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.