The Beatitudes of Christ (Matthew 5:1-12) are not a knee-jerk, random collection of pithy phrases from Jesus on what constitutes approval from God. They intentionally build upon each other. If the Sermon is the cornerstone of Christ’s teaching, and the Beatitudes are the cornerstone of the Sermon, then poverty of spirit is the cornerstone of the Beatitudes. This Beatitude is foundational to the Christian life. So, what does it mean to be “poor in spirit”?
“Poor” comes from the word “beggar.” And why does any beggar beg? Because they are in need. Beggars are desperate and destitute, knowing they need help just to survive another day. A beggar begs because he cannot rely on reciprocity; he has absolutely nothing to give in return.
Jesus was saying to the crowd following him, that true followers have a realization of their spiritual bankruptcy and have no shame in begging God to act on their behalf. The truth is that we are all spiritually destitute before God and stand in stark need of divine resources to help us.
In reality, we have nothing of worth to give or offer to God. And we can gain nothing apart from God. Therefore, we must realize who we are and take the position of humility, not pride, and look to God.
To understand our poverty of spirit is to see that we are stripped of all self-righteousness, and absolutely need God. Knowing and understanding our spiritual bankruptcy is to see sin for what it really is. So, how do you know when you are poor in spirit?
- The spiritual beggar makes no deals with God because they have nothing to bargain with. There is no ground from which to leverage anything.
- The spiritual beggar doesn’t complain because they realize they don’t deserve anything. Instead, there is praise to God for such incredible grace in providing their needs.
- Spiritual beggars are always begging, that is, praying all the time. Beggars don’t pray because it is an effective strategy to further their agenda. They pray because, if they don’t, they won’t make it!
- Spiritual beggars take Christ on his terms, not theirs. The beggar will do anything Jesus says because he knows his situation is desperate. He has an inner attitude of total dependence upon God. Without humility before God, the spiritual beggar discerns he is hopeless. There is no room for the pride that tries to posture and position to get what I want, because the spiritual beggar knows he has none of this.
- Spiritual beggars realize the more you learn, the more you don’t know – that you are dependent on a holy God and Holy Scripture, and not your own ideas, thoughts, convictions, and opinions. So, you willingly take the posture of listening instead of always talking.
- The spiritual beggar knows no enemies. The late Henri Nouwen said, “Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends. We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend.” Those who are poor in spirit are not anxiously clinging to their stuff, their money, or their good name. They have nothing of their own; it all belongs to God for divine purposes.
Only the poor in spirit will enter the kingdom of heaven. The way is narrow and only a few are willing to truly humble themselves before God and take the posture of a beggar. If we think we are above this, then we have gone the broad way of destruction that many will find.
Humility knows that God is God, and I am not. Therefore, we orient our lives around this reality. Just as we need to respect the law of gravity and submit to its presence and reality, so it is most necessary and important to accept God’s rule and reign in this world and submit to its constant force. This is simply the way of wisdom.
We do not presume to come to you, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, to be intimately close to your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to identify with him in his death so that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood. May we forever dwell in Christ, and he in us. Amen.
*Above painting by Hyatt Moore