My husband recently asked me when you all get to start voting on what I write about next. He then quickly followed up with requesting that I write about my struggles with the Old Testament. I laughed, shrugged it off and said that I didn’t have anything brilliant to say about the Old Testament yet. I then promptly came across this article, which commands Christians, if they’re going to stop saying “one thing,” to stop attributing their material blessings to God because it “reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers” and that material blessing is “positive reinforcement.”
Whoa. Perhaps it’s my irritation at the sensationalist title of the article (if anything, the only thing Christians need to stop saying is whatever does not match up with their walk: the way you pray is the way you live). Perhaps it’s the shame-based language the author of the article employs, similar to what Brene Brown briefly mentions in a TED talk as it relates to racism. Perhaps it’s my resentment that my position on this issue is likely going to get accused of being wealthy (which as an American, sure, but for an American, definitely not) or a Republican (which I most certainly am not). But I don’t follow the leap in logic from “Thank you God for the house we get to live in” to “God is a fairy godmother “randomly” magic-ing up money and other forms of material wealth to whoever suits God’s fancy that particular day, nor do I see how thanking God for physical provision is positive reinforcement. I agree that God is not a behavioral psychologist; absolutely none of the article’s own examples of how we claim blessing for material goods went like this: “Worshipped our way into a new house – feeling blessed!” or “I prayed seven times a day for seven weeks for a new car, and God finally relented!” Positive reinforcement requires linking a behavior to a reward, but the very use of the word blessing implies gratitude for something one feels is unearned.
You could argue that Christians are using the word blessing wrong, and that they actually do think their prayers “earned” them their snazzy new car or job. But, in the first place, “feeling blessed” is another way of saying “thanks” to God, not a self-congratulatory exclamation. Secondly, how does recognizing God’s material provision reduce God or make God into a cosmic slot machine? God created something – namely, all that is, which includes physical, material things – from nothing and then created humanity with which to share such wonders God wrought. Of course, that’s not the only purpose for all that has been made – creation has its own right to exist – but refusing to call a material, monetary, physical blessing, well, a blessing, is to undercut God’s sovereignty and elevate humanity and its ability to provide for itself apart from God. I recognize that there are issues with wealthy Americans praising God for such wealth, given that “hundreds of millions of Christians in the world who live on less than $10 per day,” but the fact that Americans feel materially blessed by God does not necessarily mean that God is arbitrarily not blessing others. The misallocation of resources is on our end, not God’s and such happens precisely when we fail to see that our resources are from God, not refuse to acknowledge that fact. The error here is not thanking God for our blessings, but telling anyone that they’re not faithful enough for an reason, including material deprivation. It is those who do not share their wealth with others who are not faithful enough, but we stop sharing the minute we think something is “ours,” – the minute, that is, we stop remembering the One from whom all blessings flow.
Even bigger leaps were made in the comment section of this article, “the prosperity doctrine is idolatry, plain and simple,” being my favorite. It is so because the statement itself is definitely true, but kind of misses the point as the article isn’t about the prosperity doctrine. That particular heresy trades on “name in, claim it” fantasies, which are truly an abomination to the Christian faith; *that* sort of thing is what reduces God to wish-granting peddler at the beck and call of greedy humans enthralled by the gods of consumerism. No, this article is about no longer calling a busy business or a promotion or any other “material” blessing what it is: a blessing. To say that God is not involved in your groceries, your bonus or your transportation, is to say that there is some “place” that God is not – but *that* is what’s unfaithful. Feeling blessed by a house to live in, enough food for your family, a car (new or just new to you) and saying so is not infidelity. Houses, food and cars are called provision. To stop attributing our material provision to God is to claim that we can stand on our own feet apart from God, we can live independently of God. In fact, one way of understanding the first sin in the Garden is the lie of autonomy, that humanity can sustain life on our own apart from our Creator.
There are many things I have trouble with in the Old Testament – divine-sanctioned genocide, brutal rape and murder, sexism, infant sacrifice, to name a few – and I hope to be have brilliant things to say about them some day. But there is one thing I do not have an issue with: God providing materially for the physical needs of Israel. The manna and quail in the desert, the water from a cracked stone, the land flowing with milk and honey. Some of this problematic, of course: it sometimes looks like the Israelites are commanded to plunder other peoples for their wealth. But it’s not the material that’s bad. It’s not “money is the root of all kinds of evil”…it’s “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Jesus has harsh words for the rich and God has a preferential option for the poor…but that’s just it: what are you saying when you advocate divorcing blessing language from material goods but that the very things the poor Scripture commands we not forget (that is, the materially poor) are in need of are not from God at all. If we’re not thanking God for our material blessings, who are we to thank? Ourselves? The implication here is the all-too-common refrain that the poor are to blame for their blight. As Christians, we are simply not allowed to disgrace ourselves with such victim-blaming utterances.
Finally, as the article correctly states, Jesus does indeed begin the Sermon on the Mount with a clear, if long, definition of blessing. But the Bible is more like a library than a singular book; texts need to be read in conversation with other texts. The Old Testament – which, as far as length goes, is more than half the conversation – the story of the calling, formation, failing and covenant of God’s chosen people, includes the mercy of material provision. While they are mostly eschatological, to (mis)interpret the Beatitudes as about only spiritual blessing (what is it the meek inherit but the earth?) is nothing other than Platonic dualism (material and spiritual are sharply divided; the former is bad, the latter is good), which flies in the face of the single event the entire Christian faith is predicated upon: the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.