to be poor in spirit

[Jesus] said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:2b-3

To be poor in spirit in some respects is to be like Jesus. Jesus was poor in the world’s eyes, not a boaster, not self-willed, not posing as someone great. Utter humility in becoming one of us, but that’s who he was before. But this became evident when the Creator became a creature. And gentle and humble in heart. Not forcing his will on others, but giving space to them, even to the point of suffering at people’s hands, to the point of death.

When we look at poor in spirit, we think of the fact that we’re poor and needy sinners in need of forgiveness. Yes, that surely has application here. And it could mean something like living simply and being generous with what one has to help others in need.

At any rate, we in Jesus as his followers are among the blessed when we’re poor in spirit. In and through Jesus.

 

a “poor in spirit” wannabe

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3

If I would choose a passage from Scripture to have on my tombstone, it would be this one. Something I aspire to, actually, not necessarily something I possess. In fact, too often I seem empty of it.

It’s so easy to be full of one’s self, or maybe for us who are further along it can be more subtle in that we see ourselves as full from the Lord, with emphasis on ourselves. That reminds me of people talking about “Spirit-filled churches,” or referring to themselves as Spirit-filled. Emphasis at least too often ends up being on self, or at least so it seems to me.

The really Spirit-filled people, and might I add, churches, are those who are more and more empty of themselves. They are too overcome to imagine that anything good can come out of them at all. So anything good is of God, and all else is suspect and in need of removal through brokenness and repentance.

Does this sound far out, or too severe? Consider the Apostle Paul’s picture he portrays in 2 Corinthians 12. He is tormented by a thorn in the flesh, no less than a messenger of Satan to keep him from being conceited because of the revelations God had given him. And he came to see that it was actually in his weakness that Christ’s strength became evident.

For too many of us, this might seem extreme. We have things pretty well in hand in the Lord, with God’s help. But we need to get past that to where it’s either all God, or nothing at all. We need to be content as those aspiring to be among “the poor in spirit.” And thus among the blessed ones. In and through Jesus.

the first of the “blessed”: the poor in spirit

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:1-3

To be “poor in spirit” doesn’t seem a good place to be. Wouldn’t one want just the exact opposite? Jesus starts out his great Sermon on the Mount with the notice that such people are blessed.

I can well imagine the consternation, or at least wonder when some people read this. I do think most could easily reconcile themselves to the thought that this is a good place to start. But Jesus didn’t exactly say that. He simply said that such are blessed.

Going down the list of what is called the Beatitudes, those who are blessed seems to indicate that this is a present condition Jesus was referring to, even an ever present condition.

I can easily compare myself to the someones who seem brimming over with life, full of joy, always with a ready smile, and praise to God on their tongues. To compare myself with others is the first fallacy. To judge them would be another error.

No. I simply need to accept the obvious reality about myself: I am indeed poor in spirit, poor spiritually in and of myself. And to accept Jesus’s words about that condition, that then I am blessed, because the kingdom of heaven meets me there.

how Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount

[Jesus] said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:2b-3

If I would choose one passage to summarize my life, it might be this, and with a hope so. Jesus begins here, and this is where we need to begin and keep beginning. This is not like a one time thing, and then we move on. It’s something that should always characterize our thought and attitude about ourselves.

We’re ever in need of God’s grace and if we look at our lives honestly, we’ll know that we don’t measure up both in terms of sins of commission as well as omission. That doesn’t mean we excuse ourselves or our sin. But it does mean that we acknowledge our need for ongoing forgiveness of sin through confession, and acknowledge too our utter need of God’s grace to grow spiritually. We should never dismiss or minimize God’s promise to not only forgive our sins, but cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

I have often seen Christians who looked down on other Christians or churches as not being “Spirit-filled.” But it has seemed to me over and over again that too often what is exhibited in such attitudes is a demonstration of leaving this saying of Jesus behind. They somehow are beyond that, or maybe to them that only applies to people before they come to Jesus for conversion. Utterly false. I would rather be with the humble, poor in spirit any day, than with the Spirit-filled who have to look down on others. I’m at home with the “poor in spirit,” since I’m most certainly one of them.

At the same time it is the poor in spirit who will actually know more of the work of God’s Spirit in their lives. Especially in terms of “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-26) as we note that no matter what spiritual gift we might exercise, if it is not exercised with love, it amounts to nothing (1 Corinthians 13). That doesn’t mean we leave the Spirit-given gifts behind, but only that we put first things first.

If we fail to accept the reality that we’re poor in spirit, then we’ll inevitably be proud and compare ourselves with others, favorably for us, of course. Instead we’re to take the way of Jesus who made himself nothing (Philippians 2:7), who was humble in heart (Matthew 11:29). In and through Jesus.

the poor in spirit are the Spirit-filled

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3

The first of what’s called the Beatitudes in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount one might say is a bedrock to the rest. If pride is the first and fountainhead of the “seven deadly sins,” then Jesus meets that head on with the first words he speaks.

We might struggle with trusting God, and with other sins as well. But if we are living in pride, we’re all but lost. That must first go before we can deal with any of the rest. Otherwise we’re left on our own, since we think we can take care of it.

We might well say with C.S. Lewis that we indeed are proud people, and that admission paradoxically can be a point of humility. Humility is simply acknowledging the truth of one’s own limitation and sin.

We need to recognize and acknowledge our spiritual poverty. We need the Lord; we can’t do it ourselves. And that’s an ongoing need, not just a once upon a time need that we got taken care of, and now we’re good to go. We need the filling of the Spirit over and over again.

But a sign of really being filled with the Spirit is to ever know and acknowledge one’s own poverty of spirit. That may seem contradictory, but it is always the case. As long as we’re full of ourselves, we don’t need God. Or we may even think that God’s filling makes us able to take over and do it ourselves. Instead we need to realize that our need always and forever is Christ and Christ in us, as Paul says, “no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.” Then we’ll be beginning to understand what Jesus was getting at here.

finding the wealth in poverty

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5

Scripture and especially in the way of Jesus is full of paradox in which the normal order of things seems upside down. What works in the world isn’t at all what works in the way of the Lord. Unless somehow the world’s values are imposed on the church, which all too often is the case, and which we need to guard against both in our personal lives, and together, in the life and witness of the church. Of course that’s not to say that somehow we don’t try to connect with others in following Paul’s example of being all things to all people to by all possible means save as many as possible (1 Corinthians 9).

The way Jesus starts out the Sermon on the Mount is especially near and dear to me, since most all of my life I’ve really struggled internally. And scripture and especially the gospel does answer much of that struggle, for example the Lord gives us his peace in his presence in the Father’s love by the Spirit which is for all of us, for all who believe.

I find over and over again that accepting the struggle and hard places of life, instead of trying to find an answer past or around them is key for me. I find the Lord in those places, his strength in my weakness. I also have found again and again that the Lord meets me in the depths, in the hardest places. And that I shouldn’t be afraid of either pressure or even controversy, both inevitable even as simple followers of Jesus. But I am more than happy for those times which are relaxing and in which there doesn’t seem to be a care in the world.

The poor in spirit is an apt description of myself and my own spirit and spiritual state. But I find that’s where faith is born, and grows, and even thrives. Not in a world in which everything is awesome with high fives. But in a place of struggle which encourages humility so that we’re cast upon God.

I get in trouble when I am trying to find the spiritual secret to getting out of my mess. But when I accept the poverty, then ironically I find the Lord’s hand to help me to a place that seems more like Jesus, in him. Paul’s thought in Philippians comes to mind here:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…

Philippians 3

Over and over again, we find this to be true in the witness of scripture, and in life. With that comes the danger of caving in, and not having the right attitude in the midst of difficulty. Instead we need to press on in faith, and learn to rest in Jesus and the Father’s love in him. Accepting poverty so that we might find true riches in and through Jesus.

sadness is good for the heart

A good name is better than fine perfume,
    and the day of death better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart.
Frustration is better than laughter,
    because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
    but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person
    than to listen to the song of fools.
Like the crackling of thorns under the pot,
    so is the laughter of fools.
    This too is meaningless.

Ecclesiastes 7

Back to one of my personal favorite books of the Bible; it’s there for a reason, and not just for its ending. I like to think that Jesus could laugh with the best of them, but was more given to being with those who suffered, entering into their world and suffering empathetically with them, and relieving that suffering so that ultimately they could take up their cross and follow.

In the series at the church we’ve been attending, taking our grandchildren, and may become a part of, we’re in the midst of a new series on the book of Philippians called “Choosing Joy Under Pressure.” It seems to me that this deep joy thrives in the midst of pain and sadness, yes indeed- pressure. So that what the writer of Ecclesiastes might be getting at is how superficial people can be, so that their thoughts and lives do not at all rise to any level beyond the absurd.

Maybe this is in part why Jesus said the poor and poor in spirit are blessed, while the rich are not, at least not necessarily so, but open to woe and rebuke, and a cursed existence. I for one have lived with a lot of internal pain most all of my life. But I am also more and more realizing the joy of seeking to follow the Lord in the midst of it. Grace and peace from God accompanies all of our life in Jesus, including our pain.

In following Jesus, we are not living it up with partying and laughter, though that is a part of life as God created it to be, and can be a way to get to understand where people live, Jesus himself eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. The very heart of God is what we look for, and that is a heart of love, giving everything for others, for the world, in and through Jesus. And to do that, we must enter into the depths of what it means to be human, both in the enjoyment and appreciation of life, and in the difficulties, even death, which accompanies all of that. In and through Jesus.

muddling through life

muddle through

phrasal verb

If you muddle through, you manage to do something even though you do not have the proper equipment or do not really know how to do it.
We will muddle through and just play it day by day.
They may be able to muddle through the next five years like this.

I am more or less a fan of muddling through life. I’m sure this can be misunderstood, and actually is not an easy position to come to. By nature, there’s so much in life that’s trial and error. And some of us seem to be easily overcome emotionally, or whatever is the best way to describe it. So that life itself can seem overwhelming, a challenge, a heavy burden, even suffocating at times. I’ve been there, and still am there more often than I like.

It doesn’t matter how many times you go through such an experience, it’s so awful, that although you hopefully handle it much better, and guard yourself from letting things get to you, you’re going to hate it just as much, and want to be rid of it. And if you so much as catch a whiff of it, you would like to turn tail and run, have nothing to do with it. But then you’re caught up in it again.

I would like to say you can get rid of it by the right thought, prayer, or whatever. Maybe rarely that happens, but by and large it doesn’t and won’t. We do well to address the source of it, as best we can, hopefully having light from God to understand that, and then act on it. And not give up, but keep doing that.

But I’ve found, oddly enough, that the darkness and heaviness begins to dissipate, when I simply at last come to accept it. As a wise pastor from our past told us, we can’t simply snap ourselves out of fear (or a bad experience), and neither should we act on it. An important aside. But again, when I at last accept it, and determine to live with it by God’s grace, maybe something like Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12 he asked the Lord to remove three times, but the Lord didn’t, then, usually sooner than later, the heaviness and darkness will recede, and the light of the Lord’s joy and peace will again be more or less present.

I also find, frankly, that ordinarily I have the sense of muddling through life, since in my own experience, I’ve had to face quite a few times when I feel inadequate and lost in and of myself. But I find that the Lord is present, as I seek to do his will regardless.

I am not much of a fan of the idea that everything should be great, that we should be on a high on some mountaintop experience, that if we were living the normal Christian life, we would bring heaven down to earth, and others would catch it from us. Actually that might indeed end up being the case from learning to live in the valley, in the depths. Finding there, that in our weakness and lostness the Lord is present, and that we are experiencing something of his strength. That he resides with the broken and poor in spirit. And even want to help others through us. All of this in and through Jesus.

living in identification with the poor

It is wonderful to hear of those who are wealthy pouring a sizeable part of their fortune into helping those who are poor and in need. And I find it encouraging that Pope Francis turned down an invitation to a meal with members of the US Congress to instead eat with the homeless.

We all live in varying economic situations. Most of us in the United States and in other first world countries are wealthy in comparison to the rest of the world. Although many of us live from paycheck to paycheck with sizeable debt. Yet our standard of living is something billions of others could not imagine.

I found it striking to see that a psalm attributed to David, which may have been a Davidic psalm in a sense other than him having actually written it, that the writer saw themselves as “poor and needy” (Psalm 86). If one sees their true state, then instead of thinking they are well off just because they are materially wealthy, they will learn to see that they are indeed, “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3). Jesus called both the poor and the poor in spirit blessed, while he pronounced a woe on the rich. And stated that it is impossible for the rich to enter into the kingdom of God. But that what is impossible with humans is possible with God (Matthew 5; Luke 6; Matthew 19).

When we understand how everything is a gift and how utterly dependent we are on God for all of life including each breath that we breathe, we can begin to see ourselves as no different than those who live in abject poverty or conditions much  different than our own. But with that insight comes responsibility. In love we need to reach out and help those in need. And be sure that our hearts are not tied to material wealth rather than God.

We are poor in and of ourselves. Everything is a gift. With whatever we are blessed with we’re meant to bless others, especially with the true riches that last forever in and through Jesus.