The Hermeneutics of Blessings

June 14, 2004 | 7 comments
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The words that my self-importance dictates I use have exceeded my actual vocabulary. I can only hope that the title of this post means what i think it means. What I have in mind is how we understand the message of a blessing. Are the actual spoken words God’s message or is it the spiritual impressions of the elder who was speaking on God’s behalf, not always perfectly expressed?

In an important sense the contents of a blessing don’t matter. The Lord directs that when a Saint is sick “the elders of the Church, two or more, shall be called, and shall pray for and lay their hands upon them in my name; and if they die they shall die unto me, and if they live shall live unto me.” (D & C 42:44) From the Lord’s perspective at least the primary purpose of a blessing is not to find out whether he is going to heal the person of their illness or relieve them of their distress. He already knows. Indeed, as if to rebuke the undue emphasis we put on the results of a blessing, He specifically states “they who have not faith [to be healed], but believe in me, have power to become my sons . . . .” For the Lord blessings consecrate our sufferings and our needs. They invite Him in. In some senses the divine purpose of a blessing is done once we decide to receive one. Blessings have some human purpose too apart from their contents. In Liberty Jail the Son of Man consoled Joseph with the prophecy that “the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.” I read in this the truth that the giving and receiving of blessings was a tie between Joseph and the pure in heart, etc., and can be a tie between us.

And yet the Lord wishes us enough to know the contents of a blessing that he inspires the elders to speak them and directs them to speak in his name. We too wish very much to hear what the Lord has to say. Blessings are very much like the Book of Mormon. According to Givens the early Saints were delighted to have it regardless of its contents—its mere existence was a visible proof of God’s continued presence. He was not content to produce a golden nullity, however, so He rebuked this indifference to the book’s actual message through Joseph Smith in the early days of the Restoration and through Ezra Taft Benson in modern times. We as individuals would likewise be fools to shut our ears to the individual messages that blessings bring, happy merely to know that there was a message.

If we care about the substance of the message, than we have care about how to interpret it. Is the content of a blessing what the priesthood holder says, or is it the impressions that the priesthood holder receives and imperfectly tries to capture in language? We’d have these same issues with scripture—blessings themselves are a form of scripture—but the prophets of the canonical scriptures are dead so we don’t have to worry about what they meant to say. We can confine ourselves to arguments about text v. context and be happy. Priesthood holders, on the other hand, remain very much alive after giving a blessing. They themselves have an intent and an understanding to be queried, if needs be. Need it be?

The answer depends on how it is that the Lord guides a blessing. Does he give impressions to the blessers and rely on them to convert them into human tongue? Or does he guide them to making specific word and syntax choices that often produce a meaning beyond what the blesser is contemporaneously aware of ? I see evidence both ways. My wife’s patriarchal blessing had an obvious misstatement in it—the patriarch meant to say ‘eldest’ but he said ‘youngest’ instead. Clearly the intent, not the text, was controlling. I myself have had the experience of giving blessings where I felt that my statements didn’t exactly capture what the spirit was whispering. The Church’s request that members not record blessings word for word would also indicate that God isn’t in the details of the language. On the other hand, I am aware of other blessings whose fulfillment was technical. The exact language of the promise was met though the blesser and those in attendance had all understood something else. I myself, and my wife, have a very important blessing in some of our private affairs where the language I used unintentionally didn’t exactly reflect what I was understanding from the Spirit (afterwards, talking to my wife, I realized that the language I used was more ambitious than I felt warranted) but, though the jury’s still out, the promise of the language appears to be the one that holds good. I’ve also experienced blessings where frankly I was very little involved, as if the Spirit shoved me aside and opened my mouth. I couldn’t say what the words *meant* more than anyone else, or perhaps even remember them. This is not uncommon. Look at D&C 130:14-17. Joseph prays to know the time of the Second Coming and the Lord responds, “Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou are eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man . . . .” Joseph notes that “I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face.” Joseph didn’t have any better understanding of the meaning than we do, reading it.

So, as Sherlock Holmes used to say after his conversion in the Sign of the Four, ‘if two contradictory things are true, whatever remains must be Mormon.’ I’d say that the divine content of a blessing sometime consists of the actual uttered text and sometimes of the impressions to which the speaker tries to give utterance. I’d say too that there are divine reasons for this. When it is the text that speaks, above and beyond the capacity of the speaker, we are reminded that revelation may come through man but it comes from God. Subtract the man and something still remains. Likewise, giving the speaker impressions and allowing him to articulate them means that his participation is real. Subtract the man, and something is lost.

Postscript:
There’s an implication here for the debate over how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. I leave it for the reader more astute than I to tease it out.

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7 Responses to The Hermeneutics of Blessings

  1. lyle on June 14, 2004 at 8:42 pm

    “In an important sense the contents of a blessing don’t matter.”

    Adam…did you read the baby blessing thread at Wump Blog? I don’t think most folks would buy the statement above as applied to that. Perhaps if you excluded baby blessings…which seem to be all about what the parents want to say…and little, if any, actual revelation.

  2. Adam Greenwood on June 14, 2004 at 8:45 pm

    Baby blessings are in there with everything else. Regardless of what’s said, it’s still important that the child is presented to the church and to the Lord so that its youth and innocence be consecrated.

  3. Gary Cooper on June 15, 2004 at 11:31 am

    With regard to the issue of babies’ blessings, I simply have to disagree with the premise that these ordinances really don’t count as “revelation”, which unfortunately is what I perceive many members believe they are. Many years ago, when I was single, we had a stake conference where our regional rep spoke and addressed the issue of baby blessings. He stated that the Brethren had expressed to the regional reps that they are very concerned that the members are neglecting the seriousness of this ordinance, and that most of the time the so-called “blessing” is no more than a prayer. he then stated that these blessings should be viewed as no less serious than the blessings the ancient patriarchs gave in Old Testament times—they should be given by revelation, with the blessor striving for and expecting to receive a claer view of the needs, blessings, strengths, weaknesses and future of the child. In other words, a baby blessing is a patriarchal blessing, minus the declaration of lineage, and with the family recording it, not the Church.

    Well, this affected me profoundly, especially because during my mission (and afterwards) I had received what can only be described as “visions” in which I had seen my children to be, etc. So, when I was married and become a new father, I was very anxious to do whatever I had to do to have the “spirit of revelation, and of prophecy” when I blessed my first child, and then later my second. In our situation, it wasn’t just a matter of “listening for the Spirit” at the moment of the blessing. On the contrary, I strove mightily to have that Spirit weeks before the blessing, to know what I should *ask* Heavenly Father for, on behalf of my daughters. (Part of the reason for this is that, coming from a dysfunctional, non-religious home, all of the women in my life growing up suffered constantly at the hands of the men in their life, and I wanted desperately for God to give my daughters some protection so that they could avoid such misery if they proved faithful.) Sure enough, as the weeks passed leading up to the birth of our first child, a clear view came into my mind of *what* my sisters/mother/aunts/grandmothers etc. lacked in their lives that made them so unhappy and vulnerable, and what my daughters needed to avoid this. Once that was clear to me, I went to the Lord and asked him for permission to bless my little girl Laura with two specific blessings, plus a third that I felt naturally should flow from the first two.

    For two weeks I got neither a “yea” or “nay”. I fasted the day before the blessing, and still nothing. Sitting down for sacrament meeting, I thought, “Well, with no word either way, I suppose I shouldn’t pronounce those specific blessings—I’ll just listen and see what He wants me to say.” However, during the administration of the Sacrament, I felt the very clear impression from the Holy Ghost, not a voice, but just as obvious—a very clear thought entering my mind, “You may give Laura the blessings you have asked for her, for they are right for her.” And that’s just what I did; and at six years of age, she has already started to show us that those blessings are “taking effect”. In the case of my second daughter Samantha, I sought the very same blessings for her, and in the same manner, but interestingly—as I sat in Sacrament, right duting the Sacrament itself the Spirit clearly communicated to me that two of the three blessings I sought for her should be altered. I had a very clear impression that one them should be substituted completely by something entirely different, and because of this change, the third blessing should be altered to something else as well. Samantha is just three years old, but I’ve begun to notice the begginings of her realizing some of these blessings now.

    Now, what’s interesting, to me, from these two experiences, is:

    1. The revelation came not during the blessing, but right before.

    2. That I was able to commune with God and, in effect, reason with Him and petition Him for specific blessings for my children, without feeling inappropriate in doing so,

    3. That in effect, I was able to gain the same kind of revelatory vision of my children’s future and their needs and personalities that a Jacob or a Joseph could have had of their children.

    So, I can testify that baby blessings don’t have to be something done by “rote”—that they really can be wonderful, revelatory experiences, and that fathers really can be “prophets” for their own families. I don’t know to what extent this experience applies to other kinds of priesthood blessings, especially since a blessing to the sick or a blessing of comfort is generally asked for a “short notice”, without the opportunity to prepare in the same way that a baby blessing could be prepared for. Still, I have had experiences in other kinds of blessings where the Spirit was felt strongly and quite specifically, but most often I’ve felt the Spirit but had to really listen intently to get anything at all, and sometimes I’ve given blessings that seemed rather short and to the point “We bless you with health and strength, that your body and mind will recover normally and that you will be able to attend to your work and family responsibilities…Amen”, because that’s all I could discern from the Spirit.

  4. Adam Greenwood on June 15, 2004 at 12:41 pm

    Thank you for your post, G. Cooper. This is moving and instructive.

  5. Adam Greenwood on June 15, 2004 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you, G. Cooper. Your memories are informative and instructive.

  6. Jpatch on June 15, 2004 at 1:02 pm

    Gary’s experience brings up the question of whether it is appropriate to think of elements a blessing might contain ahead of time (not limited to a baby’s blessing.)

    My understanding is that beginning with the Kirtland temple, all dedicatory prayers are written ahead of time.

    So, I don’t think we have to approach blessings with our minds as blank slates. I think we can appropriately identify what elements we might include–then see if the Spirit directs otherwise when the time comes.

    But then, I’m not as experienced as some others.

  7. Grasshopper on June 21, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    I agree with Gary that baby blessings can be given by revelation. I have given five of them now, and while I haven’t put in the same kind of preparation time Gary describes, I have approached them prayerfully and have felt guided by the Spirit in pronouncing the blessings. Some of the things I said were unplanned, but stuck out in my mind afterward, and are clearly applicable to my children. There is no doubt in my mind that revelation was at work in those blessings.

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