Jewish blessings affirm that God is blessed. Our benedictions address God directly—“Blessed are You . . .” Who are we to so address God? Maybe the psalmist was right: “To You silence is praise . . .” (65:2). But sometimes when we behold the truly wondrous we can’t remain silent. We utter a word, maybe just an exclamation. Blessings highlight the extraordinary within the ordinary. At rare moments we feel overwhelmed by the bounty bestowed upon us. More often we take our good fortune for granted or assume that we deserve it. Blessings instruct us in gratitude; they point to the ultimate Source of All.
Blessing is a form of mindfulness, an acknowledgment of God’s presence in all of creation. It is a response to the holy “hiding” in the ordinary. Someone sneezes. “God bless you,” another responds. The desire to bless and be blessed lies deep within us. It is at once a response to the precariousness of our existence, and recognition of the Divine elusively present in our midst.
Christians inherited the tradition of blessing from biblical Israel, though with variant formulations. Jesus frames the values of God’s reign through a series of “blessed are” known as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-11 and Luke 6:17, 20-23). For example, in Luke’s version, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
At the Last Supper, Jesus blesses bread and wine—a tradition Christians continue in the Eucharist.
God is blessed. Al Quddus (Holy and Blessed) is one of His names. We invoke His blessed name to be blessed ourselves. Muslims worship and supplications begin and end by invoking different names of God. Muslims worship God five times a day. At the end of each worship we thank Him for His blessings. Muslims invoke God’s blessing when we eat or drink; sleep or wake up; drive or travel; enter home or leave home; enter or leave a place of worship; witness suffering, sickness or a calamity; witness health, beauty, light of the day, new moon, new season or any other activity. Friday is a Muslim’s thanksgiving day. The Qur’an speaks of God’s creating the heavens and earth in six days, just as the Bible does. Friday is the blessed day because God completed creation and trusted people to act as His vicegerents and custodians on earth. The Muslims are commanded to worship God in a congregation on Friday noon, celebrating and thanking Him for all the blessings bestowed on humanity.
Blessings help us maintain a sense of perspective — that we are neither as great nor as small as we sometimes feel. We can learn a lot from the biblical passage that provides the basis for reciting the Blessing after Meals (Grace).* The Israelites are about to enter a bounteous “land with streams and springs . . . wheat, barley, vines, figs, and pomegranates . . . olive trees and honey . . . When you eat, and are satisfied, you are to thank Adonai your God . . . (Deuteronomy 8:8-10). The Bible continues with a warning. “. . . [B]eware lest your heart become haughty and you forget the Lord your God — who took you out from the land of Egypt . . . and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’” This will surely bring destruction. In the story of the Exodus, Pharaoh acts as if he were God; he and his country pay the ruinous price. According to the prophet Ezekiel, Pharaoh says, “My Nile is my own. I made it for myself” (Ezekiel 29:3).* When we forget our limits, when we act as if we were God, heaven help us! But blessings also remind us that we are not worthless creatures as we sometimes see ourselves. A Hasidic teaching puts it this way:* “Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other according to his needs. In his right pocket should be the words, ‘For my sake the world was created’ (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) and in his left: ‘I am earth and ashes’” (Genesis 18:27). Pausing to recite a blessing not only gives voice to gratitude, but helps keep our ego the right size, not too big, but not too small either.
Blessing “accomplishes” nothing measurable. It is, however, a means of opening our eyes, of hallowing our everyday activities, and of expanding our consciousness. “All our salvation,” wrote the late monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton, “begins on the level of common and natural and ordinary things.”*
On some occasions, a blessing comes as a challenge, such as the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the community at Rome: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14).
We bless God, in awe at the beauty of creation. In the memorable line of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
We bless God, mindful of the gifts we are given. We pray before meals, “Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts, which we have received through your bounty through Christ our Lord.”
We bless God, conscious of our frailty. In the words attributed to an anonymous fisherman of Brittany: “Dear God, be good to me; the sea is so wide, and my boat is so small.”
Catholic Christians have a tradition of blessing both people and things, from the sick to homes to animals to vineyards. Upon entering a church, we bless ourselves with “holy” water—water that has been ritually blessed—as a remind of our Baptism. In the Eucharist (or Mass), we ask God’s blessing on bread and wine, which come to our table both because of divine goodness and human effort:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received
the bread we offer you:
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life.
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received
the wine we offer you:
fruit of the vine and work of human hands,
it will become our spiritual drink.
Blessing God invokes a sense of humility with gratefulness. Egoism and arrogance is a curse. God cursed Iblis (the Satan, also called Shaytaan) because of his arrogance. God raised him to a high spiritual state where he joined the ranks of angels (The Bible described him as a fallen angel.) but he refused obedience with arrogance. Blessing God reminds us to be humble before Him and His humanity as well. The Qur’an speaks of the story of Pharaoh and Moses. Pharaoh is a sign of arrogance, denial and tyranny. Moses is a sign of humbleness, obedience and submission to God. At the end of the story, Moses and the Israelites are blessed and Pharaoh and his people are drowned (2:49-50, 3:11, 7:104-106 and in many other places).
Blessing God reminds us to be thankful for all that God has given us. The Qur’an says: “ THE MOST GRACIOUS has imparted this Qur’an [unto man]. He has created man. He has imparted unto him articulate thought and speech. [At His behest] the sun and the moon run their appointed courses; [before Him] prostrate themselves the stars and the trees. And the skies has He raised high, and has devised [for all things] a measure, so that you [too, O men,] might never transgress the measure [of what is right]; weigh, therefore, [your deeds] with equity, and cut not the measure short! And the earth has He spread out for all living beings, with fruit thereon, and palm trees with sheathed clusters [of dates], and grain growing tall on its stalks, and sweet-smelling plants. Which, then, of your Sustainer’s powers can you disavow? (55:1-13). The Qur’an says in another place: “If ye would count up the favors of Allah, never would ye be able to number them: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (16:18).
Blessing God reminds that we are trustees of God, and all that is on the earth and beyond is a trust of God into our hands. It is our duty to protect the earth, its resources and environment from any misuse and abuse. Any violation of the trust may revoke the blessing. As the Qur’an says: “ART THOU NOT aware that God has created the heavens and the earth in accordance with [an inner] truth? He can, if He so wills, do away with you and bring forth a new mankind [in your stead]” (14:19).
Blessing of God is a confession that we as people are dependent on God’s mercy and blessing. When we invoke His blessing we expect His blessing to increase. The relationship between God and humanity can be described as a relationship between parent and child. When sons or daughters approach their parents, they often begin by praising the parents for all they have done for them. The parents in return shower their mercy upon their son or daughter, then ask the child to tell them what more they can do. The Qur’an says that God says to humanity: “So remember Me, and I shall remember you; and be grateful unto Me, and deny Me not” (2:152). The Qur’an says that God says, “If you are grateful to Me, I will add more favors upon you”(14:7).
Blessing of God also reminds us to be good to those who are not good toward us. It may be a challenge at times, but it is praiseworthy in the sight of God. Many times we disobey God and we break His commandments, but He forgives and continues to bless us. The Qur’an says: “Nor can goodness and Evil be equal. Repel [Evil] with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!” (41:34). The Qur’an tells the story of Abu Bakr, one of whose poor relatives had accused Aisha (Abu Bakr’s daughter and the wife of the Prophet) of adultery. Abu Bakr stopped his assistance to the poor relative in revenge. The Qur’an addressed Abu Bakr, admonishing him: “Hence, [even if they have been wronged by slander,] let not those of you who have been graced with God’s favour and ease of life ever become remiss in helping [the erring ones among] their near of kin, and the needy, and those who have forsaken the domain of evil for the sake of God, but let them pardon and forbear. [For,] do you not desire that God should forgive you your sins, seeing that God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace?” (24:22).
Jewish liturgy repeatedly refers to God as melech ha’olam, “Sovereign” or “king of the universe,” and the story of the Exodus affirms the image of an activist God who saves the downtrodden and punishes the oppressor. Later we’ll have occasion to more fully explore God’s role in history, but for now it’s worth noting that the Bible itself struggles with this very question. The Book of Deuteronomy tries to explain the apparent absence of divine intervention by asserting that Israel’s sins bring about a hiding of God’s face, which allows evil to flourish (31:16-17). This hardly satisfied Job. “The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; He covers the eyes of its judges, if it is not He, then who? . . . I insist on arguing with God” (Job 9:24 and 13:3). Many of the psalms also angrily chide God for failing to exercise sovereignty: “Why Lord, do You stand aloof, heedless in times of trouble . . . The wicked . . . think God is not mindful, He hides His face, He never looks . . .” (Psalms 10:1-11). The rabbis of the Talmud were no less honest. One tale recounts why certain biblical texts ascribed to Jeremiah and Daniel fail to refer to God precisely as Moses had, as “mighty and awesome” (Deuteronomy 10:17). The explanation? Because in the days of Jeremiah enemies destroyed God’s Temple, so where’s the awesomeness? Because in Daniel’s day enemies enslaved God’s people, so where’s the might? Still, how did Jeremiah and Daniel dare to abolish something written by Moses? “They knew,” says the Talmud, “that God insists on truth and they would not ascribe false things to God!”The Aleynu, a prayer recited three times daily, refers to God as “our Sovereign,” but concludes that, “we hope in You . . . that we may soon behold Your might . . .” Paradoxically, we both assert God’s sovereignty and pray for — and work to bring — the day when it will truly become manifest.
To speak of God as “sovereign” of the universe is at once an act of faith and an expression of longing for divine mercy and justice to be manifest in our broken world. We voice our faith that the incomprehensible God cares for all creation. We cry out, mindful of the violence, chaos, and finitude of the human condition.
Clearly, God is not sovereign in the conventional sense of the term. God does not eradicate evil. Suffering abounds. How the infinite goodness of God can allow so much suffering remains a major enigma for religious persons. Job’s question has never been adequately answered.
While many Christians have thought of God as omnipotent, and thus incapable of suffering, others suggest that God is affected by our suffering; God is with us in our suffering. As theologian John Merkle writes, “If we stop thinking of omnipotence as an attribute of the divine, we will be free to appreciate as never before that the true mark of divinity—what makes God divine and thus worthy of our worship—is not absolute power and control, but infinite compassion, unending love.”*
God in the Qur’an is Al Malik al Mulk (Sovereign of the sovereign). Al Mulk (the Sovereign) is one of His attributes in the Qur’an. His Throne extends over heavens and earth and He controls everything. In the famous Qur’anic verse called Aayatul Kursi, the Qur’an described God: “there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being. Neither slumber overtakes Him, nor sleep. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth. Who is there that could intercede with Him, unless it be by His leave? He knows all that lies open before men and all that is hidden from them, whereas they cannot attain to aught of His knowledge save that which He wills [them to attain]. His eternal power overspreads the heavens and the earth, and their upholding wearies Him not. And he alone is truly exalted, tremendous” (2:255). Describing God as the Sovereign, the Qur’an says: “SAY: ‘O God, Lord of all dominion! Thou grantest dominion unto whom Thou willest, and takest away dominion from whom Thou willest; and Thou exaltest whom Thou willest, and abasest whom Thou willest. In Thy hand is all good. Verily, Thou hast the power to will anything’” (3:26).
But why does God humiliate some and destroy others? Why He makes some suffer and others prosper is a fundamental question raised in many religions. The Qur’an asks the people to take responsibility for all that happens to them. “Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of the things your hands have wrought, and for many [of them] He grants forgiveness” (42:30). The Qur’an says: “Allah created the heavens and the earth for just ends, and in order that each soul may find the recompense of what it has earned and none of them be wronged” (45:22). God multiplies good deeds with His grace, but wrong deeds receive only what they deserve – and because God is merciful and forgiving, many times these bad deeds are overlooked and forgiven. The Qur’an says: “Whoever shall come [before God] with a good deed will gain 10 times the like thereof; but whoever shall come with an evil deed will be requited with no more than the like thereof; and none shall be wronged” (6:160). The good is even multiplied up to 700 times or even more with His Grace. The Qur’an says: “The parable of those who spend their possessions for the sake of God is that of a grain out of which grow seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains: for God grants manifold increase unto whom He wills; and God is infinite, all-knowing” (2:261).
When suffering and calamities happen, why does God, the Sovereign, not stop them? The Qur’an would say so that people take the responsibility and also turn back to Him. “Mischief has appeared on land and sea because of [the deed] that the hands of men have earned, that [Allah] may give them a taste of some of their deeds: in order that they may turn back [from Evil]” (30:41). But suffering is not always caused by wrong deeds; it may be a test of faith from God as it was in the case of Prophet Job. Or it may be to reward them with something greater as it was in the case of Khidr [the Green one] and Moses, where Khidr kills a child. Answering Moses’ objection to the killing, Khidr said, “God will compensate the parents with a better one” (18:74-80). There is a story of a pious man in Muslim tradition. Whenever any one would complain to him of a suffering, he would say: “Be pleased there is good (al Khair) in it.” There was a man who intended to injure the pious man when he came out of his home. While the man was waiting outside, the pious man fell down inside his home, injured his knee and did not come out. The man went inside the house and found the pious man suffering. When his potential assailant asked about the injury, the pious man said: “There must be good in it.” Then the other man told him of his bad intentions and confessed that whatever God does is always good for humanity but many times we do not realize it.