Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. – Matthew 5:3
This first statement is one of the more confusing that Jesus gives. What does it mean to be poor in spirit? From a secular standpoint, this is a negative quality. Emma Goldman, the twentieth century political activist, in her book The Failure of Christianity, ridicules the notion of being poor in spirit. She says:
Heaven must be an awfully dull place if the poor in spirit live there. How can anything creative, anything vital, useful and beautiful come from the poor in spirit?
Her view of poverty of spirit seems to be equated with having low self-esteem. Being poor in spirit means taking a low view of humanity. She continues:
Every intelligent being realizes that our worst curse is the poverty of the spirit; that it is productive of all evil and misery, of all the injustice and crimes in the world.
In other words, if only humanity realized their potential, if only they believed in themselves and others, then they would not act the way they do, and humanity could save itself. That is the mantra of humanism: No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.
Being poor in spirit does not mean harmful self-denigration. It does not mean to force low-self-esteem. It does not mean thinking badly about humanity. But it is an understanding that humanity is incomplete without the Spirit of God. We must have poverty of our spirit in order than we may gain the richness of the Spirit of God. If we are full of ourselves, there will be no room for God.
Poverty of spirit is the type of humility that recognizes the need for God’s spirit to join with our own in order that we might be made whole. It is a realization that there is part of us missing and that we are incapable of being whole by ourselves.
In the book of Exodus, Yahweh gets angry at Moses for trying to shirk his calling. In chapter 3, verse 11:
But Moses asked God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
And God could have replied and told Moses about all his credentials. Moses says he doesn’t feel eloquent. God doesn’t try to convince him he is. “Aww…Moses…it’s ok. You’re a great public speaker. If you just had some self-esteem and felt more confident, you’d be great.”
But that’s not how God answers. God isn’t upset that Moses doesn’t feel qualified or is trying to get out of this calling. He’s upset that Moses isn’t trusting him to provide.
The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths?…Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”
God does not call the qualified. He qualifies the called. Those who understand that they must be indwelt with supernatural abilities through the Holy Spirit in order to be whole are those who receive the community of God.
The biblical answer to the paralysis of low self-esteem is not high self-esteem; it is sovereign grace. It is not an inflation of the human ego, but a realization of God’s active empowerment in our lives. I think of Leonard Black, a pastor who was born a slave in Maryland in 1820. He was physically and mentally abused as a child. He was denied an education. And when he finally escaped slavery and began to preach, he recognized his limitations.
In his book The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black: A Fugitive of Slavery, he writes that there were points he questioned his calling because he didn’t seem qualified because he had been denied an education. He writes:
“I know that I am of a slow tongue, and unlearned; but what says the prophet Zachariah? “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.”
Those who are poor in spirit understand their position in this world and before God. They know the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. This poverty of spirit stands in contrast to the religious elite of Jesus’s day. In the Letter of Barnabas—a second century writing that claimed to be by Paul’s traveling partner—it advocates for the exact opposite of poverty in spirit. In one part, it says “thou shalt be simple in heart and rich in spirit.”
This richness in spirit was at the heart of most Greek or Hellenistic religion. Hans Liesegang, a twentieth century German theologian wrote about this, saying:
To possess the fullness of pneuma (spirit) and to be rich in pneuma was the highest goal of hellenistic religion. It is precisely what the pious sought in asceticism or cult. The pneuma was the source of spiritual joy and blessedness.
So, in this passage, Jesus is directly contradicting the zeitgeist—the spirit of the age. Religion of the day was about manifesting the spirit—whatever that might be—in all its fulness. The end of Jesus’s message has the same contradiction. In chapter 7, Jesus recounts that not all of those who profess the spirit possess the spirit.
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’
These are apparently are powerful Christian leaders who point to their spiritual achievements. They assume that they must be acceptable to the Judge of the universe on the basis of their spiritual works. In spite of their spiritual wealth, Jesus rejects them. Why? Because they have boasted about their richness in spirit, rather than their poverty in it.
They have seen themselves as spiritually self-sufficient. Listen to their claims “Didn’t we, didn’t we, didn’t we…in your name.” They have used the name of Jesus to promote their own successes. They have used their own richness, their own talents, their own strengths, their own financial resources, to create all of this worldly success. But Jesus says “You have done this out of your own strength and not through the Spirit.”
In Revelation 3, Jesus speaks to the church at Laodicea:
For you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.
Self-sufficiency was their downfall. Wealth was their destruction. With everything in this life going well and seeming easy, the empire became a much more comfortable place to live than the Kingdom. They were contented in their richness of spirit within the temporary empires of humanity and put aside the eternal kingdom community of God.
God’s favor is upon the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Because it is those who realize their own spiritual poverty that seek the Lord, who can impute his overabundant wealth of the Spirit into us. God’s favor is on the poor in spirit because they recognize how much they need God.