What Christians Mean When They Bless You

Christians toss out blessings like beads at Mardi Gras. They get offered so often and in so many contexts that it’s hard to know what exactly it means. So I thought I’d break down at least some of the kinds of blessings floating around out there.

The Post-Sneeze Blessing: This is a weird one, because we don’t bless people for coughing, yawning or any other bodily function. So why sneezing? No one is exactly sure, though some believe it dates back to Pope Gregory in the early first Century AD when the bubonic plague was everywhere in Europe. As the plague got closer to Rome, myth has it that the Pope ordered perpetual blessings around the city. So when someone sneezed, offering them a blessing was like a small insurance policy against the plague.

I actually heard a different one growing up that I liked better. There was an old superstition that sneezes were a means the body used to expel evil spirits from within. So once the bad mojo was on the outside, it was incumbent upon others to bless the sneezer, in an effort to keep them from sucking the demons or whatever back in.

The Backhanded Blessing: I grew up in Texas, and this was a real favorite in the south. It was generally offered in someone’s absence, and immediately following some kind of gossip or insult. An example might be, “Poor Mabel Jean’s husband has slept with everyone in town except for her, bless her heart.” Apparently the blessing neutralizes the damage of the bad stuff.

The Quid Pro Quo Blessing: This one is popular with the Television evangelists, but it has a much richer history than that. These days, it’s not uncommon for a preacher on the boob tube to offer a specially blessed prayer cloth or some other trinket, as if they have some special powers that are unlocked only by Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Franklin. The Catholic Church offered indulgences, which absolved the offending party of particular sins, which were meted out by the priest. In theory, this was done following some kind of penance of works or prayer, but money was known to change hands in the process on occasion too. Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, wasn’t a fan of this practice, as it placed too much power in the hands of the church.

The Empowerment Blessing: Sometimes when a person or group is embarking on a difficult task, their faith community will offer them a blessing to encourage them on their journey. It’s a way of acknowledging the challenges ahead, while also offering assurance that those offering the blessing will (in theory, at least) be with you in prayer, if not physically or financially. From graduations and ministerial ordinations to weddings and mission trips, these are common ceremonial blessings in Christianity.

The Vending Machine Blessing: This type of blessing, often employed in a prayer, commonly includes the words, “Lord, bless me/us with…” The oft-cited scripture for this sort of on-demand faith is in Matthew 7:7, which says “Ask and it shall be given; seek and you shall find.” Though I’m not sure the author of that text had new cars, promotions or an XBox 360 in mind when considering what “it” might be.

The Affirmation Blessing: This one is kind of unique in the pantheon of Christian blessings. Rather than asking for a particular blessing for someone, we acknowledge the value or even divinity in the other by affirming that they, themselves are a blessing.

It’s an easy thing to dole out blessings without much thought behind them, because most folks don’t find blessings offensive. But, like with the other Christian Cliches I’ve written about before, the Gospel According to Horton is always the best policy:

Mean what you say; say what you mean.

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About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Carriepayne44

    Stupid fucking athiest, find something else to right about.

    • Christian Piatt

      Spell check.

      • Nan Bush

        She couldn’t help it, bless her heart.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1077510123 Wes Shank

        Seriously, Christian – you’re going to pop someone for spell check? :)

    • William “Scott” Pryor

      Did you know that the term “atheist” and “pagan” was first coined by polytheists and was a pejorative directed towards Christians because they only believed in one God! Outside of the bible, I doubt if you’re well read…and your astute comment shows it!

  • Caravelle

    No one is exactly sure, though some believe it dates back to Pope Gregory
    in the early first Century AD when the bubonic plague was everywhere in
    Europe. As the plague got closer to Rome, myth has it that the Pope
    ordered perpetual blessings around the city. So when someone sneezed,
    offering them a blassing was like a small insurance policy against the
    plague.

    An English saying that has equivalents in several other European languages that have different literal meanings (something about wishes in French, about health in German) would have originated, in its English form, from a specific event that happened in Italy in the first century AD ? That’s not coming across as apocryphal at all ?
    (and some googling reveals that the Italian equivalent is close to the German, so you couldn’t even argue for a direct Italian->English line)
    Also, according to Wikipedia sneezing doesn’t seem to be a significant symptom of the plague. Unlike coughing for example.

    Honestly that saying is so widespread I’m not sure you could even trace it back to a superstition more specific than the obvious association between sneezes and disease and good-luck charms to ward off the latter.
    (as for why you wouldn’t have that with coughing – no idea, but it occurs to me that coughing is something you usually do when you’re already sick, whereas sneezing can hint at illness but not necessarily – that uncertainty might make it a better target for superstition)

  • Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry

    I know the “Backhanded Blessing” very well as I too grew up with this in North Carolina but I always saw it as a “backhanded absolution” for the person who proceeds with a litany of  criticisms about someone. I also describe it as “the Southern General Absolution”! You can about take it to the bank, no wait not a bank , to the Credit Union if “the Southern Absolution” is used at the beginning of the pontification that someone is about to be run down but good! But there is a kinder and gentler aspect to it and that is good.

  • Bbragg4369

    Funny. You left out the African American “Have a blessed day….” blessing. There’s a type “blassing” in the first paragraph.

  • Chuckles

    Just for fun I’m going to start blessing people when they fart.

  • Mitchel McGowan

    So blessings to you(the author of the article) is obviously some sort of joke. To true christians, blessings can be gifts from God, not just cliche remarks made cheap by someone who overuses or misuses what a blessing truly is. Why not write about something you’re more knowledgeable in rather than making an article that would pass as national enquirer “grade A” material.

  • Johnw

    i take caution with whom i bless. Eli was forced into retirement because he blessed Samuel’s mother. i am the 99% i’m not ready for retirement…


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