Lots of dear friends have been asking me what my biggest takeaways are from my time in Africa. In response, I feel lost for words, only able to come up with, “It just felt so..well…normal, and such an honor to be there.”
My fifteen year old self would have come away saying something like, “After seeing people with so little, I realized how blessed I truly am.” But this time, I thought back to the people I met who were rich in love, who knew how to laugh at themselves and stand tall with dignity, who were creative and kind and resourceful, and I just thought, “I wish you could meet them too.”
I realized how blessed I truly am. We usually say this in regards to material things–abundance of nutritious food, running water, clothing, nice homes, smartphones…and I think it’s certainly a way of trying to cope with the huge disparity between our lives back home and the places we went to serve. But calling these material things “blessings” implies that they are gifts that God chose to give us and yet withheld from so many of our brothers and sisters across the globe. Which doesn’t sit well with me.
Are we fortunate to live in a country where the tap water is safe to drink and the majority of its citizens have adequate food and shelter? You could say so. These are basic human needs that everyone deserves. We should care deeply about the sufferings of those around the world who do not have access to them. I am not advocate for split-thinking theology where we prioritize the spiritual at the expense of the physical. Indeed, we should be willing to sacrifice our own comfort in order to help others access these needs and live a flourishing life.
But I think a huge part of what we see as “blessings” is determined by our view of what the goal of life is. If we see the goal of life to be comfortable and happy, then material comforts are certainly blessings. But what if life is about knowing God and becoming more like Christ? Then, just maybe, a lot of these material “blessings” actually can become a hindrance by allowing us to be too comfortable and self-satisfied. Could it be that living in a world where you literally have to depend on God in daily ways could also, in certain ways, be a blessing?
I realize that as someone who has never run out of options to feed my family, there are ways I can never truly answer that question. But I still don’t know if the word “blessing” applies here; I think the better fit is “privilege.”
Blessing vs. Privilege
Often we use the word blessing when maybe we should use the word privilege. A privilege is something that is given to me simply because of where I was born, what color my skin is, or the family I was raised in. For example, I went to college not just because I had good enough grades to get a scholarship, but because I was born into a certain kind of middle-class privilege and opportunity. I have clean, reliable drinking water because I was born in an area where it is plentiful, not because of God’s favor.
(The thing about privilege, is that by very definition it contains exclusion. The inherit dignity of every human being, made in the image of God, means every human being deserves quality healthcare. But only the rich may receive that privilege.)
I think the reason this matters is that so much of our wealth in the United States was not given to us as a blessing from God–it was taken from others with brutality and cruelty. It is now a privilege that many of us are born into, but to call it a blessing from God is to ignore the hundreds of thousands of lives that were (and still are) murdered or exploited all in the name of profit.
Would God truly bless me with food that was picked by migrant farm workers who were cheated out of a fair pay, or harvested by child slaves? Would He bless me with clothes who were made at the hands of women harassed and abused by their managers? Would He bless me with an expensive education that was simply a pipe dream for a child growing up in poverty?
I know I’m walking on tremulous ground here, because there is so much room for grey areas when it has to do with the mysterious working of God in our lives. However, I think it is possible to have gratitude for our lives while keeping in mind that the greatest blessings are whatever forms us more into God’s image.
In the old covenant God blessed Abraham with wealth and children; He blessed the people of Israel with abundant crops and peace at their borders when they obeyed Him through the Law. But in the new covenant, God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). Jesus tells us that blessed are the poor, the the meek, those who mourn and hunger. In this upside-down kingdom, hope can sprout from sorrow and in some mysterious way, death can be the preparing for a new kind of life.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad,because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:11-12
Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” Revelation 19:9