A couple years ago, I found myself sitting with a friend whose marriage was... disintegrating.
There were a number of reasons, some of which had been visible, others of which had been hidden until then... but none of that matters. What matters is that my friend was in the kind of immense pain and grief that only comes around a few times in life if you're lucky. As I listened to my friend unload a stream of confusions and hurts and randomly drift from one emotion to the next, everything felt surreal. Heightened. I was acutely aware of the fact that I was caught up in a huge moment, but also completely unsure of what I could do or say to help. I wondered at how I could best walk through this tremendous loss and pain with my friend. I reached for empathy and felt overwhelmed internally, while, on the outside, I probably looked less "overwhelmed" and more "vaguely shocked."
The evening went on and I didn't say much. The barrage of new information left me doing the math in my head: what this would mean for my divorcing friends, for me and my wife, for our community, for our plans and assumptions of how we had expected life to go as we lived it together... But I didn't verbalize any of that. Mostly, I was just present. I was just there.
Had it been a few years earlier, I would have felt pressured to have all the answers - all the formulas to share. They probably would have kept me from being any real comfort to my friend, and from being honest enough with myself to begin my own process of grieving. This quiet presence thing was fairly new to me. I understood that there was very little I could say or do in that moment, and that was okay. There was no running from it and no speeding it up... Mostly, I just had to surrender to being in it - allowing the gravity of it to move us and change where we all stand.
But near the end of the evening, and as my friend prepared to leave, that's when the words came to me… Somehow, I felt compelled to say them:
“You are... blessed... right now.”
Even then, it sounded so wrong - and I said the words softly and hesitantly, I wasn't smiling like a TV preacher or anything - but it was still so alien to use them in that way. It was almost comical, and certainly a bit absurd... but there was something very wonderful about it too. Very upside-down. Even if it didn't feel correct, it felt... right. I continued:
"I know it doesn't make any sense, but Jesus says right now is when you're blessed."
I don't know why it had never occurred to me before to pronounce blessing the same way that Jesus did.
It flew in the face of just about everything I had ever heard in church, in fact. And what a sad reflection on Christian culture and society that this is the case. I had been a Christian my entire life, and I had only ever used "blessed" in the way that other Christians used it - to applaud "the good life" and all the moments and things that make us typically (and often fleetingly) happy. We use "blessed" and "blessing" to recognize when things have gone well for us. Whether socially, or economically, or in all other ways that are measurable only in the kind of capital which is championed by this present world and its broken systems.
That is a problem... And not a nit-picky, you're-just mincing-words problem.
A huge, glaring, ugly, Jesus-undermining problem.
In this mindset, "God" becomes a dispenser of "blessing" in a way which minimizes anyone going without, anyone losing, and anyone who has nothing left. This God stands in solidarity only with the strong and the privileged. So there's this jarring disconnect each time we read Matthew 5... and yet no one seems to be admitting it. It's like we read it and say, "Wow. Isn't Jesus nice? Okay, moving on, unchanged as though he wasn't speaking for God..."
And, in maintaining our version of God as though Jesus hasn't revealed God to the contrary, we make it pretty obvious that we are revolted and repulsed by Jesus' definition of blessing. But this doesn't seem to bother us much, if at all. So we continue on, pretending that he never attempted to change our minds on the issue.
...It doesn't end there. Our decision to stick with the definition of "blessed" that the world was already using before Jesus revolutionized the concept becomes the root sickness upon which even the American "prosperity gospel" is built. It's the stem from which so much of our believing we are exceptional and special and shiny grows out of. So if we are powerful, and control the resources of the world, we see ourselves as "blessed." And if we are ruthless, and exploit the people of the world, we see ourselves as "blessed." I mean, how could we not be? Our nation is strong, so God must be behind it! Look at all our money! Look at all our stuff! Look at the relative ease in which we float through life, well-adjusted to injustice!
...How could all of this not be "blessed?"
Well that depends. It depends on if Jesus is really Lord or not. If he isn't, the definition is fine. But if he is, that should change our hearts, shouldn't it? It should change our thinking, and it should even change our speech. In seeing the world the way Jesus does, we should then speak over it in the way Jesus does, too.
It's not just a minor technicality. There are implications to avoiding Jesus on this, just like there are with anything else. Where Jesus' dynamic unites us with the weak and humbles us, our own chosen dynamic divides us from them. Excludes us. Leaves us looking down on whoever "those people" are. And in refusing to share in their blessing, we refuse to share in the blessing of Jesus.
So we avoid blessing in the very place we are told it can be found.
Seeking to see God's solidarity with us in the place of our triumphs and gains, we fail to see God in Jesus' solidarity with those who have lost everything, or who never had anything to begin with.
Why are we trying so hard to identify God with the things that Jesus did not identify with? It's like Saul before he became Paul - striving to honor God apart from the revelation of what God is like in Jesus... Realizations like these are what make reclaiming a "blessing" beyond the hashtag so liberating. They bring about the kind of peace which comes only when something that has been held back is finally harmonizing with Jesus' perspective.
When I called my friend "blessed"...
I was reminded that it is a bold and revolutionary sort of kingdom that Jesus painted for us in the things he called "blessed," and it remains a bold and revolutionary thing to embrace that kingdom now... Are we seeing it?
The pronouncement of blessings in what we call the "beatitudes" is how Jesus chooses to begin his lengthiest and most life-encompassing statement. Providing the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, they are Jesus redefining what it means to be truly happy or fortunate, and they are the very foundation upon which the upside-downness of his kingdom rests. They are the root of what it means to grow with and towards God - a snapshot of the values of a people who see everything differently.
They are what Jesus declares to be beautiful states of being...
and it would seem to be... that we hate them.
This may all sound like a small thing and no big deal to some, but ask yourself next time you hear someone use the term, or next time you see someone use that cheapening hashtag... Ask yourself if it resonates with the same Jesus that these "blessings" are being attributed to. Ask yourself if it resonates with the words of the sub-peasant class carpenter's son, who told a massive crowd of other lower class people that he saw the blessing of God very, very differently.
Look, it's fine to be thankful for stuff. And I'm not saying it's impossible to think we could use blessing in the more conventional way in addition to using it the way Jesus did, but the mere fact that we see no echoes of Jesus' way in the culture around us (not to mention in our own language) is staggering. We do not see Jesus' usage of the concept to any significant degree around us, let alone as the dominant form of using the term or pronouncing its beauty.
So it becomes all the more clear that our #blessed culture has set itself against the kingdom of heaven, and I intend to examine that... honestly.
This will not, however, require much analysis on my part. In fact, I'll be signing off for now, because I've called in a real expert to deal with Jesus' treatment of what "blessed" means. It's a first for You Have Heard It Said! A guest contributor!
Meet Jesus' new Public Relations Consultant:
"Thanks for the introduction, Kevin, and HEY THERE, everyone!
I'm just the humble pastor of a small megachurch. I've got 4.5 kids and am living the American Dream with my smokin' hot wife. I'm so #blessed to be bringing the word to all of you as Jesus' new Public Relations Consultant! We'll get these beatitudes sorted in no time!"