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Lucky

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I would like to reclaim luck.

There is a notion prevalent among evangelicals that Christians should never attribute their good fortune or success to luck but only to God’s blessing. I suspect that many would attribute luck—good or bad—to the devil. By good luck he further ensnares those who are already his and prevents their escape. By bad luck he discourages the faithful and tempts them to desert the way of life.

The bible, however, presents a different view. Even the terrible misfortunes that befall Job, though designed and executed by the devil, are nevertheless permitted by God. His religious friends are convinced that Job is guilty of some great wickedness. They accuse him of robbing widows, enslaving orphans, or getting his fortune by murder and deceit. No one, their reasoning goes, is that unlucky. Job, too, looks for some overarching reason behind his misery. He wants to confront God with his own innocence and insists on his own integrity even if he must die for it. Neither Job nor the friends seem aware of the role Satan has played, and the author does not recur to it at the end of the narrative, as if the devil’s part is not really important. In the bible God takes responsibility for everything. His blessings result in peace, well-being, and happiness. His curses result in disaster and misery.

For me the distinction between being lucky and being blessed is one of emphasis. If I attribute my success to luck, then I am saying that it was not primarily my doing. I merely took advantage of advantageous opportunities. If I attribute my success to being blessed, then I am saying that it was God’s doing, not mine. I am merely the recipient of God’s beneficence. The context determines whether I want to emphasize God’s agency.

One potential problem with emphasizing God’s agency in blessing is the tacit assumption some people will make that God’s blessing has somehow to be deserved. If I claim to be blessed, I may appear to be claiming some kind of special status with God due to moral superiority or holiness. To avoid such an appearance, I might just say, “I was lucky.”

A look comparing how often the phrases “so lucky” and “so blessed” occur over the past 200 years shows that “so blessed” tended to predominate in the 19th century, but “so lucky” surpassed it around the beginning of the 20th century and has remained ascendant since.

Google NGram Viewer "so blessed" vs. "so lucky"
Google NGram Viewer “so blessed” vs. “so lucky”
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Blessed

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Read and comment on my blog.

On a recent Facebook post, I asked if there was any difference between blessing and good luck. I got different answers depending on what the respondent believed about the nature of the universe. They fell into three camps:

  1. The material universe is all there is. It is ruled by the laws of physics. Blessing is just a religious name for good luck.
  2. The material universe was created by God, who established the laws of physics to order it. Blessing comes from God. Good luck just happens at random.
  3. The material universe was created by God, who orders even apparently random events. Good luck is just a secular name for blessing.

I think the common understanding of most Christians is that some events are truly random, but other apparently random events are sent or caused by God. In fact, most responses were in the second camp. For example, if I tithe faithfully and give cheerfully, according to some, my life will be blessed in tangible, material ways. My good deeds will be rewarded with unexpected opportunities to make more money or to be more successful or to have greater influence. In this view, an unexpected promotion is from God, but a sudden illness is just a random event (or, possibly, from the devil—I didn’t want to include the devil, but, true to his nature, he butted in uninvited anyway).

This view is comfortable because with it we can absolve God of all catastrophes. Good things come form God; bad things come from nature (or the devil). God didn’t cause the Haitian earthquake; it was the result of tectonic movements deep underground. It was the result of the operation of gravity and impersonal mechanical forces. Or perhaps it was the work of the devil. Pat Robertson famously blamed the earthquake on a centuries-old curse, a pact with the devil that the Haitians made in exchange for the power to drive out the French during the slave revolt that led to Haiti’s independence.

But Christians have a problem. It is God’s omnipotence. While we hastily defend God against accusations that he causes earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, or other disasters, we usually aren’t quite ready to say that he is powerless to prevent them. (Some Christians have said that, and in doing so have diminished God rather than magnifying him as they ought.) If God does not cause calamity, surely he allows it, and isn’t that morally equivalent?

Here we must tread carefully, for this question is not an academic one. It is deeply personal for each one of us. Everyone has had bad things happen to them: death of a parent or child or spouse, a debilitating illness, an incapacitating accident. Such things happen to everyone and cause many to conclude that there is no God or that if there is he does not love them.We have to confess that our judgment has already been compromised.

Once we put God in the dock, we set ourselves up as his judge and agree in principle that there are moral laws that, if they apply to God, surely apply to us as well. And if God really is God, we may find ourselves having to answer to him for our sins rather than judging him for his.

It is natural to believe that bad things befall bad people and good things befall good people. It is how we would order the universe if we ourselves were in charge. We would reward the righteous and punish the wicked, and we would do so immediately. Disaster would be reserved for those who are exceptionally wicked. This was what Job’s friends believed. Repeatedly they demand that Job repent of his heinous sins. He must have been scamming single mothers or selling children into prostitution or ordering mass executions to have incurred such wrath from God. He lost his wealth, his children, and his health all in a short time, yet he claimed to have done nothing to deserve it. ‘Fess up, Job. Nobody has that much bad luck. You must have brought it on yourself.

Funny thing about Job. He never blames Satan for his troubles. The writer of Job lets his readers in on the scenes in heaven, but Job is never privy to them, and he never realizes that the Accuser has accused him of being righteous only for gain, only for God’s blessing. In Job’s mind God is the one ultimately responsible, and it is to him that he wants to present his case: the case of a righteous man unfairly singled out for punishment.

Here’s the funny thing about God. He never acknowledges Job’s case. Instead he overwhelms him with evidence of Job’s own inadequacy. In the end, Job is forced to admit that he is in no position to question God’s actions. He repents and prays for his friends who were guilty of the far greater sin of misrepresenting God.

So put me in the third camp. Despite it’s strange affinity with the naturalistic view of the first camp, I think it better represents the way the universe actually works. Nothing occurs by chance. God has his purposes in everything he causes and allows, and somehow those purposes are better than any alternative we, with our finite capacities, can imagine. I am blessed to be without a job now, and I will be blessed still more when I have a job again.

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