Considering the popularity of this phrase, I’m pretty sure it would be impossible for any of us to count how many times we’ve heard it. We might as well try to remember how many times we’ve heard someone tell us “Thank you.”
“God bless you” is the mother of all church phrases. It even surpasses the epic chant, “God is good… all the time! And all the time…”
Shout out to everyone who just finished the chant in their head.
Of all things, “God bless you” is even the culturally acceptable response to sneezes. From what I read, it was originally said to keep someone from coming down with the plague. But to this day, some of us will still say it automatically like giant parrots after every single sneeze—whether it’s the first or the twelfth. It’s kind of rude not to say it in our culture. That even goes for the complete stranger who just happens to sneeze while standing next to you in the (let’s hope not the produce) aisle of the grocery store.
Whether they come from grandparents, pastors, or strangers, those three little words rarely startle or throw anyone off-guard anymore—including people who think God is a complete hoax. For many (not all), “God bless you” has become the go-to phrase when they don’t really know what else to say.
After church, many pastors stand at the door and say it machine-gun style to each member of their flock as they head out in flamboyant hats for the holiest lunch of the week. It’s the password that tells everyone else that you belong to the “church” club.
But are we really using this phrase correctly?
Judging by the context of probably 95 percent of the times I hear this phrase, it means little more than “I wish you well.” It’s spoken like a gift for the person who is momentarily in front of us—like a handful of M&MS before they go on about their business.
“God bless you” is the one phrase you can say to encompass dozens of others, including but not limited to:
- “I feel bad for you”
- “Hope you have a safe trip”
- “Hope you get well soon”
- “Hope you make lots of money”
- “Hope you find happiness”
- “May your life be awesome (without me in it)”
- “May a natural disaster never destroy your home”
This list goes on and on. But can you spot the word these all have in common?
These uses of “God bless you” each put all of the emphasis on the “you” part and hardly any on the “God” part. These are said simply with a heart for wanting the best for a friend, or to call down comforts, favors and mercies on someone. The personal tokens of favor are said this way to subtly declare our belief in God. But the motivation really has nothing to do with God—which then begs the question: is what we’re so casually wishing for someone really a blessing?
Let’s pause here for a moment. There’s a crucial piece of theology we need understand and make a connection with that will help us see where we’re missing the boat on this phrase.
We should all know that the Greatest Commandment is to love God with our entire lives. It’s the law that all Christianity is built upon, yet it is also the law commonly forgotten and ignored as soon as the world makes it inconvenient. The world compels us by fear to try and take control of what our future might hold. The world wants us to focus on our own destiny, setting up wealth for ourselves, and finding a whimsical feeling of happiness. We’re told that we deserve these things at virtually any cost. According to the world, our entire life’s purpose is rightfully driven by what we can achieve for ourselves.
But Jesus said something different (surprise, surprise). In Matthew 6, just after addressing the stress and pressures of the world, Jesus says something profound: Seek first God’s kingdom and everything else you need will be given to you.
This is probably more profound than many of us want to admit. We don’t like the idea of releasing the control that we think we have over everything so that we can run after a God who is altogether mysterious and honestly pretty terrifying at times. But what Jesus is helping us to understand is that this perfect, infinite, and mysterious God is the Source of everything else we have been hoping to find. He wrote the manual for healthy marriage. He made the rulebook for a successful career. He came up with the values that we want our kids to have.
Jesus is helping us to understand that it makes more sense to quit trying to force these created things into our lives on our own terms without God, and instead to go after the Source. He says that if we pursue God, we naturally get what God has created. He says that everything else falls into place when God is placed in proper priority and dominion over them.
Okay, un-pause. We see now that the single purpose of our lives is to love God. And we see that the blessings we all want our lives to be filled with are really byproducts of pursuing that first purpose. Always has been; always will be. Therefore, what we ask God for and what we speak over other people out of faith should match the Greatest Commandment.
That marriage blessing you want naturally occurs when God is in control of your marriage and is the very purpose of your marriage. That blessing you asked for over your vacation happens when you see the entire trip as just another opportunity to serve God.
Yes, the world is still horrible and ridiculous at times, but that’s what makes it a mission field. It’s what God uses to help us understand how good His ways are over our own. God intentionally left us with just enough power for us to see that we shouldn’t trust ourselves over Him. Selfish people still find favor from the world, but can we honestly say that something of the world is “good” if it doesn’t lead to eternal life with God once we leave? A true blessing is something that is used to lead ourselves and others closer to God. Honoring Him is what matters.
If the blessings we hope for are byproducts of pursuing God first, then God’s motivation for giving us these blessings isn’t about us. It’s the same coin, different side. God voluntarily loves us in truly amazing ways. Jesus on the cross is the single greatest example. Our beating hearts are ongoing reminders of His grace for us. We don’t deserve the life that rushes through our veins. But all the blessings God brings us in this world—blessings of provision, safety, and happiness—are for the purpose of God being blessed Himself through those gifts.
He does not live for us. We live for Him.
This is critical to understand. Blessings are given from God, through God, and to God. If He is our Perfect Creator, then everything beautiful, victorious, adventurous, dangerous, and even every painful trial is from Him, through Him, and to Him. That’s straight from Romans 11:36.
So the next time those familiar words start to roll off our tongues, let’s remember what the purpose of the blessing really is. I’ll admit that I don’t want my house to be destroyed by a natural disaster, either. But if it is, I’m still going to trust God’s purpose in allowing that to happen. And I’m going to trust that my life is still blessed.
What we should really mean when we say “God bless _____” – whether it’s a marriage, a job, a person, or whatever else—is to be asking God to use that thing in a way that makes it another beautiful item of worship for Him.
It’s for His sake. Not ours. According to Jesus, that’s the whole point.