January 18, 2011 — I occasionally hear Christians reflect on how God has “blessed” them throughout their lives. Sometimes this idea of blessing includes things like good health or the birth of children and grandchildren. Sometimes it refers to the joy of seeing family members walk with God. Those are blessings indeed.
But some people who say they have been “blessed” by God are also talking about their material prosperity. Sometimes, in fact, they’re talking only about their material prosperity.
In the minds of many, God’s blessing and our material prosperity are one and the same. If I have a good marriage, a successful job, a nice home in the suburbs, and beautiful children, it must mean that God is happy with me and showing me his blessing through all of these things. Why else would my life be so full and rich?
While that type of thinking is common, it’s not necessarily biblical.
So what’s the relationship between God’s blessing and material prosperity? Is there any biblical evidence to support the view that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing?
In order to answer these questions, we need to take a closer look at what the Old and New Testaments teach about God’s blessing and favor in our lives.
Old Testament Blessing
If we start with the Old Testament, we note that several different Hebrew words are used for blessing, and we discover considerable variety in their meanings.
In some instances, blessing obviously refers to physical prosperity. For example, in Genesis 24:35 Abraham’s servant tells Laban, “The Lord has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy.” And in Job 42:12 we are told: “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys.” In these instances blessing is expressed through wealth and possessions.
But the Old Testament also makes it clear that there is much more to God’s blessing than material possessions. Psalm 132:15 promises that God will bless Zion with abundant provisions and satisfy her poor with food. Psalm 37:11 promises that “the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.” In these instances there is still the promise of earthly goods, but it goes hand in hand with a special concern for the poor.
This prepares the way for the blessing of Psalm 1 on the person who delights in God’s law and the blessing of Psalm 32 on the person whose transgressions God has forgiven. In these passages a more spiritual kind of blessing is in view.
But the ultimate triumph of Old Testament faith is its ability to trust in God even when all the outward evidences of God’s blessing are missing. Thus we have the dramatic and moving statement of Habakkuk in 3:17-18a:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
As the people of Israel suffered severe oppression under a series of foreign powers from Babylon to Rome, they began to see that they could experience God’s blessing even in the most difficult circumstances. The stories of people such as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Esther are a testimony to how God can favor and bless his faithful servants in the midst of trial and suffering.
New Testament Blessing
The New Testament never describes blessing in terms of material prosperity or possessions. In fact, it says just the opposite. We learn that God blesses the poor. In Luke 6 Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (v .20) and, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (v. 24).
James tells us that the brother in humble circumstances should take pride in his low position and that the rich man will fade away as quickly as a wildflower (1:9-11). And Paul warns us that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).
The New Testament uses one word more than any other when describing God’s blessing to people. This word, µακαριοσ, or makarios, means “blessed.” It’s used 44 times in the New Testament.
Of those 44 instances, 31 involve descriptions of righteous behavior or characteristics that God considers desirable. The most prominent and familiar example of this usage of the word makarios is in the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Here Jesus blesses the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the persecuted. Luke 6 pronounces a blessing on the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the hated. In parables about servants behaving responsibly while their masters are away, Jesus repeatedly blesses those servants who are ready and watching when their master returns. James blesses the person who perseveres under trial (1:3), and the book of Revelation blesses the reader who is faithful to the message being proclaimed (22:7).
Eleven uses of the word makarios speak of the blessing of being part of the coming kingdom of God. Thus someone eating with Jesus in Luke 14:15 states that the person who will eat in the kingdom of God is blessed, and Revelation 19:9 proclaims: “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” The final two uses of makarios refer to God as the one who is blessed.
The New Testament idea of blessing, then, pictures people who rejoice in the coming of salvation in Jesus Christ. They enjoy spiritual blessings in Christ as they put their faith in him, experience his love and forgiveness, and work faithfully for the coming of his kingdom.
The spiritual blessings these people enjoy often stand in stark contrast to their physical situations. They may be poor, destitute, and persecuted, but they experience joy rooted in a spiritual reality that transcends their present circumstances. That’s why the disciples can rejoice after the Sanhedrin has flogged them (Acts 5:40-41) and James can call on his readers to “consider it pure joy” when they face many kinds of trials (1:2).
So what can we conclude about the blessing of God on the basis of this biblical survey? First we need to address the difference in the Old and New Testament ideas of blessing.
In the Old Testament era the believer received God’s blessing by being part of the covenant community of Israel. Inheriting the land of Palestine was central to God’s favor and blessing at that time. But even in Old Testament times God’s blessing included the spiritual realities of forgiveness and fellowship with God.
In the New Testament we receive God’s blessing by being part of the believing community of the Church. Our blessing from God does not come to us because we are citizens of the United States or Canada or Nigeria or South Korea. Our blessing comes because we are citizens of the kingdom of God.
Therefore our central blessing is not the inheritance of a plot of ground in Palestine or a high-paying job in North America or any other aspect of life in a materially prosperous society. Rather, our blessing centers on our adoption as sons and daughters of God. Because of this adoption we receive the gift of eternal life and enjoy fellowship with God through Jesus Christ.
This is the great hope and joy of all believers in Christ. This is the great blessing that Christ’s life and death and resurrection has made possible.
Instead of describing wealth and possessions as God’s blessing, the New Testament consistently warns us that we should not be too attached to the things of this world. The parables of the rich fool in Luke 12 and of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 remind us that our present possessions will soon pass away and that our status in the world to come may be precisely the opposite of what it is now.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:33 should be a perpetual guide for our Christian living in this world: “But seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” And his stark words in Matthew 6:24 are a perpetual warning against putting our priorities in the wrong place: “You cannot serve both God and money.”
A Spiritual Reality
There are many biblical reasons to gratefully receive and joyfully celebrate God’s good gifts of abundant food, warm clothes, and comfortable homes. But we should not mistake these gifts for God’s blessing in our lives. According to the New Testament, God’s blessing is a deeply spiritual reality that comes to those who receive it in humble faith. Our poverty or prosperity is not an indication of whether we are experiencing God’s blessing.
In that sense, there is something profoundly wrong and anti-Christian about defining “blessing” only in terms of material possessions. When we link God’s blessing to our prosperity, we become smug and self-satisfied. We begin to suspect that God is much more pleased with the people of North America than he is with those of poorer nations such as India or Sudan. And we may be in danger of concluding that God is pleased with us as individuals when, in fact, God might be angry with us because we are hoarding his gifts instead of sharing them with the poor.
Prosperity may be a gift from God, but it is not a sign of God’s blessing. That blessing is reserved for those who are poor enough in spirit and in circumstance to yearn deeply and sincerely for the final coming of the kingdom of God.
- What do you see as the greatest blessings in your life?
- Describe an experience of pain, loss, or sorrow that you received as a blessing. How did it impact your faith?
- How does this article challenge your perception of the wealthy?
- What separates the rich and the poor?
- How does this article change your prayer?