God’s blessing.
I think this is important to know because there are still churches that preach Leviticus 26—at least the blessings part—so loudly people get the message without ever listening to a sermon. It is important to know because if life is really hard for you individually, it can be depressing to log on to Facebook and see what people are claiming as God’s blessing.. I think it is important because I know good Christian people who are growing angry with God, or walking away from him, because little if anything seems to be going their way. It is important because there is a growing movement of believe-ism claiming if you believe hard enough God will bless you so your life goes well and your dreams come true. Jesus is little more than a genie granting countless wishes and the Bible is the lamp. It is important because the truth of the matter is God’s blessing and favor is as simple as his presence. His presence and desire to be with us in good times, bad times, awful times, and everything in between… God is with us. When we understand that we don’t have to be the person in the poem Footprints who looks back and wonders why God abandoned them. When we understand that we may not even have to be carried at all because we know God is walking alongside of us always.