The first priesthood blessing I gave terrified me. How does one, exactly, pull inspiration out of the air and give a blessing? No one ever described this to me; they just said it’ll happen. But I had no idea of how the words would come to me.
We can divide priesthood blessings into two components: the procedure, and the mechanics. We’re really good at discussing blessing procedure; that is, the steps to giving a proper blessing. But how does one pick the words they use? That’s the mechanics.
Below are some of my observations on priesthood mechanics, including an explanation of how I seek out inspiration in a blessing.
Do the Words Matter?
Firstly, do the words even matter in a blessing? Elder Oaks pointed out that in healing blessings, the recipients faith and God’s will, not the verbiage used, determine the outcome. So why should we fret about what to say? The words serve at least two functions in a blessing. First, when the priesthood holder echoes God’s will, the words enliven the spiritual environment where the blessing is given. I think that this can give the recipient confidence in God’s power to heal. Second, inspired words can help the recipient receive personal revelation.
Regardless, even the most experienced priesthood holder sometimes can’t find the right words. I take comfort in Elder Oak’s frankness:
On some choice occasions I have experienced that certainty of inspiration in a healing blessing and have known that what I was saying was the will of the Lord. However, like most who officiate in healing blessings, I have often struggled with uncertainty on the words I should say. For a variety of causes, every elder experiences increases and decreases in his level of sensitivity to the promptings of the Spirit. Every elder who gives a blessing is subject to influence by what he desires for the person afflicted. Each of these and other mortal imperfections can influence the words we speak. (emphasis added)
It’s good to know that even apostles can struggle for the right words. We’re mortals. We make mistakes.
Circumventing the Mistakes
Being nervous can block inspiration, and not getting inspiration can build nervousness. It’s a frustrating cycle. Priesthood holders get around this in various ways. Some pause before or early on in the blessing. They either wait for, or search for, inspiration. Others add filler material until something inspired comes. For example, they might use cliché lines like, “Sister Jones, your Father in Heaven wants you to know that He loves you very much.” While I try to avoid cliché lines, I can’t begrudge a priesthood holder who needs a moment to receive inspiration and gets anxious standing in silence. Some priesthood holders mimic a King James English speaking style when they bless. I suspect it puts them in a comfort zone, where they feel a continuity with the language most commonly associated with revelation. They might also be drawn to its sweet, calming sound.
In some cases, priesthood holders speak boldly and directly, but many fall into vague, passive voice. No priesthood holder wants to accidentally make promises that don’t happen, and passive voice allows them some wiggle room. I once heard about two blessing recipients who died a week or so after their blessings. The first’s relatives left the church because the blessing failed. The second’s reassessed meaning in the blessing and grew even more faithful. Either way, the thought that something might not come true can be nerve-wracking.
Alternatively, I’ve met a couple of brethren who told me they always bless the recipient to be healed. Always. They explained that since the recipient’s faith is what counts, blessing them to be healed simply gives voice to that option’s availability. I don’t like this approach. One of the most spiritual blessings I have ever given was to a girl who I felt strongly impressed to explain that she wouldn’t be healed because God wants her to be tried for awhile. The words came very forcefully out of my mouth, and a couple of observers later remarked on how strong the Spirit was in the room. In short, I think a priesthood holder should always look for inspired words (but it’s still probably okay to tell sister Jones that her Father in Heaven loves her very much).
Still, I’m rarely ever hit with something that I need to say. I almost always have to “search”.
How I Give Blessings
I have always tried to give as personalized a blessing as possible, especially for blessings of comfort and counsel. How I’ve done that has evolved over time.
For a long time, my approach was to run through a variety of topics in my head until I felt strongly that I should address one. I never made a list. The topics were simply whatever seemed potentially relevant to the person. After I felt strongly about one, I would run through thoughts about it until I felt strongly about what I should say. So if the topic of healing came up, and I felt impressed to mention it, I would then think about whether I should bless the person to be healed now, shortly, in time, or…, and most often I would get something and the right words would just form themselves in my mouth. I would then search for another topic, occasionally asking my mind if I should finish now, and when I felt that I should, I would close the blessing. The details might sound kind of contrived, but I have given some very poignant, very on-point blessings this way. I of course don’t take credit for it, but I’ve suggested to a few new elders that it might be useful to them to look for inspiration this way. It’s helped a few. Now, when I give blessings, I rarely have to think so methodically. Recognizing the right words to say often comes much faster.
A professor of mine once pointed out how Alma the Younger’s blessings to his three sons show poetic and literary devices. Alma must have prepared his blessings in advance. When I can, I prefer to prepare a blessing. I pray for inspiration, and then I spend time contemplating similar to what I’ve described above, but allowing myself to hone the right ideas better. I have had some intensely spiritual experiences doing this, and it has helped me give blessings I feel very good about. I’ve heard some members testify about the miraculous counsel they’ve received in blessings from priesthood holders who knew nothing about their condition. Those stories can be inspiring, but it almost always feels better to have prepared.
When it’s appropriate, after the blessing I like to ask the person if they want to share what they “heard” in the blessing. I’m often surprised at how different their answer is from the words I spoke. Sometimes they focus on a short phrase that I don’t readily recall saying. If I’m with family, I’ll ask them if I can share some of my thoughts about what I heard. These discussions can be very spiritual. Either way, I always encourage the recipient to write down their thoughts from the blessing while they’re still fresh. I think even more inspiration comes when people reflect on what they heard.
I think we can prepare new elders far better by openly discussing these mechanics. Of course, there are probably lots of ways to find inspiration in a blessing. How do you understand these mechanics?