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Poverty of Spirit = Happiness

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us several ways to be happy. Matthew 5 opens up with a string of, “Blessed are… the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers…” It is interesting that the Greek word for blessed is “makarios” which literally means “happy” (Makar is the Greek word for happy). Jews used the term to describe a person in the state of salvation, someone with the blessing and favor of God on their lives.

“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:1-3).'”

Happy are the people who are poor in spirit? Really? Poverty of spirit means that you don’t feel you have sufficient resources within yourself to face life’s challenges. Poverty of spirit has less to do with being monetarily rich or poor, per se, but whether you embrace daily dependence on God for all that you need. Simply put, poverty of spirit means that you embrace daily dependence on God for all that you need. In the Greek language, there are two terms for poor. The first word refers to those who struggle financially, those who barely have enough money to eat; what we call college students today. The second was “ptóchos”, which was onomatopoeia: you know, where the word sounds like what it indicates? Ptochos. What does that sound like? Spit. (A great Greek word—I love that Jesus used it!) It meant the outcast of society. The despised. Someone so despised in society that they were literally spit on. This is the word that Jesus used for “poor” here. This is the “poor” that Jesus said would inherit the kingdom itself.

This “poor” in spirit can best be reflected in a parable Jesus would later tell of two men who went to the Temple.

10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 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 18:10-14

Let’s briefly compare to these two men. The first man (a Pharisee) prayed to his pompous self; the other man (a tax collector) beat his chest asking God to be merciful to him. The tax collector, Jesus said, went home justified, not the religious man, because the religious man walked into the Temple rich in his own righteousness, which was no righteousness at all, and walked out with only that righteousness. The tax collector walked in poor in spirit, and left with the righteousness of God credited to his account.

What do we learn? God only fills empty hands: which means that if you are convinced of your own righteousness, you will not receive the righteousness of God. What keeps you from the righteousness of God is not your moral inability; what keeps you from the righteousness of God is your moral ability because that keeps you blinded to your need for grace. But if you feel like you are poor in righteousness, you can receive His gift righteousness. I’ve learned you can apply this not just to the act of salvation but also as a principle across the broad spectrum of the Christian life,

Those who feel capable as parents will not experience the power of God in their parenting. It’s not poor parenting that messes up your kids, but confidence in your good parenting that can cause problems. Those who have a poverty of spirit regarding their abilities as parents, they are the ones who lean into the power of God for their children.  It is your feeling capable in your ministry that cuts you off from the power of God. It is only when we depend on God, and not on ourselves, for provision, wisdom, power, and guidance that we access His power. God only fills empty hands.

Now, just a little pet-peeve of mine. This is why I hate it when worship leaders start off worship services by saying, “Well, how do you feel?” How do I feel? I feel poor in the spirit, like a beggar, like someone to be spit on, so tell me about the gift riches of Christ, don’t ask me how I feel.

Most of us have spent our entire lives shaped by a culture trying to get us to become anything but poor in the spirit. We want to be rich in the spirit, or at least middle class in the spirit. We got it all under control. We want to feel like we are sufficient for the task, like we have it under control and don’t need to be afraid going into the future. But not only does this keep us cut off from God’s help, it also corrupts our spirit. It actually keeps us from being happy! (And this is where you start to see the profound wisdom of Jesus’ way)

Like the man in this story, being rich in ourselves makes us proud and disdainful of others. This religious man despises others he sees as not as good, or capable, as he is. He can’t help it, because when you are proud, your life becomes an endless cycle of comparison and competition.

C. S. Lewis talked about how the essence of pride is competition. To pride it does not matter that I am smart, it only matters that I am smarter than you. It doesn’t matter that I’m good-looking, only that I’m better looking than you. For this reason, proud people, Lewis says, can never get along. People of other vices & sins can get along (drunks like to drink together, immoral people like to brag to each other about their exploits), but proud people always hate each other. Because their pride is always in conflict with someone else’s pride.

So, the quickest way to tell that you have a pride problem is that somebody else’s pride bothers you. You want to know how you are proud? Someone else’s pride ticks you off. Because they just think they are “something”. And that means that they don’t think you are “something”, and you know that you are “something” and not them so their “something-ness” is getting in the way of your “something-ness” and you know you are the real “something”, not their “something”. So they should just sit down and be quiet.

Maybe the worst effect of being rich in yourself is that you become ungrateful, because you are always focused on what you think you are entitled to and how others aren’t giving it to you. You always feel like you deserve more, like you’re being wronged. And that makes you unhappy. Ungrateful people are always unhappy people.

But when you and I realize that every breath we take and every step we take is a gift of God, in grace, that makes us grateful, and we become happy. Grateful people are happy people.

So what we need today is not this mighty richness of the spirit that goes out and conquers the world. What we need is the spirit of Gideon, who said, “I am the smallest man from the smallest tribe,” or David who said, “Who am I, God, that you should offer to build me a house and promise me all these things?” Or Isaiah, who said, Woe is me…”

Because then, not only will we have access to the gift power of God, we’ll be insanely happy!