I don’t know why I thought I’d be able to mediate the heated dispute between two neighbors on the jogging trail that day. Blessed are the peacemakers, I guess?
Whatever my intentions, the intervention failed miserably. Some situations can’t be defused by even a well-intended bystander, and it’s folly to try.
Simmering with anger, anxiety and frustration — feelings my long runs are supposed to eliminate, not exacerbate — I finally turned to go. But first:
“Blessings on your day!” I shakily bleated out.
Why did I say it? Perhaps I said it because I was feeling absolutely desperate to salvage some shred of peace and dignity from the ugly exchange. Perhaps I said it because I was thinking curses and wanted to do and say something out loud in defiance of that sinful urging. Perhaps I said it because, despite the awful encounter, I wished (or, at least, wanted to wish) good things and not bad for my contentious neighbor — a woman I had never met before and haven’t seen since. Perhaps I said it because it’s just something I say.
I can’t be sure why I said it. I can be sure of how she heard it. Her reaction was palpable, almost physical; her response memorable.
“Oh, I’m not a God person. You can take that back. I don’t want it.”
What sane and decent person would reject a word of blessing?
Before this graceless encounter, I had never thought of “blessing” as a particularly partisan or inflammatory word. I recognized some religious overtones, but not heavy ones, and not exclusively Christian ones, either. Jews give blessings. So do Buddhists.
In common American spiritual parlance, the word “bless” is so ubiquitous as to be practically meaningless. We say “bless you!” when someone sneezes and carelessly bandy about “bless your heart” in both sincere and sometimes heavily ironic contexts. We “ask a quick blessing” before meals. We buy tumblers and T-shirts that declare us “too blessed to be stressed,” and clutter up Instagram with photos depicting our #blessed lives (over 136 million posts as of this writing). Thanks to thoughtless overuse, this humble little word has become about as stale and trite as the “thoughts and prayers” we promise after major tragedies: something people say, just because, without any deep thought or true intention.
Or perhaps I should qualify: It’s something some people say, just because. Speaking anecdotally: I hear churchgoers say it more than non-churchgoers. “Spiritual” people use it more than unspiritual people. Women more than men. Red states more than blue states. Evangelicals more than mainline Protestants. On the other end of the ideological spectrum: People who practice yoga seem to me a fair bit more likely to say it than people who don’t.
So (still speaking anecdotally) if you are a Red-state, church-going Evangelical woman who considers herself spiritual and maybe practices a little yoga on the side, you may use the word a lot. If you are not that kind of person, you are a lot less likely to use it.
If, as I found out on the trail that day, you harbor feelings of deep resentment toward that kind of person, you may find the word irritating, passive-aggressive or even viscerally repulsive. (Anecdotally, of course.)
A good and sacred word
Maybe, though, my neighbor was right to be repulsed. Just because a word has been overused and decontextualized to the point of triteness doesn’t stop it meaning what it means.
But what does it really mean to bless someone? To be blessed?
From Wikipedia, I learn that the word “bless” is derived from the Old English word blǣdsian — marked with blood — which described something or someone “made sacred or holy by blood sacrifice,” as practiced in the Germanic paganism of the Anglo-Saxon period. It’s a sacred word, intimately connected to religious rituals and the divine favor those rituals are intended to curry.
I learn, too, that the concept of blessing is present not just in those old pagan traditions but in all five major world religions today: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Speaking more specifically in the context of the three Abrahamic traditions, I learn that “‘to be blessed’ means to be favored by God, the source of all blessing.”
But I want to know more.
As I go deeper, I learn that, in Scripture, there are two words most often translated from the Greek as “bless,” “blessing” or “blessed.”
One, eulogia (εὐλογέω), literally means “a good word.” This is the word we most often see translated as the verb “bless.” To bless someone is to speak well of them, to pray for them, to ask favor for them and (insofar as you have the means and authority to do so) to bestow favor upon them. It is the opposite of cursing.
To bless someone, simply put, is to speak words that invoke a state of blessedness in a person’s life.
But what does such a state of blessedness look like?
This is where the other word, the adjective, makarios (μακάριος) — “blessed” — comes in.
Ancient Greeks used this word to describe the state of “transcendent happiness of a life beyond care, labour and death,” applying it especially to those “who have attained to the supraterrestrial life of the gods.”
To the old pagans it meant happiness, but also virtue and good fortune — two ideas that were closely wedded in Greek culture, since fortune was understood not merely as a random and inanimate force but as a gift of the gods to those who pleased them. It was a heavenly happiness.
In the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, makarios takes on more nuanced shades of theological meaning. Here all blessing (eulogia) involves the explicit acknowledgment that “God is the Giver of all blessedness.” To be blessed is to enjoy fullness of life that includes earthly happiness, but not as a result of one’s own effort or success. Blessedness is always God’s gift.
More than this, blessedness is a kind of happiness that endures beyond suffering, a special kind of joy that comes from having a right standing before God. That man is blessed who “walks not in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalm 1:1), “against whom the Lord counts no iniquity” (Psalm 32:2), “who makes the Lord his trust” (Psalm 40:4). Such a man can declare with a glad and thankful heart, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8).
Happy for the right reasons
In the New Testament, the eschatological implications of makarios are fully on display. When uttered by Christ and His apostles, this word “refers overwhelmingly to the distinctive religious joy which accrues to man from his share in the salvation of the kingdom of God.” Whereas Jewish theologians in the Septuagint often used the word to describe earthly gifts from a divine giver, in the New Testament both Giver and gifts are divine: “all secular goods and values are now completely subsidiary to the one supreme good.”
Consider again the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes (literally, the “Blesseds”):
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.(Matt. 5:3–11)
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 satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive 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.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
There’s a lot of happiness in these promises, but it’s not the kind you can put in the bank, and you may have to wait a long while to see it fully manifest.
“Blessed,” in New Testament context, refers to one kind of happiness above all: the perfect and everlasting joy of life in Christ.
To be “blessed,” then, is not just to be happy. It is to be happy for all the right reasons — to be happy in and because of Christ.
To bless and not curse
Maybe when my irate neighbor rejected the word of blessing I so awkwardly offered her, she was simply venting her annoyance at yet another sanctimonious goody-two-shoes trying to score points in an argument with a trite and vaguely condescending expression. It’s certainly possible.
I suspect, though, that in that moment, she was actually taking my words more seriously — and more honestly — than I was myself.
I blurted them out knowing only that I wanted to bless and not curse. I hoped to close a painful moment with a positive word and to make sure she knew that, despite our kerfuffle, I wished only good things for her and not bad.
Isn’t this what most people hear and think and mean when they speak of blessing and being blessed? Good health and harmonious relationships? A comfortable home, a satisfying job, professional success, money in the bank? Aren’t these all blessings? Aren’t we blessed when we possess them?
My neighbor wisely understood, however, that the word I chose means more than that. “I’m not a God person,” she said. She recognized, even if I didn’t fully in that moment, that I wanted more for her than just the usual litany of earthly “blessings.” I wanted her to know the peace of being made righteous before God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I wanted her to experience the eternal love and joy that can only come from participating fully in His life.
In short, I wanted her to be happy for all the right reasons.
She didn’t want any of that — not then, and probably not now.
I hope she will change her mind someday, but I have no reason to expect it. Though I’m saddened by her decision, I do respect it.
I’m chastened, too. I will speak words of blessing more carefully and intentionally in the future.
A priestly blessing
The word “bless” is a deep word. A powerful word. We use it lightly or flippantly at our peril. When we say it, we ought to mean it — fully.
So when I tell you I’m blessed, I really mean that God has created, redeemed and sanctified me by the blood of Christ; that He has graciously brought me to saving faith by the power of His Spirit; that He is generously filling my life with good things, now and forever.
And when I say, “God bless,” what I really mean is that I want nothing less than all of this for you.
I have prayed for my neighbor since that painful episode, asking forgiveness for my part in our conflict and expanding on the prayer I unwittingly began in her presence. Now, as I relive the story in my mind, I’m praying again, this time in the familiar words of the priestly blessing I look forward to receiving at the end of every Divine Service:
The Lord bless [her] and keep [her].(LSB, p. 202)
The Lord make His face shine upon [her] and be gracious unto [her].
The Lord lift up His countenance upon [her] and give [her] peace.
Blessings on your day, friends. I really mean that.
 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 407–409.
 Friedrich Hauck and Georg Bertram, “Μακάριος, Μακαρίζω, Μακαρισμός,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 362–70. Hereafter, TDNT.
 TDNT, 362–70.
 TDNT, 362–70.
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