Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Transaction vs Transformation: The Nature of Blessing
Recently, I noted someone online putting forward the idea that God blesses organizations, traditions, or denominations depending on their public positions on certain topics, or that God retracts a blessing on an organization, tradition, or denomination, if they do not issue a public position on one of a number of topics.
Let’s delve into some of the assumptions here and see what we find.
As a general statement, we can assert that New Testament language generally speaks in terms of the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit more than God sending or retracting “blessing” to particular endeavors. So, for instance, I might say that an endeavor may or may not be Spirit-led or Spirit-filled, or that it may or may not bear the marks of the Holy Spirit. All of these traits are fleshed out throughout the Gospels and Epistles: we see what it means to be Christlike (which is the purpose of being Spirit-filled), and we see what the Spirit-filled life looks like (“to live is Christ, to die gain”) and what it does not (“I plead with Euodia and Syntyche – please, be of one mind!!”).
However, we’re no longer living the dynamic threaded throughout the Old Testament of interacting with Yahweh through Abrahamic or Mosaic covenant language that structures how the people of God can know they are living in accordance with Yahweh. Quite often, when we talk about God’s blessings, that is what we’re saying: God’s blessing shows we are following God’s commands, and if we follow God’s commands, we will get certain blessings. There’s a fairly straightforward cause-effect assumption. Covenantal language borrowed heavily from suzerain-vassal treaty language of the Ancient Near East, in which terms of an agreement were set forth: if you will do this, I will do that. Here are the expectations; here are the consequences. Sometimes, in Old Testament wisdom literature, there were also descriptive if not prescriptive statements: the wise person who does this will be blessed, but the foolish person who does that will be cursed.
With the birth of Jesus, Word made flesh, God gave the world flesh and blood revelation of the nature and heart of God. The Messiah, foretold by many prophets found in the pages of the Old Testament, came to fulfill the law of the old covenant and to set in motion a new covenant. On the day of the crucifixion, an earthquake shook Jerusalem, and the thick woven curtain in the temple was torn: things changed irrevocably. With the ascension of Christ, disciples waited in prayer for the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and was not contained in the Holy of Holies in the old tabernacle or the constructed temple, but enlivened every believer, male and female. The old priesthood, the whole temple system, was shattered.
We aren’t called or commanded to receive blessing; we’re called and commanded to be like Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and sometimes the results don’t look like blessing – shipwrecked, beaten, disowned, beheaded. How does that look like blessing, favor, best practices, or church growth?
How can you know you’re following God? Many ways. But attempting to measure whether you have the blessing of God by looking at outward indicators is like asking if your spouse is upset with you by looking at your car dashboard for clues- the RPMs are normal, no check engine light, full tank – my spouse must be happy with me. But of course we know your car dash illustrates the health of your car but doesn’t actually indicate whether you have the good favor of your spouse this morning.
To think that God will withdraw blessing assumes that we had a blessing to begin with; and that usually assumes that we had it because we were doing everything “right.” What then do we do when we do everything right but things go poorly? Like Job? Like Stephen, who was martyred while a young Saul stood by watching?
We aren’t able to dictate or control what we perceive as God’s blessing. Otherwise, innocent children wouldn’t get cancer; Christians wouldn’t get martyred. Yet both do. But that’s not evidence of a lack of God’s blessing on them. And a theological position isn’t insurance against hardship or struggle; believing certain things or doing all the right things will not ensure circumstances will go well.
You will be hard-pressed to find places where the Apostle Paul wrote, “and then God removed his blessing from you and your church shriveled up.” Paul was confrontational on a host of issues to be sure, but he always drove them back to a call to stick to the teachings of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. When Paul deals with problems in churches, it’s a call to be holy in Jesus through the Spirit; but there’s always room for change and repentance, not a positional or fatalistic decree that Ephesus is doomed because they sinned and lost God’s blessing.
Where blessing language is transactional, Spirit language is transformational.
Where blessing language depends a lot on cause and effect – “I/We did this, therefore God will give/remove what I discern as marks of his blessing” – Spirit language invites us to grow and transform to become like Jesus. Rather than ask whether a denomination or Christian tradition or organization “has God’s blessing,” we can ask, “does it bear marks of being Spirit-filled? Spirit-led? Does it bear the fruits of the Holy Spirit?”
I want to be part of movements that are Spirit-led; but I hesitate ever to claim that orthodox theology and biblically shaped ethics and sound practice will result in church growth. Why? Because of what I know of church history. A church may have beautiful theology and biblical ethics and robust worship yet shrink. But it doesn’t matter: we pursue the truth of Triune theology and biblical ethics and robust worship anyway. One plants, another waters – but God gives the increase.
Leaving one group and joining another will not mean your ministry will be blessed or that your church will grow. Because it might not. And that’s okay. We’re not called or commanded to pursue God’s blessing, we’re called and commanded to pursue Jesus Christ and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when we do that the blessings that come may not be marked by an outward litmus test of divine favor but may appear in the midst of hardship – joy unspeakable and full of glory. We cannot substitute attempts to direct outcomes for the presence and power of Christ.
If you take a public position, what then? Does that ensure you’re Spirit-filled? Spirit-led? No. Does it change how your congregations engage with people on the margins, with people broke or unemployed or in recovery? Not really. Does it change how you minister the Gospel to broken people? By no means.
God does not issue or revoke blessing transactionally; God transforms through the Spirit – thanks be to God.