Thursday 5 January 2012

Blessing (5)

PrayerWorks, a new venture from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity starting in early January 2012, seeks to encourage prayer for the workplace by providing creative ways of praying and developing pathways of prayer for Christians together. From 1 February, this will include a 40-day journey of prayer for work using the prayer pathway of blessing. As part of this, I have been asked to write a supportive piece on what the Bible says about ‘blessing’ – what it tells us about God and the way he works, and its implications for our response in praise to God and in praying for others.

Earlier posts:

Blessing (1) – Introduction

Blessing (2) – Blessing comes from God – the creator God

Blessing (3) – Blessing comes from God – the covenantal God

Blessing (4) – Blessing flows through Christ

3. Blessing enlivens our praying

The topic of ‘blessing’ is not always included in treatments of prayer. This is arguably an oversight, as an appropriate understanding of blessing might inform and enliven our prayer life – as individual Christians and as local churches – in different ways.

(a) Words of petition

Blessing one another in prayer is a way of acknowledging that all good things, which build us up and make us fruitful, come from God. In blessing, we are expressing trust in God’s character and his love, not presuming on it, but asking him to continue to demonstrate his power in our lives and the lives of others, whether in the ongoing ‘mundane’ events of life or for the more ‘extraordinary’ needs of healing, rescue, provision, and direction.

This involves the recognition that God, in his grace, allows us to be the instruments of his blessing on others. Invoking God’s blessing on someone else thus serves as a particular kind of petition, with the implication that we are praying for the Lord to bless that person. In keeping with examples from Scripture, such prayers may be addressed to the person rather than God, but we are nonetheless asking for God’s blessing on them. It might be particularly appropriate to bless someone at special times, perhaps of pastoral need, or during sickness, or in the context of a commissioning – but not exclusively so. We will want to seek God’s blessing on others in line with God’s creative and life-giving purposes, in a way that exercises trust in his ongoing provision for us. This means we will be cautious about identifying his blessing solely with the ‘spectacular’ – the miraculous and special interventions – rather than with his constant presence within which the whole of life is lived, the ordinary as much as the extraordinary, the routine as much as the remarkable.

Moreover, since Jesus is now the focal point of God’s blessing, our prayers of blessing for others will take their cue from him – his commandments, his call, his love. And so we may pray for others the blessing that comes with participating in his death (1 Cor. 10:16; cf. Mark 10:38-39), for empowerment to bless those who persecute us (Luke 6:28; Rom. 12:14; 1 Pet. 3:9), for the joy and confidence that comes through knowing that every spiritual blessing comes from him (Eph. 1:3).

(b) Words of power

We know from personal experience that words are powerful. Positive, affirming words build up, while negative words tear down. The power of speech to shape someone’s self-perception – a child, a spouse, a friend, a colleague – for good or for ill, is enormous. A recognition of the power of words can, however, lead to a mistaken view of blessing which suggests that to say something is to make it happen, the presupposition being that the person who utters a blessing has the authority to do so effectively. But we should be clear that blessing is not a magical formula for victorious living, still less a guarantee of material prosperity; nor is it about twisting God’s arm into doing something.

It has sometimes been supposed that Old Testament curses and blessings operated with a view of language where the speakers believed that their words had causal, or even magical power. The story of Isaac blessing Jacob rather than Esau, for instance, suggests the blessing cannot be taken back once it has been spoken (Gen. 27). Is a magical control of the future implied?

We are helped here with the recognition of what is sometimes called the ‘performative’ nature of language, the acknowledgement that words perform certain actions. The phrase, ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’, or ‘You’re fired’, spoken by an appropriate person in an appropriate context, are not merely making statements about things but doing things. ‘Bless’ is also an example of performative language where something is done in the saying. But just as the words ‘I do’ or ‘I give and bequeath’ or ‘You’re fired’ only carry force in particular contexts where particular social mores are in place in which the words are accepted as carrying force, so also blessing is only effective when spoken with appropriate conventions in place. Genesis 27 is a striking example of this: Isaac disposes of his estate in the form of a blessing which is considered legally binding and can’t be taken back. The ‘power’ is not inherent in the words themselves so much as in the social conventions of their use, and has nothing to do with magic or fate.

The primacy of God in blessing means that it his power that counts, rather than any supposed power inherent in the words themselves. Praying words of blessing has no power apart from the activity of God himself to bless. For us, this is an encouragement that prayers for blessing don’t depend on the right use of a special formula, but on the promise and guarantee of God’s own word. It also means we can be confident that we won’t go far wrong if we bless others in line with Scripture – with the grain of God’s ongoing care for creation, in alignment with his desire for covenant relationship with his people, and in tune with his work of redemption through Christ.

(c) Words of praise

If God comes first – as the source of all blessing – we bless people and things in relation to him. Blessing food, for instance, is a shorthand way of praising God for it. We are not thanking the food itself, or invoking God to make sure it tastes good, but acknowledging him as its ultimate giver.

In fact, many of the occurrences of ‘bless’ words in the Bible are used by men and women back to God himself. Having received God’s blessing, the community of faith blesses God in return – not to grant him favour in the way he does for us, but to give thanks. Throughout the Psalms, in particular, the people are called to ‘bless’ the Lord because of how he has blessed them, and the primary way they bless him is through praise (e.g., Ps. 28:6; 31:21; 34:1; 41:13; 68:19; 72:18; 89:52; 100:4; 103:2; 104:1; 106:48; 124:6; 135:21; 144:1; 145:1-2, 10). In addition, in 1 Chronicles 29:10-11 and 20-22, David ascribes glory to God, declaring how great he is (29:11); when he calls on those gathered to bless the Lord, their response is to bow their heads, worship and offer sacrifices to God (29:20-22). In this case, blessing the Lord affirms him as Lord and pays him honour.

As much as we might seek God’s blessing for ourselves and for others, to follow the pattern of Scripture also involves blessing God – as an expression of individual or corporate praise, giving thanks to God, praising him, acclaiming him as Lord.

(d) Words of preparation

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the blessing of the congregation of God’s people appears to be significant. Some church traditions echo this in giving considerable place to blessing in their gatherings – in greetings, before and after the sermon, during communion, and so on. Perhaps especially for those less used to blessing in a congregational context, there may be a place for acknowledging the significance of the benediction as a crucial component of the gathered worship – as that which sends people on their way in service to Christ. The final blessing serves as a bridge from the gathering to the life outside the four walls of the church building, not merely marking the end of the worship service, but connecting the gathered worship to the scattered lives of the worshipping people beyond the weekly gathering. The benediction – appropriately used – prays for God’s providential care and powerful equipping of his people as we move from the gathering into everyday life, asking that God will bless us as we do so.

‘Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’ (Hebrews 13:20-21)

For further reading

Keith Grüneberg, Blessing: Biblical Meaning and Pastoral Practice, Grove Biblical Series 27 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2003).

A helpful booklet-length treatment.

Patrick D. Miller, They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994).

A full and rich exploration of different types of prayer, especially in the Old Testament, with a useful chapter on blessing and cursing.

Christopher Wright Mitchell, The Meaning of BRK “To Bless” in the Old Testament, SBL Dissertation Series 95 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1987).

A scholarly work which divides the uses of the brk root into three categories: God blessing man, man blessing man, and the use of brk in the praise of God.

R. Scott Osborne, The Book of Blessings (Xulon Press, 2007).

Available as a free download. A book which focuses on speaking blessings based on Scripture, using the language of the Bible, gathering biblical references modified in order to create blessings, divided into discrete areas such as blessing for courage, for joy, for faith and trust, etc.

Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church, Overtures to Biblical Theology, trans. Keith Crim (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).

Something of a classic in the area, describing blessing in different traditions within Scripture.

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