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Becoming: Introductory Thoughts on Being Poor in Spirit

As I began to pursue my New Year’s Resolution to understand and develop more fully the characteristics of the Sermon on the Mount, my first characteristic was being “poor in spirit.” In this post, I’m going to explain my initial thoughts about poverty.

“Poor in spirit” is an interesting phrase. What struck me as I thought about it is that, in our modern society, we so marginalize and disdain poverty that we probably miss much of the meaning embedded in the phrase “poor in spirit” as a desirable trait. I thought about poverty – not about what it means in the dictionary, but rather what it means in practice. Iow, what does it mean to BE poor?

1) Poverty is the lack of ability to purchase or create things. It really isn’t more complicated than that at its most basic level. However, there is a strong sense of awareness of things desired that are beyond one’s means. Recognition of poverty is a real part of “practical poverty”. (Growing up, we were poor, but I didn’t feel poor until I reached junior high school and started wanting things I really didn’t “need” but that my parents couldn’t afford.) Poverty sometimes also means that one must rely on another person to provide things that are necessary.

2) Poverty isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If it keeps someone from obtaining things that she truly needs, a line is crossed – and “objective poverty” can be claimed. If necessities can be provided, poverty is not “evil” in and of itself.

3) Poverty forces priorities – to determine needs, desires and luxuries. It forces the luxuries and desires to be understood to be not critical for self-worth. It can eliminate non-essential distractions from life by forcing the poor to focus on what they need to do rather than what they want to do.

What happens when you take these descriptions of poverty and re-focus them on the spiritual?

1) Spiritual poverty is the lack of ability to “purchase” spiritual things. It can create an awareness of desires that are beyond one’s ability to obtain. It also means that if there are spiritual things that truly are necessary but out of one’s spiritual price range, that person must rely on someone else to pay the price for those things.

Being “poor in spirit”, therefore, means recognizing one’s inability to “buy, earn, deserve, purchase” spiritual blessings. It means that one is “damned” (stopped in growth) without the intervention of a rich associate. It means recognizing this need and supplicating that associate for assistance. Without spiritual poverty, one would never recognize the need for help – so he would never ask for it – so he would rarely receive it – so he would not grow spiritually – so he would be damned.

2) Spiritual poverty can be seen as a “bad” thing only if it keeps someone from obtaining spiritual things that they truly need. For example, not having access to the words of the current prophet is not a good thing, but it is difficult to argue that members in the heart of the Amazon rain forests or jungles of Africa who might not have access to those words will be damned eternally. As long as personal revelation can be received, spiritual poverty is not evil in and of itself.

3) Spiritual poverty forces personal priorities – to determine what is “good, better, best.” It forces luxuries and desires to be placed in their proper perspective – as not necessary for spiritual self-worth. It can eliminate non-essential distractions from life – by focusing on what is needed rather than what is wanted.

Thus, being poor in spirit allows a person to recognize the need for a Redeemer, beg that Redeemer to pay for what is unobtainable otherwise and prioritize spiritual efforts over things that will not bring eternal rewards. It allows a simplified life, where distractions are recognized and eliminated as impediments to spiritual growth.

On the other hand, being “rich in spirit” eliminates all those needs to rely on a Redeemer and limits blessings to what can be obtained on one’s own in this life and the next. Spiritual richness leads to pride and away from any “redeemer”, since the spiritually rich believes he can have it all based on his own efforts and wealth. Spiritual richness leaves one alone in her journey, separated from the yoke that makes burdens light and brings spiritual rest. People with spiritual wealth “have their reward” – as opposed to the Lord’s reward.

Spiritual wealth is an illusion, since we ALL need a Redeemer. Spiritual wealth simply is being unaware of one’s inherent spiritual poverty – of not recognizing one’s actual condition.

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • facethemusic May 18, 2008, 5:55 am

    Wow, Ray! I’ve honestly NEVER heard a better explanation of the phrase “poor in Spirit”.
    I’ve known the general meaning. I’ve always just thought of it as being “humble.” But this was an incredible delving into so much more than just “humble”. A truly profound way of explaining this beautiful doctrine. :thumbup::thumbup::thumbup:

  • delmar May 18, 2008, 5:42 pm

    I can’t explain how wonderful this is. Very, very well written! I’m putting it into my personal blog for a few of my non-lds friends to read. I wonder what reaction I’ll get? Trust me Ray, you’re getting all the credit.

  • nanacarol May 18, 2008, 9:26 pm

    I think this discussion on being poor in Spirit goes so well with the Joseph Smith lesson 9 on Spiritual Gifts. If as you say,Ray, that to have Spiritual Wealth, I don’t think the Gifts of the Spirit that are given to us are allowed to be acted upon. Please correct me if I am wrong. This discussion has really made me think about some things. Because of my joining this group, I am thinking and pondering more. It is really moving me to get even more involved in wanting answers from the scriptures and pondering more. I was wondering thru the site yesterday and came upon a subject that had really been troubling me all week. It was quite long and moved me to tears many times. But yet I know I was guided to that to particular segment because it was what I needed to read and help me restore my faith in the issue that was so troubling to me. It even helped me with a conversation with my daughter who thinks her mother knows nothing at times. And she listened when I gave her a really honest answer and allowed my courage to speak my honest conviction. And she was very willing to listen and agreed. Then yesterday I was watching a program that was questionable, and all of a sudden the thought came to me-if I want answers to my prayers will this program allow the spirit to come thru. Off went that TV quick!!! I love the gospel and I love you guys!

  • Ray May 18, 2008, 10:44 pm

    nanacarol, you said: “(If we) have Spiritual Wealth, I don’t think the Gifts of the Spirit that are given to us are allowed to be acted upon.”

    Wow! I really love that comment. I hadn’t quite put it into those terms, but I agree – since searching for and acknowledging Spiritual Gifts that come from God requires admission that we need those gifts. That constitutes at least a small degree of spiritual poverty.

    Thanks for that insight! I’m going to add that to my original write-up of this concept.

  • davidson May 19, 2008, 1:54 pm

    I took a weekend break to do some necessary things, and I was sorry to have missed this the day you wrote it. Very insightful, Ray, and it has given me a lot to think about. Like Nanacarol, I think this went along very well with the Gifts of the Spirit lesson from Joseph Smith.

    This was an interesting way to look at “poor in spirit.” I had never looked at being poor in spirit as a desirable trait. Just as there are people who are temporally poor through no fault of their own, I suppose there are people who are lacking the gift of the Holy Ghost through no fault of their own. But just as there are people who are temporally poor because of their own laziness, there are probably some spiritually lazy ones as well, such as people who know the Church is true and have received the imposition of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but think Sacrament meeting is boring and would rather be boating on Sunday. To me, that is a CHOICE to be poor in spirit, poor as in “failing to do the work required to bring the presence of the Spirit.” I could never muster much compassion for people in that category. That is probably wrong of me, something to overcome, but I can’t understand why a man or woman chooses to starve, when a feast is perpetually spread.

    In the Matthew version, the footnote clarifies what the term “poor in spirit” means: “IE, poor in pride, humble in spirit.” Very much in keeping with what you said, Ray. I also liked the footnote concerning 3 Nephi 12:3, which reads, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit WHO COME UNTO ME.” I suppose there could be a gentle humble, prideless person who still knows nothing of Jesus Christ. The “who come unto me” qualifier is important, and what a man chooses to do when he learns that there is a Jesus Christ to “come unto” speaks volumes.

    I guess I balk a little at the idea that spiritual wealth is bad. If a person feels that he has accomplished the many good things in his life on his own, that isn’t “spiritual wealth,” it’s just pride. It has nothing to do with spirituality. To me, to be spiritually wealthy is to be “rich in Christ,” to recognize that all things good come from Him. It is to recognize that we are mere visitors in His house of riches, and while we are guests there, He will lovingly share all that He has with us. As guests in His house, we are free to eat His food and wash ourselves clean at His expense. He puts out the guest towels for us! We share in His riches; we are rich by association only. And we are invited to stay eternally.

    I think they ask some people to teach in Relief Society not for what they can teach, but for what teaching will force them to learn. I know that is the case with me. As I studied to teach the Gifts of the Spirit Joseph Smith lesson, I had some new ideas slap me upside the head, things I really needed to know. I learned that at the imposition of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, each person is given AT LEAST ONE spiritual gift, but very often many more than one. Bruce R. McConkie says there are an infinite number of spiritual gifts. I noticed that some are all-you-can-eat gifts that last a lifetime; some are one-trip-only gifts that are needed in the spur of the moment, and they lie dormant in you until they are called for. I am fascinated by that. (I liked what Elder Packer said about “you can’t tell how high a frog is going to jump by looking at him.”) It is okay to “covet the best gifts”; in fact, we are invited to pray for spiritual gifts we don’t have, and that is the one time when coveting is good. All gifts of the Spirit suit the situation perfectly. I also learned that Satan has gifts of an evil spirit that he wants to offer, and he tries to force us to take them, gifts such as doubt and discouragement and fear. The gift of discernment is an important gift to help us recognize the enemy.

    As I studied, I grew more and more uncomfortable. I realized, arrogant fool that I am, that I thought it was ME! I thought I was the perpetuator, or at least the continuator and enlarger, of my gifts! As slow understanding came, I felt to hit my knees and APOLOGIZE PROFUSELY. I was so embarrassed. I think I was taking credit where credit wasn’t due. I learned that I am just the vase that HOLDS the flowers. He created the flowers, and he even made the vase! Now when I get a compliment, I intend to say in all sincerity, “Thank you; I will tell Him,” and my heart will point upward. I have come to know how “nothing” I am. When I receive praise, I will pass on it, and pass it on. In my heart of hearts, I will tell myself, “If it was good, it was God.”

  • Ray May 19, 2008, 3:02 pm

    davidson, I agree with what you said, but I think you simply have a hard time with the choice of the words “spiritual wealth”. I used it simply to mean the opposite of “spiritual poverty” – to mean “proud”.

    Fwiw, I think what you are describing would be called “spiritual strength” rather than “spiritual wealth”.

  • facethemusic May 20, 2008, 2:30 pm

    davidson, I agree with what you said, but I think you simply have a hard time with the choice of the words “spiritual wealth”. I used it simply to mean the opposite of “spiritual poverty

    Yeah– it can be hard to understand Ray’s use of “spiritual wealth” if you’re thinking of it with modern word usage. You have to remember that “poor in spirit” in Bibical lingo is a GOOD thing, and a desirable trait.

    Matt. 5:3
    Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ?

    So he’s using “spiritual wealth” or in other words being “rich in spirit” to mean the OPPOSITE of “poor in spirit”.

  • davidson May 20, 2008, 6:21 pm

    I guess we can play with this a little, can’t we? (Rubbing hands in delight.)

    I understood what Ray meant when he first wrote it and agree that to be “poor in spirit” is a good thing, but for some reason, the phrase “spiritual wealth” as a negative trait didn’t ring true for me. Everything else in the article did. In order to be true, it seems to me that a concept must be able to stand independent, in any sphere, in any age. Isn’t that the nature of truth? (And now somebody will probably prove me wrong. I don’t mind being proven wrong. :smile:) “Spiritual greed” might be a good opposite for “spiritual poverty.” Not every wealthy man is a greedy man. I know several very rich people who make it their life’s mission to go about quietly doing good. But spiritual wealth as a negative thing? To me, spiritual wealth is what Jesus was telling us to seek when he said, “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. –Matthew 6:20-21 (Also Biblical lingo, and it seems to me in this case that “laying up treasure”, being spiritually wealthy, is a good thing.)

    Let’s remember that we’re agreeing on the original concept but exploring the possible meanings of the words.

    I’ll stick by my phrase “spiritual wealth” instead of “spiritual strength.” I’ll tell you why. My dear brother is a multimillionaire. He is also one of the kindest, gentlest men I know. When he invites me to his house, he does it with love. He lays out the best food. I sleep in the best beds. His beautiful bathrooms are mine to use and enjoy. He waits on me hand and foot. I am a poor woman, by his standards, but when I visit in his house, for a few hours or days, I am rich. I am rich by association. I am rich because he loves me and welcomes me in and allows me to share what he has, but only when I come to him. He doesn’t have that luxury when he comes to me, unfortunately. When I go to him, I am not strong for a few hours or days; I am rich for a few hours or days. I share in his abundance. I have come to feel that way about our Savior. Only when I come unto him, I share in the abundance of his spiritual gifts. I am not normally a patient person. He is richly patient. When I come unto him, I can revel in the glory of His patience and use some of it myself. It is not generated by me; it is a gift, a sacred loan. I am not normally a forgiving person. He is richly forgiving. When I come unto him, I can revel in the glory of His forgiving nature and use some of it myself. It is not generated by me; it is a gift; a sacred loan. He did the work to receive it, but he willingly shares it.

    I guess that’s why I feel the way I do about “spiritual wealth.”

  • Ray May 20, 2008, 6:47 pm

    davidson, I really like your explanation. Thanks for sharing it – for “playing with this a little.” I can see exactly what you mean. I just don’t choose to define those words that way. 🙂 – and I love that the Church and the Gospel allows us to “liken these things unto us” differently.

    I look at “laying up treasures in heaven” as related to “producing fruits for the harvest” – as the results of what we do – as the proof that our faith is real and motivating. I don’t see that as “spiritual wealth” that same way – partly because I also interpret that phrase in relation to King Benjamin’s General Conference address to his people. (Also, I think there is an interesting difference between the word “wealthy” and “rich.” Perhaps “rich in the Spirit” would be more appropriate, in my eyes, for what you mean than “spiritual wealth.”)

    Mosiah 2:20-21;25 –

    “20 I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another
    21 I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.
    25 And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you.”

    I interpret that to mean that you still will be “spiritually poor” – or NOT “spiritually wealthy.”

    Mosiah 4 goes on to talk about how to be “poor in spirit” even as you are “rich in material things” – which addresses your brother directly. It is the fact that he is NOT “spiritually wealthy” that allows him to transcend his “material wealth” and be the amazing person he is. What this says to me is that the condition of the spirit can transcend the “natural man” that tends to eliminate “spiritual poverty” among the “materially rich” – as appears to be the case with your brother. That means he really is a fabulous person, since he is able to avoid becoming spiritually wealthy in the midst of his material prosperity.

  • nanacarol May 20, 2008, 8:25 pm

    I would like to put another spin on the words Spiritually Wealthy. It reminds me of the Pharisees. From the Bible Dictionary, “They prided themselves on their strict observance of the law, and on the care with which they avoided contact with things gentile.Their belief included the doctrine of immortality and resurrection of the body and the existence of angels and spirits. They upheld the authority of oral tradition as of equal value with the written law. The tendency of their teaching was to reduce religion to the observance of a multiplicity of cerimonial rules, and to encourage self-sufficiency and spiritual pride.(This is the best part coming up!) THEY WERE A MAJOR OBSTACLE TO THE RECEPTION OF CHRIST AND THE GOSPEL BY THE JEWISH PEOPLE” They knew so much and thought they knew it all that they did not see the Truth when it was in their mists. We have to recognize that we are dependent on Heavenly Father. Only when we are poor in spirit then we are teachable. Again another gift that is given when we are humble.

    Davidson, your brother is wealthy in material things. However, from you description of him-he is definately poor in spirit which makes him a greater man. I am sure he gives much gratitute to the Lord for all he has here on earth. He has learned to share his wealth in the way the Lord intended he share. Now that Ray has brought up this discussion on poor in spirit I think it has many facets we could study! Let’s get going!!

  • davidson May 21, 2008, 10:49 am

    Okay! Thanks for the good thoughts! I spent a long time thinking about this last night while I was trying to go to sleep, and I came to this conclusion.

    A word is a symbol. It can mean different things at different times to different people. It may even be capable of having opposite meanings, depending on the manner in which it is used. I’m thinking of verbal symbols, but it is also true of physical symbols. Think about an extended thumb. If you curl your fist, extend your thumb, and point the thumb upward, it might mean things like, “Good job! Right on! I approve!” :thumbup: If you curl your fist, extend your thumb, and point the thumb downward, it might mean, “Bad idea! I don’t like it! I vote no!” But if you curl your fist, extend your thumb, and point it sideways while standing at the edge of the road, it might mean, “Please come here! I need a ride!” Or if you curl your fist, extend your thumb, and JERK it to the side, it might mean just the opposite: “Get out of here! I’ve had enough of you! Go away.”

    So, words are vehicles to understanding, and you can drive them in any direction. Fair enough?

    (And thank you for taking time to discuss scriptural concepts with me; I do love the scriptures and enjoy exploring their meanings. And hey, I’m an English major; I always enjoy a good game of semantics. Please forgive me my weakness.) :bigsmile:

    If you curl your fist, extend your thumb, and suck it, does that mean you’re feeling insecure about writing at Mormon Momma?

  • facethemusic May 21, 2008, 1:31 pm

    LOVE the thumbguistics Davidson!!!

  • Ray May 21, 2008, 3:41 pm

    A better word might be “Thumbonics”. 😉

  • davidson May 21, 2008, 4:19 pm

    Thumbguistics! Thumbonics! The new “Webster and Webster”! I will buy your first dictionary, Face and Ray. It’s gonna be big.

  • Ray May 24, 2008, 12:57 pm

    “I will buy your first dictionary, Face and Ray. It’s gonna be big.”

    I would like the chance to be poor in spirit amid material wealth. 😉

  • davidson May 25, 2008, 5:27 am

    Yes, I’d like to try that, too! “May the Lord curse me with it, and may I never recover!” (Tevye)

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