Recently, a team from our church returned from a short-term trip to Haiti. As thrilled as I was to sit and listen to their testimonies of what they'd learned and experienced, I couldn't help but feel a tiny sliver of disquiet; for among the spiritual lessons learned, most team members cited that the trip had taught them above all to be grateful - grateful for the material comfort and benefits that seem to come by birthright to most Americans.
These comforts and benefits are generally styled as blessings, thus: "I never realized how blessed I truly was."
Please don't misunderstand: I do not discount the testimonies of these dear Christians; nor do I believe that what they've learned and experienced has failed both to give them a deeper appreciation of God's goodness and to help them grow spiritually.
What concerns me is the deeply-entrenched and widely-held view within Christian circles that material comforts should be equated with blessings.
Think for a moment about Jesus' most oft-quoted teaching on the nature of being blessed:
Blessed are the affluent, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the comfortable, for they have obtained comfort.
Blessed are those who do not lack, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they that experience financial prosperity, for they shall see God.
Of course we don't say things like that.
We wouldn't dare.
Unfortunately, we inadvertently express this attitude every time we thank God that we are "blessed" to have such cozy lives. However, Jesus' intention in the Beatitudes was not to teach us to be thankful for physical benefits, but to draw our focus away from the physical realm entirely in order to focus on the spiritual:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Don't miss the fact that in the eight blessings that Christ mentions, he doesn't once reference a material comfort or a physical convenience. Instead, he highlights the spiritual struggles that work in us the greatest spiritual blessings: the struggle to develop meekness, the struggle to remain pure, the struggle to become a peacemaker, the struggles of mourning and persecution - not to mention the struggle for the humility enough in the first place to admit to our own grinding spiritual poverty.
Notice also that these truths are pronounced in the present tense: not that such individuals will be blessed one day, but that they already are blessed - right now!
If this sounds contradictory, remember that most spiritual truth seems paradoxical:
The Christian believes that in Christ he has died, yet he is more alive than before and he fully expects to live forever. He walks on earth while seated in heaven and though born on earth he finds that after his conversion he is not at home here. Like the nighthawk, which in the air is the essence of grace and beauty but on the ground is awkward and ugly, so the Christian appears at his best in the heavenly places but does not fit well into the ways of the very society into which he was born.
The Christian soon learns that if he would be victorious as a son of heaven among men on earth he must not follow the common pattern of mankind, but rather the contrary. That he may be safe he puts himself in jeopardy; he loses his life to save it and is in danger of losing it if he attempts to preserve it. He goes down to get up. If he refuses to go down he is already down, but when he starts down he is on his way up.
He is strongest when he is weakest and weakest when he is strong. Though poor he has the power to make others rich, but when he becomes rich his ability to enrich others vanishes. He has most after he has given most away and has least when he possesses most.
He may be and often is highest when he feels lowest and most sinless when he is most conscious of sin. He is wisest when he knows that he knows not and knows least when he has acquired the greatest amount of knowledge. He sometimes does most by doing nothing and goes furthest when standing still. In heaviness he manages to rejoice and keeps his heart glad even in sorrow. ~ A.W. Tozer, "That Incredible Christian"
The bottom line is that if something in my life draws me from Christ, it is not a blessing; however, everything in my life that sends me running toward Christ not only brings great blessings down the road, but also already is a blessing - right here, right now.
The apostles understood this principle and demonstrated it clearly from the inception of the church in Jerusalem. After Peter and John suffered the first of many arrests, beatings, and harassments for healing the lame man at the Beautiful Gate and continuing to preach in the temple, they are reported to have departed from the presence of their persecutors rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Christ (Acts 5:17-41).
May God give us such spiritual clarity.
That would indeed be a blessing.