Poverty of Spirit

A beggar in BelÈm, Lisbon. He sat there for hours without moving.

I like having conversations with people… most of the time.  Yet, I don’t like being in a discussion where I’m wondering if the person has an agenda.  That causes me to have my antenna up concerning his/her motives or attitude.  Maybe, like me, you’ve had that moment either within a conversation or afterward where you realize, “Gosh, that dude was a real schmuck.  He was just preening and posturing to get something.”  Most of us aren’t schmucks.  You are probably reading this because you want to do what is right, just, and good.  When it comes to Christian spirituality and discipleship, we would like God’s stamp of approval on our lives.  We want to walk in the words and ways of Jesus, and not be “that guy” who is obnoxious or contemptible.

The Beatitudes of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-12) tell us what being “blessed” by God looks like.  The Beatitudes were countercultural to the prevailing religious milieu of Christ’s day, and, even today, are often not the kinds of characteristics which a lot of people embody.  In other words, the Beatitudes are not really on a lot of folks’ radar.

God cares not only for what we do, but why we do it.  Our attitudes are just as important to him as our actions.  Obeying God, honoring your parents, submitting to a boss, or listening to a teacher might be actions we do, but if we do them with a begrudging spirit which believes that we could do everything better than all these other persons, then pride has reared its sinister head.  In such times, we are more in league with the ancient Pharisees than with Jesus.

But I am confident of better things in your case.  Pursuing true righteousness – a right relationship with God and with others – is what brings real and lasting joy.  Whereas the Pharisees based their righteousness on outward appearances and pious behaviors, the true follower of Jesus adopts inner attitudes of humility which result in outward gestures of genuine love.  Being a conformist to a prevailing form of outward Christianity is useless, because our standard of righteousness as Christians is not what everybody else is doing, but what Christ has done.

The bedrock attitude of a Christian is humility, and this is what the first Beatitude establishes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Christians are spiritual beggars, the ones who acknowledge their great need, and are desperate for Jesus.  A beggar begs because he/she cannot simply meet their own need, and they have no means to reciprocate and give anything in return.

John Chrysostom quote

In saying that the poor in spirit are blessed, Jesus is saying that his followers have an awareness that they are spiritually bankrupt before God and stand in stark need of him.  An urgency of longing for God is at the heart of a spiritual beggar.

It isn’t hard to notice a person who is poor in spirit because true humility stands out in a culture of pride.  A spiritual beggar:

  • Doesn’t try and make slick deals with God, because they have nothing to bargain with; instead, they are content with unconditional surrender to a God of grace and mercy.
  • Doesn’t complain, because they realize they don’t deserve anything; instead, they incessantly praise God for his incredible grace to them.
  • Prays a lot, because a beggar is always begging; they pray, not because it is an effective strategy to get what they want, but because they are destitute without God.
  • Takes Christ on his terms, without acting like a peacock to get noticed, because a beggar has no position or pedigree to rely upon.
  • Realizes that the more they learn, the more they don’t know; therefore, they rely completely on God without being stubbornly independent – they listen to Scripture rather than talk all the time.
  • Knows no enemies because having lots of stuff and superior status only engenders defending turf and maintaining position.

The late Henri Nouwen once 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, their good name, or their supposed right to be in control.

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.  To think we do not need to bow to such a lowly activity of begging belies that we believe we are above such things – which is the broad open way of destruction that many will find.

The only way to enter God’s kingdom is through humility.  The Lord’s realm is populated with those who are lowly.  Many times we might think that the most spiritual among us are those that give.  Yet, it could very well be that much of the giving is meant to maintain personal independence, an inordinate position over another person, and the status of not being in need.  Receiving with open hands can be a much harder thing to do, because it communicates to another that we are in need – and our pride doesn’t like that.

So, it is my hope for you today that you will know the blessing of being a spiritual beggar.  May you realize that your poverty of spirit is a blessed narrow way toward the wealth of imputed righteousness.  May you enjoy the kingdom of God, bask in the grace given by God, and receive all God’s good gifts with gratitude.

Humility-Based Care

Augustine on humility

You are the expert on yourself.  No one knows you like you do.  You have the best and most intimate understanding of how your body feels, the state of your soul, and your emotional well-being.

I think that’s why when someone else tries to tell us we shouldn’t be hurting, either physically and/or spiritually, that it only tends to increase our need for care and comfort.  Maybe you’ve also had the experience of another person trying to one-up your pain, as if what they experienced was worse than you.  They just don’t get that pain is personal, as if it’s a one-size-fits-all.

Invalidating a person’s state of being does no one any good.  It happens because of pride and a lack of humility.

Imagine going to see a doctor who turns out to be arrogant in his approach.  He doesn’t really listen to you.  He just gives a quick exam and offers his diagnosis with a regimen of more pills to take.  You’re left sitting there while he’s off to another patient, colonizing another person’s mind and emotions with his expertise.

I’m not giving doctors a hard knock.  My current family physician is just the opposite of what I described; she’s a listening professional who offers an insightful plan of care.  But it’s likely that you, like me, have had that occasional experience of the doctor full of him/herself with all the right answers on your pain and situation.

You may have also had the unfortunate experience of having a pastor, therapist, or counselor assess your situation with little information and even smaller compassion.  Like writing a script for pills, they give you a few Bible verses and tell you to quit sinning and live obediently.

If pride and arrogance are the original sin, then the remedy to that malady is humility.  No matter who we are – whether doctors, pastors, laypersons, patients, or whomever – we are meant and designed by our Creator God to live a humble life.  That means we are to both give and receive humility-based care.

Humility is the cornerstone to every good thing in this life.  Jesus said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NIV)

The door of God’s kingdom swings-open on the hinges of humility.

The Apostle Paul, seeking to follow his Master Jesus in his teaching and humility said:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12, NLT)

Basic human interaction with one another is grounded in humility.

The old prophet made his expectations clear:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Life is truly life when it is humility-based.

Therefore, caring for another person is not a simple linear matter of offering your opinion or expertise; it is believing that the one needing care is the expert on herself.  The caregiver has as much to learn from the care-seeker.  The beauty of humility-based care is that two people discover together how to grow, thrive, and flourish in a situation where it isn’t currently happening.  Breakthroughs occur in the soil of humility, when the care-seeker comes out of the darkness and into the light through mutual discovery and insight.

We live with the confidence of the Psalmist:

“He [God] leads humble people to do what is right, and he teaches them his way.” (Psalm 25:9, GW)

In the end it’s God that heals, not you, me, or anyone else.  That God chooses to use us to bring his care to others ought to elicit the utmost of humility within us.

Seven Christian Virtues

            The Christian life is a struggle, a wrestling match of putting off bad behavior, and putting on good behavior.  Like a set of dirty clothes, we take them off and put on new clothes (Ephesians 4:14-5:20).  We must do both, putting off and putting on.  It does no good to take off dirty clothes and stand there naked.  Neither does it make any sense to just put clean clothes on over your dirty ones.
The seven deadly sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, and pride are bad habits of vice which darken the heart.  From them springs the evil behavior of the world. We must put them aside.  In their place we are to put on the seven heavenly virtues of purity, self-control, generosity, diligence, forgiveness, kindness, and humility.
1.      Purity
 
The insatiable habit of committing mental adultery needs to be replaced with purity of heart.  The pure of heart seek to better themselves through confession, repentance, and accountability.  One reason many people do not experience victory over their lust is that they confess and repent without allowing themselves to be held accountable by a wise spiritual mentor or a safe small group of people.
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10, NIV)
 
“Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2, ESV)
 
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8, NIV)
 
2.     Self-Control
 
The glutton overindulges to the point of addiction.  He needs self-control.  Self-control is to engage in the good things of life in moderation, learning to say “no” before it’s too late.  Notice this is self-control, not others-control.  The way to gain mastery over yourself is not through controlling other people.  It’s tempting to blame others for our gluttony, but the path forward is through taking small steps of personal courage and faith.  Lent is the perfect season to intentionally plan to put aside one vice or besetting sin in your life.
“Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32, NIV)
 
“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7, NIV)
 
“Control yourselves and be careful! The devil, your enemy, goes around like a roaring lion looking for someone to eat.” (1 Peter 5:8, NCV)
 
 
 
3.     Generosity
 
The greedy person only thinks about money and how to get more.  Greed can only be overcome with generosity toward others.  Not only are we to liberally give money away to those in need, we are to be generous with encouraging words, go out of our way to do humble service, and be effusive in spending time with those who need it.
But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them.  Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, NLT)
 
“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17, ESV)
 
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:17-18, NIV)
 
4.    Diligence
 
A lazy and indifferent attitude doesn’t want to get involved.  It needs to be replaced with a diligent hard-working spirit.  Diligent people seek to make a difference in the world.  They roll their sleeves up, jump-in and get to work on the great problems of the day.
“The lazy have strong desires but receive nothing; the appetite of the diligent is satisfied.” (Proverbs 13:4, CEB)
 
“The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” (Proverbs 21:5, ESV)
 
“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9, NRSV)
 
“Whatever you do [whatever your task may be], work from the soul [that is, put in your very best effort], as [something done] for the Lord and not for men.” (Colossians 3:23, AMP)
 
 
 
5.     Forgiveness
 
Maybe it goes without saying that anger and forgiveness are mutually exclusive terms.  An angry person doesn’t forgive – she just wants to get even.  Putting off those angry clothes means putting on the clean clothes of extending forgiveness.  Forgiveness is neither cheap, nor easy. It can’t be done quickly or hastily.  It’s the difference between throwing on a few sweats – and getting dressed up in a tuxedo.  Forgiveness takes care and time.
“Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.  Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.” (Ephesians 4:31-32, CEB)
 
“As holy people whom God has chosen and loved, be sympathetic, kind, humble, gentle, and patient.  Put up with each other and forgive each other if anyone has a complaint. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:12-13, GW)
 
6.    Kindness
 
Envy is the evil rot that separates people.  The antidote is kindness.  To be kind is to celebrate what another has achieved that you haven’t.  Kindness extends friendship instead of trying to knock another person down a peg so that you can try and have what they have.  Kindness creates connection and heals division.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, ESV)
 
“And to your service for God, add kindness for your brothers and sisters in Christ; and to this kindness, add love.” (2 Peter 1:7, NCV)
 
7.     Humility
 
If pride is the root from which all other sinful attitudes break ground, humility is the herbicide that kills that root.  To be humble is to know that others have a valuable contribution to give.  Humility listens because it doesn’t think it has all the answers.  The humble among us quietly serve others without caring if it draws attention to themselves.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2, NIV)
 
“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” (James 4:10, NKJV)
 
“God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5, NASB)
 
 
 
            Developing Christian character is more than identifying the vices and bad habits of life; it is replacing them with these seven virtues.  Cultivating true Christian virtue is in the struggle to be better, and not in the notion that one can achieve perfection.  It is the continual wrestling with one’s own shadow-self that allows the virtues to gain a foothold in the soul.
            Therefore, church ministry needs to be a place where people are free to struggle, doubt, and wrestle with their inner demons.  Genuine ministry is a hospital for the soul, resembling more of the messy triage work of the emergency room, than the sanitized antiseptic room on the top floor who hasn’t seen a patient in days.

 

            Try using these Christian virtues as a way of having a conversation about the nature, direction, and goals of your ministry.  Are these virtues evident in your context? Why, or why not? Which one needs the most attention? How will you address it?

On the Need for Humility

Univeristy College Student Lifestyle

One of the reasons I like being around millennials and college students is that they have a very well attuned BS barometer.  Unlike children, and unlike more mature adults, this group of people live in a nexus between an emerging awareness of the world without having yet been crusted over with bitterness or disillusionment.  They can spot a disingenuous person across the room like an eagle eyes the difference between a fish and a rock at 5,000 feet in the air.

You know the experience.  You might not be able to explain why, but you’ve had the encounter with the person who seems off, just a bit contrived and manipulative in his speech or behavior.  He/she might talk a good line, but your instincts tell you different.

One of the things that is difficult for many people is that life isn’t about learning a certain skill set, as if life is like a trade school.  The skills approach simply thinks that you learn to say certain things, do certain things, and press certain buttons in others and you will get a solid expected outcome.  That kind of approach is where the BS meter goes off in others.  They sense that this person talking to them is not bringing anything of themselves to the discussion; they’re just talking without listening; they just go on without a sense of dialogue in which they learn from you or reveal anything of themselves to you.

I truly believe that the virtue of humility is so very important and necessary.  Without humility, there is no sense of the majesty and dignity of the other person.  Without humility, there is only competition – I conquer, and you are the conquered.  Without humility, life is a trade school in learning to get what I want on the backs of others.

But with humility, who I am as a person matters.  I bring my feelings, my thoughts, my beliefs, my experiences, and my questions into the conversation or situation and seek to, in turn, discover what you think and feel.  Then, together, we come to a third way of seeing that honors our collective sharing.  That isn’t a skill set; its just being a good human being.

The trade school approach wants to know how one becomes humble.  However, humility is a posture, not a skill.  It is taking a position of learning, growth and development.  It is to sit with uncertainty and mystery so that genuine relationship has a real go at happening.  Humility is much more sitting on the floor at Jesus’ feet and discovering something about yourself, God, and the interaction between each.

rich young ruler

The rich young ruler wanted a clear, concise, and certain answer to his question: “Good teacher, what can I do to have eternal life?” In-other-words: “What skill set do I need that I don’t already have to get eternal life?” Wrong question.  Jesus didn’t even begin to touch it because he had the most attuned BS meter ever in history.

Jesus asked his own question: “Why do you call me good?”  That question was way off from what the rich young ruler wanted or expected.  But the question was meant by Jesus to evoke a sense of humility that would lead to discovery and trust of God.  Jesus finally got around to telling the man what he needed to do: “Go sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor… Then come and follow me.” (Mark 10:17-27)

The humble emptying of oneself is necessary in awakening to a new awareness that God is with you.  It may not mean that you give everything you own away, but it will mean coming face to face with yourself.  It will mean exploring God.  It will mean living in the awkward in-between of assurance and uncertainty, being loved but not knowing where that love will take you, and following Jesus without a pre-negotiated plan.

You can’t BS your way through the Christian life.  You need the posture of humility.  Jesus will be your Teacher, but you will need to bring yourself to the mix because Christianity is not dispassionately taking notes and then forensically regurgitating it all on an exam.  Instead, Christianity is a dynamic spiritual encounter between you and God through the person of Jesus.  It begins with humility.

The Humble Leader

 
 
            In this Advent season as we anticipate Christmas, I have been reflecting on the great importance of humility.  Since Jesus humbled himself and became one of us, it seems to me that Christian leadership and church ministry really ought to take some cues from the posture of our Lord.
 
Humility is the queen of all Christian virtue, especially that of leadership.  Yet, humility is one of the hardest virtues to practice because it requires that we willingly put aside pride, ego, and personal agendas in order to embrace God’s agenda.  Being poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), becoming like a little child (Matthew 18:3), and thinking of others as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) are the cornerstones to becoming open to what God has for us.  To be a humble leader means to be obsessed with seeking God’s will and way in everything, and then to have the courage to lead others in God’s direction despite resistance and opposition from those who want to follow a different path.
 
            Therefore our task as Christ followers is to be consumed with seeking God’s direction rather than living purely according to our instincts, pragmatic desires, and personal views.  We continually need a radical openness to God.  We must work to develop an ever-deepening awareness of where God is leading us.  God is up to something and He has plans for us and our community.  Humility allows us to listen well to God’s Spirit.
 
            But being open to God is not quite as easy as it sounds.  We need to recognize that not everyone is open to God.  There are those, maybe even including ourselves, whom are closed to God.  If our focus is more on creating safety and security, trying to do enough good deeds to be recognized by God and others, and having the church be what we want it to be, then we have become closed to what God wants.  This comes out in a couple of different ways.
 
            First, people who want to maintain tradition at all costs may be closed to God.  When doing things the way we have always done them makes us feel safe and secure, then anything that threatens that security makes us angry.  This is the place where folks practice either fight or flight – they wage either a holy war or just leave.  Living with uncertainty and ambiguity is too much for them.  But that is what it takes if we are going to follow God.  Like Abraham, we are called to move and change without always knowing where we are going.
 
            Second, it is not just members trying to maintain traditions who can be closed to God.  Those who want to get rid of traditions can be just as closed off to God.  Sometimes folks who want new or different music, spiritual practices, and ministries desire to create a church of their own making to serve them and their needs, and not a church that focuses on what God is calling them to do.  Like Timothy, we are to hold onto the great deposit of doctrine and heritage given to us and not always be looking for the next new thing to turn things around.
 
 
 
            So, what to do?  Have the humility as leaders to continually and constantly ask the question: “What is God’s will?”  We need to practice leadership that is incredibly open to God.  This allows us to lead from a position of faith, and not fear.  This helps us to let God flow in and through us, rather than willfully insisting it should be our way or the highway.  This enables us to practice hope and love, and not rely on our own strength and desires.  Humble leadership which is open to God makes prayer and discernment the foundation of what we do, always seeking what God wants and then leading others in that direction by inviting them to the same kind of prayerful process.  We must read our Bibles as if our lives depended on it, and pray like there is no tomorrow.
 

 

            If we have humility and a deep openness to God; a conviction that we are primarily called to follow Jesus Christ; a willingness to let God’s power flow through us; and, a determined readiness to move people lovingly and graciously in God’s direction, then amazing things can happen in our churches.  Let our prayer together be this:  “I’m yours, God, no matter where you call me to go, what you call me to do, and how you call me to be.  I will seek your will and way as I lead others to do the same.”

Luke 18:15-17


            Current Western society has experienced a juvenilization of culture in recent decades, and perhaps the past two hundred years, in ways that would seem strange to ancient people.  In the biblical world, children had no rights.  Life did not revolve around them whatsoever.  They were looked upon more as potential adults, and were expected to conform to family, synagogue, and society.  So, it was quite understandable, within such a society, that Christ’s disciples were perturbed with people bringing their children to Jesus – this was adult business, and not for kids.
             But Jesus would have none of this from his disciples, and he said something which was a jaw-dropping shock to them:  “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”  The upwardly-minded disciples did not have this as their strategy for taking over the world.  It was not even close to being on their radar because the worldly tools of power, influence, and position were their ambition.
             Citizens of the kingdom of God, in-other-words, enter through sheer humility and remain through complete dependence.  Like little children, they have nothing to offer and no rights to claim.  It would all have to be given to them.  Ah, now we are not far from the kingdom!  A life of faith and entrance to God’s kingdom is a gift of grace.  We cannot enter through superior skill or intelligence and not by hard work or savvy insight to the system.  None of that stuff neither impresses nor influences Jesus in the slightest.  Rather, the subjects of his kingdom need the king, and the realm of King Jesus is wherever the will of God is done.  And the will of God cannot be done apart from the spiritual virtues of humility and trust.  Will you become a little child and embrace a life of humility and dependence?
             King Jesus, I forsake all pride and selfish ambition and come to you with all the humility I can muster.  I need you for all things, and trust in your grace and compassion to gently and mercifully guide me into a life of faith that pleases you and blesses the world.  Amen.

1 Peter 5:1-11

            Humility is the consummate virtue of the believer in Jesus.  “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  Without humility there is no grace because there is no recognition of the need for God.  We wrongheadedly think we can do just fine on our own, thank you very much.  So, how’s that been working for you lately?  Are you frustrated, worried, and/or despondent?  Humility opens to us the wide vistas of God’s love and mercy.  A humble spirit makes church leadership both possible and bearable because the building of the church ultimately rests with Christ.  A humble spirit helps relieve the anxious worries that wash over us because our care is really in the hands of God.  A humble spirit enables us to resist the devil and remain strong in faith because Satan has nothing we want.  A humble spirit fortifies us to stay steady through suffering because we share in the sufferings of Jesus, and it is a privilege.
 
            This isn’t just some biblical spin-doctoring in order to have a positive attitude in the middle of crappy circumstances; humility really is the virtue to which we all need to aspire.  Genuine spiritual humility actually delivers what we need the most:  to rest secure in the merciful arms of God.  And it is what this old world needs the most of, and to which we must reinforce in all of our church leadership appointments, political elections, and work staffing.  No amount of brains and hard work can make up for a lack of humility.  God will be in control forever, and the sooner we sync our lives with this truth the better off we will be.
 

 

            Sovereign God, you cause people and nations to rise and to fall.  I place my complete trust and devotion in you.  With all the humility I can muster, I bow to you and submit to your gracious work in my life and in the life of the world.  Shoo pride far from me, and let me share in your sufferings so that I might share in your glory through Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.