Foundations of Becoming: Thoughts on Spiritual Poverty

RayBible, grace, repentance, scripture, Sermon on the Mount, spiritual progression 17 Comments

Matthew 5:3 says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

As I was pondering the phrase “poor in spirit” recently, it hit me pretty hard 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. Therefore, I started thinking about the implications of poverty – what it means not as defined in the dictionary, but rather in practical terms. Iow, what does it mean to **BE** poor – particularly in ways that can be seen as bringing blessings?

1) Poverty is the lack of ability to purchase things. It implies an awareness of things desired that are beyond one’s ability to have or do – since recognition of poverty is a real part of the effects of poverty.

From the time I was eleven, my parents raised eight children on an elementary school janitor’s salary. Technically, we were poor, but we kids didn’t realize it until we were in high school. We *were* poor, but we didn’t *feel* poor – since we really didn’t want things beyond our parents’ ability to provide until we reached an age where we started wanting things we really didn’t need.

Being poor also means that if there are things that truly are necessary but out of one’s price range, one must rely on another person to provide those things.

2) Poverty, in and of itself, is only a “bad” thing if it keeps us from obtaining things that we truly need. For example, not having cable TV (or TV at all) and the internet is inconvenient in our time in this country, but it certainly is hard to argue that TV or the internet is truly a need – unless they are necessary for the performance of one’s job. As long as basic necessities can be met, poverty is not “evil” by any stretch of the word.

3) Poverty forces one to prioritize – to determine what things are necessary, desirable or luxurious. It forces the luxuries and desires to be placed in their proper perspective – as not essential to life and self-worth. In a very real way, it eliminates non-essential distractions and irrelevancies from life by forcing the poor to do what they need to do rather than what they want to do.

These are only a few things poverty is and does. Now, take these descriptions of poverty and re-focus them on the spiritual. What does that create?

1) Spiritual poverty is the lack of ability to acquire spiritual things. It implies an awareness of things desired that are beyond one’s ability to have or do – since recognition of poverty is a real part of the effects of poverty. It also means that if there are spiritual things that truly are necessary but out of one’s spiritual price range, one must rely on another person to provide them.

So, in this regard, being “poor in spirit” means recognizing one’s inability to “buy, earn, deserve, purchase” spiritual blessings – that, without the intervention of another, rich benefactor, one is “damned” (stopped) in his ability to grow spiritually. It means recognizing and turning to Him who is able to provide the spiritual capital she lacks. Without understanding my spiritual poverty, I would never recognize my need for help – so I would never ask for it – so I would rarely receive it – so I would not grow spiritually.

2) Spiritual poverty, in and of itself, is only a “bad” thing if it keeps people from obtaining spiritual things that they truly need. For example, not having access to spiritual communications to all is inconvenient in our time, but it certainly is hard to argue that universal communication is truly a need for every individual. As long as basic personal (including emergency) communications can be received, spiritual poverty is not evil in any stretch of the word.

3) Spiritual poverty forces one to prioritize – to determine what things are spiritually necessary, desirable or luxurious. (what is best, better, good, neutral, bad) It forces luxuries and desires to be placed in their proper perspective – as not essential to spiritual life and self-worth. In a very real way, it eliminates non-essential distractions and irrelevancies from ones’ spiritual life – by focusing the spiritually poor on what they need rather than what they want.

In summary, being poor in spirit allows a person to recognize the need for a Redeemer (someone to buy them and free them from the chains of their poor and lowly state), supplicate that Redeemer to pay for what they cannot obtain on their own, and prioritize spiritual purchases instead of those things that will not advance spiritual progression. It allows one to simplify spiritual life, recognize spiritual distractions and eliminate impediments to spiritual growth.

Thinking one is “rich in spirit”, otoh, eliminates all those needs that lead to such wonderful blessings and, in a very real sense, limits blessings to what can be accomplished and obtained on one’s own in this life and the next. A perception of spiritual richness leads one to believe he needs no help – no “redeemer” – no prioritization, since he believes he can have it all on his own. If we believe we are spiritually wealthy, we are unable to act upon and magnify the Gifts of the Spirit that are given to us (or acquire new ones) – since searching for and acknowledging spiritual gifts that come from God requires admission that we need those gifts and can’t obtain them on our own. This attitude of spiritual richness leaves one alone, isolated from the yoke that lightens burdens and provides spiritual rest. People who believe they are spiritually wealthy “have their reward” – as opposed to the Lord’s reward.

Finally, I believe that it is just as easy for those who believe they know God’s will better than others to be caught up in an attitude of spiritual richness as it is for “the heathen”. It is easy to forget that now we “see through a glass, darkly” and need to rely on God to provide a better prescription. I believe that can be seen in many discussions in the Bloggernacle – unfortunately on both sides of any discussion.

It is counterintuitive in this day and age to desire poverty (true humility), but the reward cannot be more important – nor can the negative consequences of pride be more destructive.

Comments 17

  1. being poor in spirit allows a person to recognize the need for a Redeemer and It is easy to forget that now we “see through a glass, darkly” and need to rely on God to provide a better prescription. are powerful insights.

    Thank you.

  2. Really interesting perspective, thank you for the post.

    Either kind of poverty forces you to recognize where you really stand. I think we’re All poor in spirit. Some realize it and are blessed because they are able to obtain from the great benefactor what they need. Others don’t see their own need and remain impoverished.

  3. I always took the phrase “poor in spirit” to describe a condition of lacking faith (getting little spirit makes faith more difficult to attain, I would imagine). In the absence of an abundance of faith through the spirit, a person must rely upon his intellect to discern the character and nature of God. Faith can teach all sorts of wrong principles, and faith can accept those things that are incorrect as though they were true.

    Relying on God-given intellect and logic to approach a position where one’s faith rests upon knowledge enables one to more easily “inscribe the words upon the tables of truth”. Truth only teaches those things that are true.

    Those who are rich in spirit do not need to rely upon truth table mechanics and the right application of logical operators to discern truth, for they possess truth through faith, which “truth” is most often false.

    Scriptures employ the logical conjunctions (AND) & disjunctions (OR), exclusive disjunctions (XOR), and negations (NOT) much more frequently than those people who are rich in spirit would suppose (because those rich in spirit appeal to authority for their understanding, while those poor in spirit must work it out in their own minds).

    You have some very interesting ideas about the poverty of spirit that I hadn’t quite thought of before, certainly much of what you say is also relevant to the character of those “poor in spirit”.

    [Are you guys going to make me use every Squid proxy and Tor onion available on the Internet? I am the most stubborn and persistent person you will ever meet, especially when such simple posts of mine are deleted. *wink*]

  4. “It forces luxuries and desires to be placed in their proper perspective”

    I loved this comment Ray. What spiritual luxuries do I desire, but do not actually need? How can I grow spiritually without developing a perception of spiritual richness? In order to grow spiritually, I have to become poorer in spirit. Putting off the ‘natural man’ (which helps me grow spiritually) makes me spiritually poor (by confessing that I cannot do it with out God’s spiritual capital).

  5. I think a Greek exegesis compliments Ray’s analysis. Poor — ptochos — just doesn’t invoke the nuance of having a lack or opposite of richness, but rather being a beggar, a pauper, a needy and dependent person in matters of spirit — pneuma — which is the breath of life, the ghost, the spiritual. We who recognize our neediness and dependence on the Spirit of God’s living breath into a spiritual life enter into the Reign of God, not just of the Heavenly hereafter but the here and now Kingdom.

  6. Post

    Thanks, everyone.

    You’re welcome, Stephen.

    jjackson, you nailed the point about all of us actually being poor in spirit – and the need to recognize that about ourselves.

    Rigel, that paradox is what I love about this concept. Those are excellent points and questions.

    I could have included the King Benjamin treatise on beggars, but the post was long enough, as is. I think the speech is brilliant, however, in the way it treats the overall issue of being poor in spirit. Thanks for mentioning it, JfQ.

  7. Ray, one of the many aspects of your writing that I love is how, after walking through your analyses – comparisons – paradoxes, I find myself somehow changed. I have begun to develop a filter through which my thoughts pass before they manifest themselves in behavior. It isn’t that my behavior changes much. It’s that I have a different premise for behaving the way I do. There are so many fascinating topics to explore on these blogs. There aren’t as many that help me as I put one foot in front of the other the way yours do. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  8. “Spiritual poverty forces one to prioritize.” This is an interesting perspective. I usually think of access to spiritual gifts as being very easy – an abundance mindset. But look at Mother Theresa who spent her whole life in service to others, only to find out that she did not feel the presence of God in her life during that time which was very painful to her. Is that also spiritual poverty perhaps? The dark night of the soul?

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    Thank you, Ellen. I can’t say it adequately, so that will have to do.

    Hawk, I would say that Mother Theresa’s example is of the moment when the truly, amazingly humble are left completely alone as the final test of their faith – something I believe relatively few of us ever will experience. I see her continued faith as the same basic act as Jesus remaining on the cross when he realized His Father had left him all alone. Part of me wants to have that experience; the larger part does not want it in the slightest.

  10. Ray,
    It is interesting to me to note (as you point out) that this part of the sermon on the mount is a study in contrasts.

    Those who mourn are comforted.

    Those who are meek inherit the earth.

    In looking at the Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word (ptochos) translated as ‘poor’ here is also translated as ‘beggar.’ In following the contrast, as the interlinear Bible states: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because of them is the kingdom of the heavens.” It seems to me to follow that pattern of contrasts, the beggars will make up the kingdom of heaven.

    Strong also adds the comment: “The poor in spirit are not lacking in spirit but have the positive moral quality of humility, realizing they have nothing to offer God but are in need of His free gifts.”

    I find it sobering that the people of king Benjamin did not receive a remission of their sins until they viewed themselves as ‘less than the dust of the earth.’ As one beggar to another, there is nothing we can do, no personal possessions we can acquire, no earthly kingdoms or principalities we can conquer that can ‘change’ us. It can only come from Christ. When we truly comprehend our ‘nothingness’ is when we are ready to come unto Christ who offers us ‘all things.’ Yet another study in contrasts. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

  11. I think I’ve felt some sort of spiritual poverty at times, I see it sort of differently (but sort of the same), similar to what was described in Mother Theresa’s life. Despite the idea that a testimony just grows and grows as your life goes on, I was born in the Church, felt like I was “converted” at 19 (NOT when I started my mission, because I started when I was almost 21), and yet there were still times when I was completely beaten down, stripped of everything I had, and I really just had to start from scratch: “God, are you there? Do you exist? Do you know who I am?” It was these times when I really felt my testimony grew the most. Just like that old current bush story, I needed to be cut completely down and re-grow in order to really understand who I was.

    I am reminded of Alma, in his discourse in Chapter 5 of Alma:

    45 And this is not all. Do ye not suppose that I know of these things myself? Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety?

    46 Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me.

    Despite his amazing angelic manifestation(s), Alma reached some point in his life where he had to fast and pray of the truthfulness of what he taught. I learned a lot from this scripture. Just as, in the world of finance and economics, we can so often go from “boom” to “bust” in short moments, so can our testimonies take a hit and bring us down to spiritual poverty, to start from scratch again.

  12. The great irony here is that I, as a reasonably comfortable middle-class agent, am now pretending to speak intelligently on poverty of any kind. Poverty as a redemptive quality? The big talk these days by the progressive pundits use the term “social justice” to essentially describe the recent theo-political moves in the realm of poverty. Yet, even (especially) at BYU, wealth and business ethic appear to be the order of the day. Is there something in our culture that has a propensity for creating bureaucrats and cutthroat executives? (if one questions this, do examine Mitt Romney’s demigodic status in Utah). And how has this business ethic played into our current perception of what makes an American Latter Day Saint successful?

    I would suggest that some of our people have watered down the meaning of the injunction to be poor in spirit to instead espouse the old, far more satisfying Weberian Protestant work ethic. There is excellent research being done by G. Wesley Johnson on “urban pioneers” of the 20th century within the faith…and a large faction of that group do not resemble in the least the hard-scrabble bunch we envision as part of our cultural heritage. Attorneys, entrepeneurs, an occasional scientist…these are the “pioneers” who brought the gospel to much of the nation in the 20th century. Given their financial stability and their attendant charisma, it is understandable that such values would become associated with the founding of the Church of modern America. While they certainly endured their own hardships, these were hardships that eventually culminated in fortunes and business empires, not cutesy frame homes and log cabins.

    Therefore, I would suggest that the meaning “poor in spirit” has, unfortunately, taken on the edge that Bruce Barton portrays in his biography of Jesus printed in 1925: “the founder of modern business.” In other words, if one is “poor in spirit,” it means he gives of his wealth freely to bless the Church. If he has no such resources, however, then they are just another goodly member of the Church’s hoi polloi in the kingdom of heaven. In other words, they are just “poor” and will get a plot in the kingdom of heaven.

  13. Spektator, I really like, “When we truly comprehend our ‘nothingness’ is when we are ready to come unto Christ who offers us ‘all things.’” First – last; lose to find; so many ways to say it.

    Arthur, I hadn’t put it into those words before, but “I needed to be cut completely down and re-grow in order to really understand who I was,” really rings true with Andrew’s “Dark Night of the Soul” post.

    Russell, that’s an interesting point about the change in meaning from the original. I see that same type of transformation in a lot of things. I’ll have to consider that concept as a potential source of future posts.

  14. I like it, I like it a lot.

    In french the translation for “poor in spirit” is “simple minds” or “simple in spirit”. The second translation leads to your conclusion. The first one is also a way in France to talk about stupid people. With my sarcastic tendency I often refer to this scripture as a way to step back and to make un of things I hear at church that are dumb. But it the mean time I know this is not the smartest way to react.
    I really like what you wrote and how in the end, although the term used being very different from its equivalent in french, the meaning of this scripture is the same in both language (and probably in other languages as well).
    It would be nice to have someone speaking russian for example telling us about it too.

  15. Iasngymn (try to pronounce that one!) – I hadn’t considered the implications of “simple in spirit” – or the twist on lack of understanding with “stupidity”. That fits even more easily Paul’s take on lack of clarity.

    I actually spoke this past Sunday on how humility is related to the Atonement, and I used this as the foundation text. I started with a definition of humility I really like:

    “Humility is the recognition that we don’t know everything – and that we don’t know fully even the things we know.”

  16. I think it is a little speculative to make a logical case for the adjective ptochos — poor, needy, pauperlike, beggarlike — in this Matthew verse to lead to an English etymological argument on neediness equaling “violence” to satiate that desire. Connotatively “violence” might lead understanding in the wrong direction, even if you are denotatively very insightful.

    Still, it is a very interesting inquiry into what it can mean to really need something, informing the urgency behind satisfying our dependent need for the Spirit. Those who find the Kingdom are those who hunger, yearn, thirst, lust, if you will, for it. Such words convey a provocative and driven urgency that sometimes our more commonly used verbs like seek and hope can seem a little weak and non-committal in comparison.

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    I agree, JfQ – especially given the Beatitudes in their entirety. I believe we have to be passionately involved (immersed, if you will), but every one of the characteristics in the Beatitudes is one that is humbling in nature. I think that’s why being “poor in spirit” is the first, foundational trait on the list.

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