There is nothing inherently desirable in poverty. We have wars on poverty. Poverty is often associated in our minds with crime, ignorance, filth, and the absence of basic needs such as clean water or clothing or food. We associate poverty with the ghetto and we all want to get out or stay out. Poverty exposes men and women and children to cold, hunger, and disease. It often begets bitterness and cynicism. It robs people of a sense of security.
A wise man once prayed this prayer: “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Prov. 30:7-9). Even Agur understood that though wealth is not to be coveted after, neither should poverty necessarily be desired. There is nothing spiritual or godly about being poor.
And yet, even economic poverty can sometimes be a blessing. We all understand to some degree that wealth has a tendency to puff us up, to make us think we are something that we are not. Riches can blind people to what is most important in life. They can provide a sense of security, but often that security is only paper-thin.
It is for this reason that history is filled with stories of individuals who voluntarily gave up their wealth in order to find meaning in life. One thinks of Buddha or the monks in the early Christian monastic movement. In fact, even Jesus our Lord lived a life of voluntary poverty, and occasionally called others to do the same – and for this very reason. The rich young ruler, who came to Christ to know how he could inherit eternal life, was challenged to literally give up everything to follow Christ. Riches controlled and blinded him to what was truly important. Jesus’ comment, upon his departure, was that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt. 19:16-26).
Thus, there is a good kind of poverty and there is a bad kind of poverty. The bad kind is that which leaves us destitute in soul and body. This is the kind we often find in connection with drugs and alcohol – when people replace that which is truly meaningful in their lives (like relationships) with that which destroys them physically and mentally and spiritually. The other kind is that which drives people to see what is important in life – especially when it drives men and women to see what is most important in life and to set their hope in God.
Now it is true that our Lord is not talking here about economic poverty. He specifically says that those who are blessed are those who are poor in spirit. In other words, it’s poverty of the soul, not poverty of the wallet that our Lord praises. But there is a connection between the two. Obviously, one is the picture of the other. One who is impoverished financially feels their need on the material level; just so, one who is impoverished spiritually feels their need on the spiritual level.
But there is another point of contact. Just as there is a good and bad kind of poverty, even so there is a bad and good kind of spiritual poverty. It is possible to be spiritually impoverished in a bad way: to be without God and without Christ is the most horrible kind of destitution. And what is really sad about this is that those who are in this condition (in both senses of poverty) often don’t realize just how bad they are. Jesus addressed this with the church at Laodicea: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
But that is not what our Lord is talking about here, clearly. The kind of poverty our Lord speaks of here is the good kind. For those of whom he speaks are blessed, the heirs of the kingdom of heaven. To understand, therefore, why this kind of soul poverty is good, we need to understand what it is. And then, if it has this promise of blessing, the next question is, how do we get there?
What does it mean to be poor in spirit?
To be poor in spirit means to know and understand and feel your absolute need of God’s grace and salvation and protection. A truly impoverished person cannot buy food for themselves to satisfy their hunger. They cannot buy clothes for themselves to protect them from the cold and heat. They cannot provide shelter to protect them from the elements. They are vulnerable to thieves and robbers. What Jesus is saying is that a man is blessed, is an heir of God’s kingdom, if he feels that apart from the mercy of God, he is nothing.
You see this in the way the righteous are described in the Psalms. In fact, in the Psalms, the poor almost belong to the very same category as the righteous, so that to speak of the one is to speak of the other. The reason has little to do with social status; rather, it has to do with the fact that the poor were shut up to the Lord as their only hope. Their hope was not in themselves; it was in God’s covenant faithfulness and mercy. Thus, in Psalm 34:6, David describes himself as poor: “This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.” Or again, in Psalm 37:14, the poor are contrasted with the wicked: “The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those who way is upright.”
As Mary would put it centuries later, God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). Again, the poor are contrasted with those who are proud; in contrast to the proud, they trust in the Lord and are delivered by him.
Thus we see that poverty of spirit is the opposite of pride. It is the opposite of self-sufficiency. It is the opposite of self-righteousness. It is instead at the bottom of a deep-seated trust in God alone for his grace and provision for it finds nothing in itself.
I think it is important to underline the true significance of the meaning by pointing out what our Lord does not mean by “poor in spirit.” Too often, people mistake this for something else. For example, being poor in spirit does not refer to a kind of self-deprecating individual who is always pointing out their faults to others. One thinks of Uriah Heep, the Dickens character in David Copperfield, who is portrayed as constantly pointing out his humble origins and humble condition and humble attitude to others. But though he put on quite a show it was insincere. There are many people like Heep in this world; probably there have been times when we have put on a similar show. I remember a description of another character by Mark Twain, a woman who was constantly putting down her cooking to others, but, as Twain points out, she did only so that others would complement her culinary abilities. In the end, feeling like we need to point out our faults to others in order to gain affirmation from them is only another form of pride, and thus is as far from what our Lord recommends as to actually be its opposite.
Nor is it a lack of courage and conviction. Some people mistake assertiveness with pride; it need not be. At the same time, being poor in spirit does not in itself lead to a refusal to meet one’s obligations out of a feeling of one’s shortcomings. Poor in spirit does not make one shrink from responsibility, for though it is a recognition that apart from Christ we are nothing, yet at the same time it recognizes that in Christ we can do all things. That is the proper attitude. Paul put it this way: “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:9-10). That is the right balance to strike, and illustrates what being poor in spirit really looks like.
I think it’s important to underscore the fact that all these attributes of the blessed person have to do with a life that is lived before God. Jesus makes this very plain in the next chapter. You don’t pray before men, you pray before God. Your reward is not from men but from God. Thus, poverty of spirit has nothing to do with the way other people see us; it has everything to do with how we see ourselves before God. It is to see that before God’s wisdom, I know nothing. It is to see that before God’s holiness, my best righteousness is as filthy rags. It is to see that before God’s power, my best efforts are vain. I look to God for righteousness, for wisdom, for protection. It affirms the words of God to the prophet:
Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jer. 9:23-24)
Now if this is what is meant by being poor in spirit, we can see why Jesus began with this characteristic. You cannot take one step spiritually, you cannot expect God’s blessing upon you, if you come to him in an attitude of pride. God hates pride. If you would come to Christ, you must come empty.
Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
This demonstrates conclusively that this sermon is not Law, in the sense of “Do this and thou shalt live.” The first Beatitude is incompatible with a works-based system. Jesus is saying, “You cannot even begin to follow me unless you recognize that you are spiritually destitute, that you need God’s grace from beginning to end.” It is, in other words, a recognition that salvation is of the Lord. It is the mark of one who is justified by grace, not by works.
Jesus illustrated this attitude with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. One who is poor in spirit is someone who doesn’t tally up their good deeds before God, but rather one who, like the publican, “beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus sums up the lesson, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
But there is another reason, I think, why Jesus would begin here. I think it could be truly said that pride is the root of all sin. It was pride that led to the Fall of Adam and Eve into sin. And why do I sin? Is it not because I mistakenly believe that I am somehow wiser than God? That’s pride. Is it not because I believe that my desires and lusts have precedence over God’s will for my life? That’s pride. It is the idolatry of the self that stands behind every betrayal of God, every act of sinful treason. It is self-centeredness, pride.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with a call to recognize our need of grace, but it also uncovers the root of our sins and sinful attitudes that will keep us from putting this sermon into practice in our lives. So we can see that there is good reason that our Lord began here.
How do we become poor in spirit?
In a sense, no one can become poor in spirit. God must do it in us. We are all proud by nature and will not bow our head or knee before God until by his grace he humbles us. But that being said, this attitude is something that needs to be cultivated, and even those of us who know the work of grace in the heart by experience can still become proud. We need to be constantly humbling ourselves before the Lord. And that is certainly something we ought to do, and something that we must do. The apostle Peter tells us to “humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Pet. 5:6). But how do we do this?
First, we must feel our need of God and his grace through Christ. I don’t just mean be aware of our need, or to merely intellectually affirm that we have a need. We need to feel the desperateness of our situation. I have recently become aware of an individual who has severe medical needs. I mean life-threatening ones. But this person does not seem to take their position seriously. When the doctors tell him that he needs to be on such-and-such medication right away, he takes over a week to get a prescription, and so on. Now on one level, this person knows he has a problem. There have been convulsions, there have been visits to the ER and hospital stays. But on another level, this person doesn’t seem to really understand the urgency of their situation. There is just no sense of urgency.
Now that’s what I mean. We are not really going to humble ourselves before God if we don’t see the urgency of our problem. We need to not only know the truth; we need it to be impressed upon our hearts.
To get there, we need to know who God is and who we are (these go together – consider the example of Job). We need to understand that we are nothing; that God is everything. We need to understand and feel the weight of the reality that in God we live and move and have our being; that God is not served with human hands, as though he needed anything. We need to understand the wickedness of our sin, and the freeness of God’s grace. We need to understand that apart from Christ, we will be judged by God Almighty – and that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
But to get there, we need to seek God. We need to constantly have the vision of God that Scripture sets forth. If we do not, the world we replace it with another version that will not call forth the sense of urgency that is required.
And we need to pray. After all, if we do not look to God for the grace of spiritual poverty, then we haven’t even taken the first step towards it. We need to pray that Jesus would do to us what he exhorted the church at Laodicea to do:
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. (Rev. 3:18)
The paradox is that those who are poor in spirit are the truly rich. They may be poor in terms of earthly wealth, but they are rich before God. They are blessed, because to them belongs the kingdom of heaven. After all, why do we want riches? Is it not to have financial security? Is it not so that we can have the things we want? But we all know that there is no true financial security. No one, not even a billionaire, can know for certain that they will be wealthy tomorrow. But there is perfect security in Christ. The riches that he gives, no one can take away. God himself stands guard at the vault of grace. Actuallly, God is the vault.
Why do we want riches? Is it not to buy some measure of happiness? I remember watching the movie, The Pursuit of Happiness, and at the end, when this very poor man had “made it,” he says that in that moment, he was happy. To me, that’s very sad. Happiness that is chained to money is not going to last very long, even if you keep the money. You are just trading in one set of problems for another set – even if you prefer the latter for the former. And, as the psalmist puts it, riches cannot save you from death and the grave. Only Christ can do this.
There is no comparison between the wealth of this world, and the riches of the next. I’m not saying that the former is necessarily bad. But if that’s what you’re after, you’re after the wrong thing. Let us not trade the eternal kingdom of heaven that brings us into the presence of God with unceasing joy for a temporary kingdom of earthly riches that ends up rusted and often leads to disappointment.