Do Christians Confuse Blessings With Success?
We've gotten it wrong.
We can spot the hashtag scrolling along social media feeds and popping up in Bruno Mars lyrics: #Blessed. Often the declaration comes as a caption, seizing the overwhelming gratitude of new parents, their eyes brimming with joy as they look down at the baby in their arms. Other times, we see the word accompanying the execution of a particularly difficult athletic move. Or it’s a declaration of wealth or success. As someone celebrates a new car, it can be a ritual to take a smiling photo near the shining hood, with an uprising of thanks. We are #blessed for what we have, who we are and what we have achieved.
That’s a good thing, right? Thanking God for our health and wealth, taking inventory and marveling at our abundance is important. Having gratitude for our possessions rather than tripping through life, barely recognizing how much we have been given. We need to give some thanks to the One from whom all blessings flow.
In the United States, for the last hundred years, our notions of being blessed have been tied to health and wealth. It made sense. Our economy was growing, and each generation was doing better than the last. So we went from D.L. Moody’s rags-to-riches narrative booming through revivals to Oral Roberts’s prosperity gospel circuiting through our televisions. The Religious Right movements proclaimed that our nation was a wealthy nation because it was a Christian nation. God had blessed us.
But it might be time for us to rethink our notions of “blessing.” In the United States, we scaled back our investments in younger generations. Our country made deep cuts in college education, relying on student loans to make up the difference in cost. We gutted unions, leaving workers unable to bargain for wage increases, health benefits, pensions funds and stable work. We wholeheartedly embraced technology, not thinking about how many people it would replace in the decades to come. We encouraged real estate bubbles so that housing costs ballooned far beyond an entry-level worker’s budget.
Now students come out of college with massive debt in order to face the mountainous costs of housing markets. Then when they look for jobs, they sort through part-time, temporary or freelancing opportunities. People scramble for health insurance, knowing that without it, a broken arm could bankrupt them. They give up dreams of ever having a pension. They concentrate on their temp work, hoping for some sort of stability, yet they know that they will be eliminated if the stock market hiccups.
Parents and grandparents ask, “Why don’t you ever settle down?” which is code for “Why aren’t you married?” “Why don’t you own a home?” “When are you going to start making some grandchildren?” Which causes a laugh because they can’t even get a doctor’s appointment, and they’re expected to start a family.
They understand the path to being “blessed,” even as they swipe their credit card at the grocery store checkout line. They realize that their plastic has a 24 percent interest rate, but they also know that payments for billable hours don’t always come in a timely fashion and they still have to eat. They would ask their family members for help, but that would be way too humiliating. They fear being cast as the loser in their family’s drama, in that familiar plot: “a failure to launch.”
They know that the key to being “blessed” has to do with getting out of debt and not wasting a bunch of money on interest payments. They are not idiots. But they also realize that it’s hard to crawl out of a hole when you were placed in one before you even got a chance to vote.
They don’t talk about it much, because there is so much shame attached with financial insecurity. If they do speak out, they are scolded for being imprudent and irresponsible—by a generation of people who paid their whole college tuition, room and board with their earnings from a part-time job.
In Church, where everyone is supposed to be “blessed,” the shame multiplies because the debt has a spiritual component. With this prominent idea that God blesses us with health and wealth, we can begin to believe the shadow side of that message, that God is somehow displeased with our debt.
In this emerging reality, we need to rethink the idea of blessing. I reflected on these notions when I wrote Healing Spiritual Wounds. When we look back on the history of the Israelites, we see a people who were debt slaves to Pharaoh. During a famine, the sons and daughters of Abraham relied on Pharaoh’s stores of grain, until they were indebted to the ruler. Then God delivered them through a series of increasingly horrific plagues.
Even before our feet could touch the ground in our Sunday school chairs, we knew who God was blessing in this story—those who were in debt. We also knew who was the problem—those who burdened people with debt. God did not say to the Israelites that they needed to work a little harder, be more responsible, draw up a budget plan because their predicament was ultimately their own fault. No. God delivered them from the brutal hands of their creditors.
With this great faithful history, how did our story get reversed? How did we start blaming the debtors for their irresponsibility instead of the creditors for their cruelty? I worry that the prosperity gospel has fed into our national hunger for wealth, while disregarding the poor. I’m concerned that we have forgotten the words of Jesus who reminds us that the poor are blessed.
Can we envision another way to think about our blessedness? Maybe as we live the good news now, being #Blessed won’t mean health and wealth in the same ways that it has in our country’s history. Perhaps we can relearn blessing, so that it’s not reduced to an Instagram photo of a new car. Maybe we’ll find some blessing in our debt-riddled lives, as we learn how to depend on one another and be generous with one other.
Maybe being blessed will mean that we have a community that we can lean upon for support when we need it. Maybe it will mean that we can go to church and actually talk about our debt, job insecurity and medical needs, without the surrounding lectures on how we should have managed our lives better.
Perhaps being blessed could lead us to form a beloved community that cares for one another when our individual autonomy doesn’t work out and we find ourselves without a pension.
Can we can imagine communities of peace, justice, mercy and love? Perhaps then, we will be truly blessed.
Carol Howard Merritt is a Presbyterian pastor and author of Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church (HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers). This article was adapted from that book.