How do we know when God is blessing us? Are we blessed when we live in peaceful times? Are we blessed when we have no worries about paying the bills, buying groceries, clothing our families and heating our homes? When we have no worries about crime, no worries about being able to assemble freely to worship? Or worse yet, are we blessed just because we happen to live in (or be citizens of, rather) of a certain North American nation? So what about those people who live in war-torn countries, who are miserably impoverished, living under constant threat of terrorism, or who must worship the Lord secretly? Are they not blessed?
Or would you say that the real blessing is where the Church is increasing exponentially, where people would go to any length to hear the Word preached, where people actually READ their Bibles, where Christians are publicly proclaiming their faith and refusing to be silenced by, or conformed in any way to, the surrounding pagan culture?
I've been struggling for a long time with the idea of praying for God to bless... anyone or anything. That probably seems strange. But I've mostly been struggling because I wanted to make sure I knew what I thought I was asking for, and what I really was asking for. Blessing seems like such a generality. "Dear God, please do something nice for this person or situation" (nice being one of the most insipid words EVER). For such a long time, the idea of "blessing" in my mind has been linked to "God Bless America." That is, what I described in my first paragraph: peaceful times, but spiritual warfare; bounteous times, but a famine of hearing the Word; times of liberty, but enslavement to sin; the ability to make one's own choices, and having every choice be made only for the self. If that's what I have in mind when I'm asking for blessing, then why pray for what people already have in spades? And when one has something in that much plenty, how can more of it be anything other than insipid? Nice.
It really hit me today when I was listening to someone talk about how many blessings we have in this part of the world. And I guess if that material stuff counts as real blessing, then we're blessed. But these things are a part of God's general grace, part of that rain He sends on the fields of the wicked as well as the fields of the righteous. That is, this kind of blessing isn't real: it doesn't have anything to do with Jesus Christ and Him crucified for the sins of the world.
No, I want to pray for REAL blessing. And what do I think that will probably mean? It will mean asking for what's described in the second paragraph: people WANTING to hear the Word, loving to hear again and again the story of the Cross, looking forward to Bible-reading and devouring the Word when the time comes. Real blessing would be having the Word spread and the Church grow like wildfire. Real blessing hinges on Christ and His work for us on the cross.
Unfortunately for the fat, happy, prosperous lot of Westerners, the first kind of "blessing" and the second (read: real) blessing don't seem to go hand in hand. When we live in peace, when we have freedom to worship, when we have enough material blessings to not worry about tomorrow, we generally don't care a rip about God (or if we care about God, we can easily describe him apart from Christ). But when circumstances are tough and downright dangerous for the Church, things start to get really interesting. That's when God's work is accomplished for real (John 6:28-9).
I know there isn't a single new insight in this post. I could tell you that about anything and everything that happens under the sun (see Eccl. 1:9). The point is that I think I finally figured out what it means to pray that God will bless. Praying for God to bless the Church the way that God wants to bless the Church (i.e. growing her up and making for Himself a faithful people) is to ask something very hard. There is nothing bland about truly praying for blessing. To pray for blessing must be to pray that God will do what it takes to grow the number who will enter His kingdom. It seems from today's headlines, and a brief glance at Church history, that for Him to really bless the Church, the Church will necessarily experience difficulty and suffering.
I therefore resolve not to pray bland prayers for general "blessing and niceness" to occur to people. I resolve not to pray for blessing that doesn't require Jesus Christ dead on the cross. I resolve to pray that God will do what it takes, regardless of the discomfort, regardless of the tears, regardless of the opinion of sinful man.
Lord, grow your Church! You did the most unfathomable thing to save us, so rescue Your people, whatever it takes! Keep us captive to Your Word. Come back soon. Amen