“Achoo!” “Achoo!” “Achoo!” The triad of sneezes echoed up and down the hall. Immediately following was a chorus of “Bless you” and “God Bless you” from every office within earshot. Smiling, my first random thought was, “I wonder why sneezes come in groups of 2 or 3?” My next thought was, “She can really sneeze” — and then I thought, “Don’t bring that in here!”
What’s interesting is that the custom of saying “God bless you” after a sneeze began literally as a blessing. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) ascended to the Papacy just in time for the start of the bubonic plague (his successor Pope Pelagius II succumbed to it). Gregory called for unceasing prayer from the people for God’s help and intercession. Groups of people marched through the streets chanting, “Kyrie Eleison” (Greek for “Lord have mercy”). When someone sneezed, an immediate “God bless you!” followed from anyone nearby, in the hope that they would not subsequently develop the deadly plague.
While we often use this phrase out of habit, these desperate people trusted that God would hear, and the blessing of health and protection would follow.
The history of this common phrase magnifies the meaning of “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” (Proverbs 18:21 ESV) The words we say matter. More than we realize. Maybe our communication would change if we truly understood that the words we speak either have life breathed into them… or death.
James takes this fundamental principle to a much deeper level. He acknowledges that “With it (the tongue) we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” (James 3:9-10 ESV) Granted. But then he strongly reprimands the readers with, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” James then gives vivid examples from nature to support his reproof. A spring of water does not simultaneously produce fresh water and salt water. A fig tree does not produce olives. Grapevines don’t grow figs. A salt water pond does not contain fresh water. (James 3:11-12 ESV)
Relationships are not perfect. Harsh words are sometimes spoken. Tempers flare and painful, even hurtful things are said. In writing to the Christians in Asia Minor, Peter encouraged them in this way — “…be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless — that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing, and also get a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8-9 The Message)
The next time you hear a sneeze and reply with “God bless you”, let it serve as a reminder that the power of life and death is in what we “say” or “don’t say” to others!
It might turn your life — or someone else’s — around.
Tim Clinton, Ed. D., LPC, LMFT (The College of William and Mary) is President of the nearly 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), the largest and most diverse Christian counseling association in the world. He is Professor of Counseling and Pastoral Care, and Executive Director of the Center for Counseling and Family Studies at Liberty University. Licensed in Virginia as both a Professional Counselor and Marriage and Family Therapist, Tim now spends a majority of his time working with Christian leaders and professional athletes. He is recognized as a world leader in faith and mental health issues and has authored over 20 books including Breakthrough: When to Give In, When to Push Back. Most importantly, Tim has been married 36 years to his wife Julie and together they have two children, Megan, who is married to Ben Allison and is practicing medicine in dermatology, and Zach, who plays baseball at Liberty University. In his free time, you’ll find him outdoors or at a game with family and friends.