What does it mean to be blessed by God?
This is the third of a five-part series by Hannah Swithinbank on how we can engage with prosperity theology.
As I mentioned at the end of my last post, many Christians have problems with the way that ‘Faith’ teaching understands the nature of blessing.
Faith teaching emphasises God’s promises of blessing to his people, first to Abraham and then through Jesus to Christians. It focuses on the materiality of the blessings that Christ has won and our ability to experience them in the here and now.
While a lot of Christians often think of Faith teaching as a misreading of scripture, many of us do actually believe in and speak about blessing. This is especially true of people in the evangelical church and people who advocate for integral mission. In talking about holistic mission and human flourishing, while seeking to help lift people out of poverty, we are expressing a belief in prosperity.
We do believe that our materiality is important. We were made as physical beings with material needs in a physical and material creation. We understand the new creation as the old made new through the death and resurrection of Christ, to be fully revealed at his return. God does promise abundance and blessing to his people, and we believe that life with Jesus does offer us life in all its fullness, materially as well as spiritually.
It is just that our understanding of prosperity and what it means to be blessed is different from that of Faith churches. In particular, there is a difference in how we understand the blessings God has promised us and where, for want of a better way of putting it, these blessings end up.
In her book Blessed, Kate Bowler emphasises the individuality central to Faith teaching and its focus on a personal expression of faith that leads to personal blessings. Even where the challenges that a person is seeking to overcome with God’s blessing and favour are systemic (such as racism or colonialism and their legacies), the approach is generally to speak faith into them and receive God’s blessing in a personal way, rather than to engage with systemic issues.
But when I think about being blessed and flourishing, I think of it as something that happens within the community of the church, the body of Christ. The material blessings that we receive as our inheritance as God’s people are only truly experienced when they are shared with the whole community in love.
I think of Paul writing to the church in Corinth:
‘And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work... You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God... And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you.’ (2 Cor. 9:8–14)
The blessings that God gives us are a gift freely given – and as they overflow from God to us, I think God wants them to overflow from us to our neighbours.
I also don’t just think of the blessings God has given as being about health and wealth. I am fortunate that many of my blessings are material, but many are not. God’s grace and love for us enable us to have that love for others. Think about that simple verse in 1 John: ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). This grace inspires generosity not just of wealth, but of time, energy, compassion, creativity, affection: the things that bind people together. I think that this is what it means to be blessed.
Some recommended reading: Lily Ellyn Dunn, ‘Advent and Mary’, on the Jesus Creed blog. This post asks us to think about what it means to be blessed by God, if we consider Mary to have been blessed (Luke 1:42).