I had a really good day yesterday. A few things I’d been hoping for creatively and personally came through all at once. Meanwhile, the death toll in my city continues to rise. Unemployment continues to rise. A good friend is struggling with disruptions to her wedding day. All of this leaves me with complicated feelings. On one hand, I want to express gratitude to God. On the other, I cannot accept the idea that God chose me specifically to bless with privilege while not blessing others.
Why does this happen and what is God doing?
Having Privilege is Not the Same as Being Blessed
There is a great deal of confusion around what constitutes a blessing from God. Growing up, everything was a blessing. The food we eat, the roof over our head, our education, our family: all blessings. Online, #blessed appears next to images of healthy, smiling children, beautiful houses, and luxurious vacations. To be clear, all of these things do come from God because everything good in this world comes from God. But they are not signifiers of holiness. (To claim they are is to fall victim to the heretical Prosperity Gospel, which claims that good things come to good people.) We can and should express gratitude for material gifts, but blessings are something else entirely.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a blessing is a form of sacramental, or something that will “prepare us to receive the grace of the sacraments and help us to grow to be more like Christ.” When a priest lays his hands on a person or object, this is a blessing. When we pray for others we are blessing them. When God sheds grace on us through the sacraments, we receive a blessing. Your house is not a blessing. Your job is not a blessing. These things are gifts and often privileges. They can be taken from you without any negative repercussions to your soul.
If You Wish to Be Perfect, Go Sell What You HaveThe concept of divesting oneself of privilege is often considered progressive, even radical. In case you’re not familiar, the general concept is that some privileges, such as those that come along with race and gender, are wrong in and of themselves. Equality, then, is not just a matter of bringing everyone up to the same level of advantage, but in fact requiring certain people to put aside their advantages.
In the Gospel of Matthew, when the rich man approaches Jesus, and asks what he must do to enter into Heaven, Jesus first checks to make sure that he’s keeping all the commandments. He is. The rich man is also a good man, it turns out. He is a good man who also has many things. But these things are not blessings. Jesus says:
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21
Jesus asks the rich man to divest himself of his privilege entirely if he aspires to spiritual perfection. The rich man, it turns out, is not ready. The Gospel makes a point to emphasis that “he went away sad.” Because, although he could not part with them, his possessions did not make him happy.
In the End, Everything is God’s
I am like the rich man. I want to keep God’s commandments, but I can’t imagine abandoning the various gifts God has given me. My family, my safety, financial stability, and the ability to make art are all enormous privileges. If I were perfect, I would be prepared to return them to God at any moment. I can still be saved through God’s grace, but the recognition that privilege is not the same as blessing is sobering. Some privileges, such as racial advantage, are in fact an impediment to grace and need to be removed from society. But even the genuinely good privileges, like my loving family, are only temporary gifts.
In the end, everything belongs to God.