Prayer that gets me out of myself

“Blessed to be a blessing.” It’s a bit of a Christian cliché, but it’s true nonetheless. It gets at the heart of what God is doing in the world and of how we participate in it.

The covenant God made with Abraham had that “blessed to be a blessing” sense built into it:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3)

God’s intention of blessing all people in every place is mediated by his blessing of a particular people in a particular place. He started with one man and moved outward.

God never does things in general. He always works with specific people and in specific ways, treating each of us as the unique people he’s made us to be. He does this because he loves us as particular people with whom he has particular relationships.

He also does this because he wants us to learn to love others as he loves us. A general blessing to all people wouldn’t have to be shared, wouldn’t have to be passed on. It’d be all love on his part and none on ours. But if we have to pass it along, we get caught up in the loving, too.

The blessing God had Moses teach Aaron, who passed it along to all Israelite priests, blesses the people with the name of the LORD, of Yahweh.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,
    The LORD bless you and keep you;

     the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
    the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
“So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Num. 6:22-27)

But as you can see, the blessing of Aaron is just to the people of Israel. There is no passing along of the blessing. Or is there?

Psalm 67 begins with the most recognizable words in communal Hebrew prayer, Aaron’s blessing, but it quickly takes a detour from blessing Israel to blessing the whole world.

May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make his face shine on us —
so that your ways may be known on earth,
    your salvation among all nations (Ps. 67:1-2, emphasis added).

Ah. The “so that” changes everything. We’re back to being blessed “so that” we can be a blessing. And we do that by acquainting the rest of the world with the ways of our God, making known to them what kind of savior our God is.

Skipping the middle of this brief psalm for now, the end of it echoes the beginning, giving some specifics as to how the blessing of God’s people might look:

The land yields its harvest;
    God, our God, blesses us.
May God bless us still,
    so that all the ends of the earth will fear him (Ps. 67:6-7).

God blesses our economy (which in an agrarian economy is represented almost entirely in the harvest) “so that” people at the very farthest ends of the earth will “fear him” (the fear of the Lord being a consideration of who God is in every aspect of life).

Between these matching bookends at the beginning and end of the psalm, we have an exactly duplicated chorus in verses 3 and 5.

May the peoples praise you, God;
    may all the peoples praise you.

When we see this kind of echoing going on in Hebrew poetry (and even in narrative sometimes), it’s because of an old oral story-telling, song-singing trick is being used called a chiasm, where the emphasis is being placed on the middle, unrepeated part. Here’s how it looks in Psalm 67

A — Bless us, so that all will know your ways (vs. 1-2)
B — chorus (v. 3)
C — emphasized middle (v. 4)
B’ — chorus (v. 5)
A’ — Bless us, so that all will fear God (vs. 6-7)

So, what’s in the middle? What’s being emphasized?

May the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you rule the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations of the earth (Ps. 67:4).

This is a drastic shift in focus from my generally self-focused prayers.

Me and mine are the center of my praying. There’s nothing unique about my self-preoccupation. But it falls far short of what God has called me to: A love that moves beyond myself and my little circle of love.

What we see here in Psalm 67 is a boilerplate prayer for personal blessing that jars itself out of its self-focus before it gets to the end, moving the focus outward. And when it gets to the heart of the prayer, the psalmist has almost disappeared from view, leaving God’s rule and the blessing of the nations as the new twin focus.

Because of this, when the psalm returns to personal (and national) blessing as it concludes, it’s no longer as a selfish me-first preoccupation.

Adding a Psalm 67 inspired “so that” to my personal praying has required a me to rethink the things I ask God for in my own life. It steers me away from “make my life easier” kinds of prayers and moves me toward requests of blessing that are more visible to others. There can be no “so that” for others if they don’t see God’s blessing in my life.

At the same time, as I consider the “so that,” I am drawn out of myself and toward my neighbors and others I rub shoulders with. How might they be blessed? How might God’s rule expand as my neighbors are blessed by God?

And so, with Psalm 67’s help, I lose a bit of my near-sightedness in prayer, as my eyes are lifted up and outward. And I begin to live in a world much bigger than the cramped and tiny me-sized one I often live in.

“Blessed to be a blessing” ceases to be a cliché and becomes a living reality.