Part of a series on The Way of Love.
One of the most parodied terms of the Christian social media world has become the hashtag #blessed. From the viral trends of #Christiangirlautumn (#blesssed #soblessed #pumkinspicelatte) to the social media subculture of suburban housewife influencers (#hubs #lovehim #Proverbs31woman #blessed #soblessed #humblebrag), the language of blessing can easily be translated into a celebration of material prosperity or relational success. This use of blessing is so easily dismissible as trite or triumphalist because it often appears self-referential rather than pointing back to the triune God. Of course, as Christians we should be thankful for what we have received and acknowledge that what we have is not our own, but rather a gift from God. “What do you have that you have not been given?” (1 Cor. 4:7)
However, taken alone, this limited understanding of blessedness can easily become a stand-in for a certain type of prosperity gospel. Instead of celebrating life lived in the fullness of God’s provision, we can end up celebrating late capitalist consumerism. Where in this understanding is the Apostle Paul’s claim that life in Christ is manifested in our body when we carry also in our body the death of Christ? When “[w]e are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9)? Where is the call to take up your cross and follow Christ? Where is the description of the Christian life as requiring us not only to embrace hardship and suffering for the sake of others?
In the curriculum for the Way of Love, the Episcopal Church provides some crucial theological enrichment of this overly simplified view of blessing. The call to bless, according to this rule of life of the Jesus Movement, is not simply about celebrating what we have received, but learning how to give in response to the blessings we have received. As the small group curriculum reminds us: as followers of Jesus “we are empowered by the Spirit to bless everyone we meet, practicing generosity and compassion and proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ with hopeful words and selfless actions.” The key verse for this discussion is Matthew 10:8 — the reminder that just as we have “freely received” Christ’s gifts of healing, cleansing, release from spiritual oppression, and even the gifts of life itself, so we are called to “freely give.”
In grounding our ability to bless in the work of the Holy Spirit, the Way of Love curriculum appropriately reminds us that this work of blessing others is not made possible through our own strength, but is in itself a gift of God. Like Abraham, the blessing we receive from God should be a blessing for the whole world (Gen. 12:2-3).
In the Way of Love, Bless follows Turn, Learn, Pray, and Worship. While all of these are accurate markers of points in the spiritual life, they focus primarily on intellectual engagement (Learn) and external actions (Turn, Pray, Worship). Throughout the rest of this essay, I will argue that in order to truly understand Bless, it should be expanded to include another crucial spiritual concept: Become.
In other words, what must the blessings we receive from the Holy Spirit accomplish in us before we can become the type of people capable of blessing others? To answer this question, I will draw on the outline of growth in the spiritual life which St. Augustine provided for the Church in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. According to Augustine, in the Beatitudes section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-12), Jesus outlines the development of the moral life of the Christian. The parable at the end of the discourse in Matthew 7:24-47, of the wise man who builds his house upon the rock, orients us to this meaning. In the Beatitudes, Jesus guides us in how to build our house (shape our life) so that we stand on the solid rock of Christ, rather than the shifting sands of our own autonomy of identity. It is only after passing through this process of Spirit-led formation that we can become the type of people who can bless others — who can truly be “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”
In his commentary, Augustine describes exactly how the blessings of God transform us to bless others by linking the first seven precepts of the Beatitudes to the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost described in Isaiah. First, through the gift of the fear of God, we receive the blessing of being poor in spirit. Rather than falling into the sin of pride (the primordial desire to be like God which is the sin of the world), we become able to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Secondly, through the gift of piety (giving God his due of respect and worship), we become meek. Once we are meek, we are blessed by being able to inherit the earth — in Augustine’s interpretation, to overcome evil with good. Third, the gift of knowledge is given to those who mourn — who sorrow still for the loss of the things of this world, even as they rejoice in the hope of the better gifts of God to come. Through this gift, the Holy Spirit gives them the blessing of comfort.
Augustine continues in this way through all of the precepts of the Beatitudes — tracing gift, transformation of character, and then blessing. The culmination of this building of our moral house of Christ-like character is becoming peacemakers. Peacemakers, having received the gift of wisdom, are at peace within themselves because they live according to reason transformed by the Holy Spirit. They are freed from the spiritual struggle of all the desires which tear us apart: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). Thus, they are blessed by being called “children of God” — having been made beings who can enter into this relationship with their loving divine Father. Along with peace on the inside, these Christians can bear the chaos and pain of being “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Even this suffering can result in blessing, even rejoicing, for those who know that they will receive their reward in heaven.
The anticipation of this reward (the culmination of all of these blessings) does not lead Christians to withdraw from the world or to primarily focus on their own blessings. Rather, the result of all of this transformation is the creation of a people who are fully in the world, but stand out there as salt and light. As light they will “shine before [people] so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” The blessing of the Holy Spirit leads eventually to good works towards others, including works which come at a cost. Even these works are not ends in themselves, but rather serve to point us towards the one from whom all good works come.
In this development from internal transformation to light shining before others to the glory of God, we see the spiritual progression from Become to Bless to Go. This is itself the continuation of the movement that inaugurates the Way of Love. In Turning to Christ, we turn ourselves over to God, asking him to remold and reshape our lives as he sees fit. As we Learn through Scripture, we hear his voice and continue to respond to his call, a call that’s not just for our personal enrichment, but rather to remake us so that we can be a Blessing to others. Through Prayer and Worship we engage with God, asking how he might concretely change us here and now and to whom he might want us to pass along his blessings and present our selves, soul and body, for this work. All of this comes from and leads us back to God’s work for and in us in Jesus Christ. The “good work which Christ has begun in us” must continue the entire time of our earthly pilgrimage, as we walk through this life along the way of love.
Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is assistant professor of Christian ethics and moral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.