Is God free to bless whomever He wants? Or is He only allowed to bless those who live in “poor” nations? Who gets to decide? Us, or God? Does God decide who He is going to bless or are we the ones in charge who decide who He can bless and who He can’t?
Over the past year or so I have read several articles that have been posted on FaceBook that had as their topic the idea that Christians should not called themselves blessed. Actually, when you read the articles, you find that they narrow that down a bit and say that Western Christians, or more precisely, Christians living in the US, should not call themselves blessed by God. Their reasoning is that it makes Christians living in other parts of the world feel like they are not “good” Christians because they do not have the same income level that those who live in the US. And, they reason, God is not a “Cosmic Vending Machine” handing out blessings to some and not to others. That means that American Christians are not blessed more than those in other parts of the world. While all that might sound “holy”, what that leaves us with is this: That pure chance – a random throw of the dice – gave them a lot more and better stuff, or at least the opportunity to acquire more and better stuff than everyone else has. And that is supposed to make people feel better? Personally, I think that just makes things worse!
But is this a Biblical view point? Yes, I agree, God is not a cosmic vending machine. He does not hand out blessings if you live in the right part of the world, or if you “have enough faith”, or pray hard enough, or “send in enough money” to whatever TV (or other) evangelist that promises God’s financial “blessings” if you do so. Nor does He give material blessings to those who articulate the correct phrases. However, that does not mean that God does not promise to bless His people in material ways for faithfully following Him. The Bible is full of such promises. But, we should not expect a life of ease if we are truly following Jesus. As He warned His disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. . . . Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household! . . . Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:16-18, 21-25, 34-39 NIV) And nowhere in the New Testament do any of the writers give any indication that later generations of Jesus’ follower’s are to expect anything better.
I don’t know about you but that does not sound like a life of ease and prosperity to me! So, what about all the promises of material blessings? What are we supposed to do with them? I mean, how many sermons have you heard on this passage? “‘You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Malachi 3:9-11) Granted, most will leave out verse 9, but still, God does promise a blessing for those who are faithful in giving Him a full tithe of their income. And every sermon I have ever heard on these verses is always accompanied by multiple examples of people who report that God is faithful and He does fulfill this promise.
So what are we to do with all these articles that advise us, particularly those of us who live in the US, to not claim to be blessed by God? After reading them, one of the things that they all seem to have in common, is an underlying tone of guilt. Guilt for being born in the US. Guilt for having a nice house. Guilt for having a good paying job. Guilt for having a car, maybe even several cars. Guilt for growing up in a Christian home. Lots and lots of guilt.
Let me ask you, Did you decide where you were going to be born? Did you decide what skills or natural abilities you were going to be born with? Did you decide who your parents were going to be? Did you decide what sort of a home they were going to raise you in? I don’t know about you, but I know I had absolutely no control over any of that! So, if you and I did not have control over these things, who did? Maybe God? And if He decided all that, then why should we feel guilty for something He decided to give us? Maybe, just maybe, He had a reason for doing so.
In all this talk about “blessings” one thing I should mention is while the New Testament does talk about blessings, they are more in the line of one person pronouncing a “blessing” or benediction on another. The one exception I could find is in reference to spiritual blessings, which again are really God pronouncing a blessing on us. As Paul says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3) When the New Testament talks about what the Old Testament calls blessings it is God giving us “good things” or “gifts” rather than the Old Testament concept of His giving us blessings. Paul even devotes several “chapters” of one of his letters to a discussion of the spiritual gifts that God gives EVERY believer. (See 1 Corinthians 12 and onward.) Does that mean that God no longer blesses us? Well, I’m not one to split hairs in this regard. Call them gifts, or call them blessings, I believe they amount to the same thing, something that God gives us for absolutely no reason other than He wants to. And yes, the New Testament talks about both spiritual gifts and material gifts from God.
James, one of Jesus’ brothers, had this to say about blessings, or gifts from God, “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:16-17) “EVERY good and perfect gift” is from God. So that means that ANY good thing that happens in my life is from God. Or, it is a blessing from God, take your pick in how you want to say it.
A big problem I have with those who want to deny that the good things we have are from God is this, If they are not from God – where do they think they came from? To me it sounds like they are trying to say “All this is not from God, therefore I earned it, I deserve it, it is all mine.” I am not saying that is what they believe, I am just saying that is what it sounds like. And heading down that road leads to something Jesus talked about. “And he told them a parable saying, ‘The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said. “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.'” (Luke 12:16-21 ESV) Not a good idea is it?
So what ARE we to do with our gifts from God? Jesus also had this to say, ” . . . give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38) God does not expect us to hold on to what He gives us, He expects us to bless others just as we have been blessed. However, if I believe I have not been “blessed” then there is no reason for me to feel the need to bless others, after all, it is just what I have earned by my own hard work. And therein lies the problem, and maybe the source of the feelings of guilt.
This whole issue revolves around the Anti-“Prosperity Gospel” movement – the fight against the belief that “If I have enough faith, or I pray hard enough, or whatever, God will give me material blessings.” God does not HAVE to give us anything. He CHOOSES to give us things, He also promises to give us things we ask for in prayer, however, He also adds a caveat – what we ask for must be in accordance with His will. And what He has told us His will is has been revealed to us in the Bible. Jesus told us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV) We are to desire things that can only be stored up in heaven, not here on earth, so material wealth is NOT something we can pray for and be within God’s will. Jesus also told us why, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) If our heart is set on having material wealth it CANNOT be set on the things of God. According to Jesus there is no middle ground on this, either our heart is set on God or it is set on the things of this earth. So a desire for earthly wealth is NOT within God’s will.
I have heard some claim that God will give us material blessings or gifts to see what we will do with them. And I will admit there is some truth in this, however, just before he tells us every good thing we have is from God, James also tells us, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:13-15) So, if we do have material wealth, it is not because God is testing us to see if we will sin. If we sin and start lusting after earthly wealth it is because of our own sinful desires. If we have material wealth it is for a completely different reason.
We don’t have the “Year of Release” or “jubilee” that God gave the Children of Israel before they entered the Promised Land, but we can learn some things about what God expects His people to do with the material blessings He gives them from the instructions God gave them at that time. Here is what God said through Moses, “And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own. At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.” (Deuteronomy 14:27-15:6)
The first thing I find interesting is that God told them to use 1/3 of all their tithes to care for the poor – including foreigners (immigrants) – that lived among them. Interestingly, each town was to care for their own poor and needy. And this was to include the Levites – those who “worked for God”. And second, every seventh year they were to cancel all debts owed them by their fellow Israelites. And if they faithfully followed all of God’s instructions – including these – then, God promised, there would be no poor among them! He would so bless His people materially that there would be no one in need of anything! Amazing! Does that mean everyone would be rich? No, it doesn’t say that, what God promised, was that He would provide enough for everyone – some might not have enough, but others would have more than they needed so they could help out those who didn’t have enough, and in that way no one would be in need. The community – the nation – would have more than enough, not each individual.
Moses goes on with God’s instructions. “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11) See, He does not promise there would never be anyone poor. But, did you notice why there would be poor in the land? It seems God wanted His people to take care of them! Those that God had blessed with material blessings were to use those blessings to bless those in need around them. Some might claim it was God’s way of testing them to see if they would obey Him, but I think it was more God giving them the opportunity to join Him in His work of restitution, reconciliation, and redemption. Of being a light to the nations around them, showing them how God wanted things to be done. How He wanted people to treat each other. God was giving Israel a chance to join Him in helping Him take care of people.
So, if God set this sort of a system up as His ideal way of doing things several thousand years ago, do you think He has changed His mind today? Maybe He blesses some people more than others just so they can participate in His work of blessing people! Maybe there is a good reason for people to feel a bit guilty for all the “good” things they have when they look around at those in the world who don’t have it so good. Could it be that we are holding on too tight? Maybe, just maybe, God is telling us, “Let go, use what I’m giving you to help others. You really don’t need everything I’m giving you, so pass it on!
Jesus once had this encounter with a very wealthy individual. “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.”‘ ‘Teacher,’ he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.'” (Mark 10:17-25) Jesus didn’t tell everyone He met to sell all they owned and give it away, but He does call everyone to use what He has blessed them with to help others. He could see the hold this man’s possessions had on him and He knew that hold had to be broken, so He told him he needed to let go of everything.
I find it interesting that some manuscripts record Jesus as saying, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” This reminds me of what we read earlier that Jesus said about riches, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) Our heart should be so full of God that there is no room for the things of this earth. If it is, then we will have no problem letting go.
The answer isn’t to deny you are being blessed by God – the Bible says you are. The answer is to quit holding on so tight to what you have, let go of it, pass it on to someone who really needs it! God has given us both spiritual gifts (salvation for example) and material gifts, if we will not let go of the material gifts to help others, what makes us think we will be any more willing to “let go” of the spiritual ones, i.e., tell others the “good news” of salvation? James asks, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16) If we don’t care about someone’s physical needs that we can see, do we really care about their spiritual needs that we cannot see? Jesus ties these together. As we just read, “Where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” And He also said, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:43-45) What is your heart full of, the things of God, or the things of earth? How you handle what God has given you reflects where your heart is, where your heart is determine what your heart is full of, and what your heart is full of will determine what you have to say to others about God. Do you hold on to what God has given you with an open hand or a closed fist? How you hold your blessings will affect how you witness to others about the Gospel.