Our culture behaves in all kinds of ways that we don't even think about. If you hear someone sneeze in your vicinity, don’t say “God bless you” unless you mean it.
The more I ponder our language and culture, the more surprises I find. We behave in all kinds of ways that we don’t even think about.
Bodily noises, for instance. Why does our culture permit—no, demand!—that we comment when someone sneezes? There are many bodily noises emitted by others that we are supposed to endure in silence. But if someone explodes in a sneeze, we are social lepers if we don’t offer a remark.
There are only two appropriate comments, though. One of them expects that we will suddenly burst into German. “Gesundheit!” we exclaim, as though English were deficient in sneeze comments. The other, of course, is to say “God bless you.” Either way, it seems like a weird superstition, as though we are afraid if we don’t say something the person sneezing might really hurt himself, like by blowing his brains out of his nose or something.
Panhandlers and beggars are also known to murmur “God bless you” if you give them money. Alas, that word “bless” has become debased by overuse. What does it really mean? Does anybody care any more?
To be blessed by God means two wonderful things.
One is that we benefit by a direct intervention of God into our world to make something good happen for us, something that would not have happened on its own. Being blessed in that way means we experience God’s love in a direct and personal way.
It also means that our lives, governed and loved and directed and protected by God, can enjoy happiness and contentment (see Psalm 1, for example).
If you hear someone sneeze in your vicinity, don’t say “God bless you” unless you mean it.