Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:3a “Blessed are the poor in spirit:. . .”
The road to happiness starts in one’s attitude toward self. “Poor in spirit” is the first characteristic of God’s citizenry, the gate through which the lost must pass to be found, the path on which every step of the Christian life must be taken.
To be “poor in spirit” means to know that in the spiritual realm of our lives we are by nature weak sinners, having no merit of our own to earn God’s favor. It means having a deep, inner sense “of need, of emptiness, of dependence on God” (Maclaren). It begins at conversion and continues throughout the Christian life.
“Poor in spirit” describes the heart-wrenching scene of the publican (LK 18:10ff), despised by his peers and ridden with guilt, intimidated by the flaunting Pharisee, too embarrassed to come far into the temple, standing off in a corner, too ashamed to lift his eyes unto heaven, bowing his head, and pounding on his chest while groaning, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus was so pleased with him that believers have ever since imitated his posture of bowing the head to pray.
Paul, before conversion, was self-righteous, deeming himself “blameless” (PH 3:6) with regard to the law. He had once thought he was building a stairway to heaven out of his own goodness, but even years after he became a Christian, he was still “poor in spirit,” crying out, “O wretched man that I am!” (RM 7:24).
Being “poor in spirit” does not mean we see ourselves as having little value, zero worth. Jesus said, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (MK 8:36). In God’s eyes, we are each worth more than the whole world. We are not to deem ourselves insignificant. “Poor in spirit” means we know that our own weakness keeps us far short of God’s standard.
The Prodigal Son (LK 15) is a classic example of one who understood both his high worth and extreme need. “He came to himself,” realizing he was meant for something better, yet knowing he needed his dad’s help to reach his potential.
When “poor in spirit,” we take our rightful place before God, in the dust at His feet pleading for His power. Not because I am a nobody, but because I am a somebody, because I have worth in God’s eyes, and because He wants to bless me.
Being “poor in spirit” is a spiritual concern, not a call to be poor in personality or performance. Jesus does not seek to change our basic personalities. There is nothing wrong with being shy, bashful, talkative, stong-willed, compliant, etc. Peter was naturally aggressive, strong-willed, an A-1 personality, yet at the same time “poor in spirit.” He once cried to Jesus, “Depart from me: for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Recognizing his own spiritual weakness, Peter was “poor in spirit,” but his basic personality remained constant throughout his life. Being “poor in spirit” does not suppress personality, but rather highlights our spiritual weakness.
Many people are strong performers, having natural talents, skills, and abilities. There is no virtue in denying our strengths. David knew he was an effective leader, yet humbly spoke, “Lord, who am I that thou shouldst come to me?” Being “poor in spirit” did not cause David to deny his natural skill. God re-creates our will, indwells us, and takes control of us, but doesn’t remove our talents and skills. Do not spend life pretending to be someone you are not. Accept yourself, your personality, strengths, and weaknesses. Let Jesus hold absolute sway over them.
Being “poor in spirit” simply means we realize we need help in the most vital area of life. We must crave a poverty of spirit which depends entirely on the Lord for spiritual matters. The first lesson we learn about the Christian life is we do not have enough strength in ourselves to live it. Tough goals must be achieved, high standards reached, tall mountains climbed, and none of us has power in and of ourselves to accomplish them. Any who think they can live the Christian life on their own power prove they are clueless as to what the Christian life entails.
We must be praying people, beggars pleading for help. We have no strength but what we receive, thus always be asking (Vaughan). A Christian who can live without prayer is no Christian at all. We must often fall to our knees, cast ourselves before God, and cry in desperation, “O Jesus, this I cannot do. Help me.”
Being “poor in spirit” is hard to accomplish because self-advancement and self-confidence are America’s cultural idols. We are bombarded with admonitions to use our innate abilities to improve ourselves in every area of life–to be better salesmen, leaders, managers, students, laborers, etc. Whatever our vocation, we are told to tap our own inner strengths, to impress others with an air of confidence and assurance. Zig Ziglar makes us better salesmen, Dale Carnegie improves our communication skills, Stephen Covey produces better leaders, Peter Drucker enhances our management skills–the list goes go on and on. These writers and others do a good job of helping us improve our natural abilities. We are grateful for these teachers, but must beware the danger of transferring to the spiritual realm the habit of self-reliance we learn to display in other areas of life. Spiritual success requires the exact opposite approach, we must turn away from self-reliance.
Our culture’s strong emphasis on self-confidence makes it harder for us to remain “poor in spirit,” but we must. Before we can be filled with the Spirit, we must be emptied of self-confidence. We must be emptied of self that we may be full of Christ. “If the hand be full of pebbles, it cannot receive gold” (Watson).
Poverty of spirit is so essential to our success that God helps us maintain it. A prayer warrior once told me, it is amazing how God keeps us ever on the brink, always on the edge. It seems we could fall off the precipice at any moment. Why does God let this happen? To keep us “poor in spirit,” dependent on Him.
Matt. 5:3c “. . .for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The “poor in spirit” possess “the kingdom of heaven.” This is not an arbitrary reward, but rather a natural consequence of poverty in spirit, for wherever a will bows to God, there the kingdom is present. Whenever, and in whomever, Christ reigns as king, there the kingdom has come. A kingdom, by definition, is a king’s domain. To be a citizen of Christ’s kingdom requires a willingness to be governed. To belong means to be ruled.
For many this is the stumblingblock which prevents them from becoming believers. Some make an idol of themselves and their own abilities, refusing to confess weakness or to yield submission. They are determined to rule their own destiny. Even many believers stumble at this point. Salvation and successful Christian living require going through the painful process of being weaned from self-rule.
The very realm where we do not have strength, nor exercise control, must become the ruling realm of my life. All of life must become dominated by the one realm we do not control. For many this is a scary proposition. We balk at giving up control over our bodies, futures, assets, lives, choices, and inner essence.
Our fears are groundless. God loves us more than we love our own selves. He who gave us His only begotten Son can be trusted with our dreams, plans, ambitions, and hopes. Before we were born, God alone knew exactly what we needed to do and be in our individual lives to find joy and fulfillment. Only He can direct us to what we were made to enjoy, and He does this by bringing His Kingdom into our hearts. Once He rules us, then He can direct us. The only way we can find what we were meant to be, and thus find true happiness, is by yielding ourselves to Him.
Note a sad irony. The fear of giving up control keeps many lives out of control. The fear of losing happiness keeps many from finding true happiness. Many have tried long enough to find their own joy by remaining in sin. Many have wandered in the wilderness of lostness long enough. It is time to give up, to trust Jesus.
Your heart is a kingdom. Who rules there? You? Satan, the god of this world? Jesus? Do you have inner evidence that Christ has been enthroned in you? Are the sins of your heart ruled? Are your passions under control? Is joy the chief emotion of your life? Are you fulfilled? These are the gifts King Jesus brings.
Fear not, dear friend. The kingdom Christ brings to us is “of heaven,” the site of absolute bliss. Christ’s kingdom “will give us something better than earth, it will give us heaven” (Maclaren). As Spurgeon said, little faith will take us to Heaven, much faith will bring Heaven to us. By yielding to the King we find here and now a heavenly gladness much deeper and stronger than any this world affords.