…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
DMLJ: …if one feels anything in the presence of God save an utter poverty of spirit, it ultimately means that you have never faced Him. That is the meaning of this Beatitude.
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, by D. Martin Lloyd-Jones
Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, Vol.2 - The Sermon on the Mount, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
Lloyd-Jones says this opening Beatitude is the key to all that follows – that there is a definite spiritual order to Jesus’s teaching; these are not just randomly sequences ideas. There is no entry to the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God apart from this first Beatitude. To be poor in spirit is the fundamental characteristic of the Christian.
To be poor in spirit, unlike the Beatitudes that follow, is an emptying – the rest that follow are manifestations of a filling. We must first be emptied before we can be filled. This opening Beatitude brings us face to face with a fundamental reality of the complete Sermon:
DMLJ: You see, it at once condemns every idea of the Sermon on the Mount which thinks of it in terms of something that you and I can do ourselves.
This idea, that it can be preached and then immediately put into practice is a dangerous one; in fact, it is an utter denial of the Sermon itself as the opening and fundamental proposition is that we must be poor in spirit. The one poor in spirit is at a loss to “do” the Sermon on his own, but it takes one poor in spirit to be open to God for the teaching and ultimately the doing of the Sermon.
DMLJ: The Sermon on the Mount, in other words, comes to us and says ‘There is a mountain that you have to scale, the heights you have to climb; and the first thing you must realize, as you look at that mountain which you are told you must ascend is that you cannot do it, that you are utterly incapable in and of yourself, and that any attempt to do it on your own strength is proof positive that you have not understood it.’
It isn’t a program meant to be followed. One must be emptied before one can be filled. Both actions imply that there is one who empties and one who fills.
This, in contrast to how some understand this Beatitude, influenced by the wording from the parallel passage in Luke chapter 6: 20 Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. There is no mention of “spirit.” Metropolitan Alfeyev offers as explanation for this difference:
Scholars see this as a reflection of Luke’s interest in the theme of wealth and poverty, which occupies much more space in his Gospel than in the other Gospels. … If anything, one could say that each of them emphasized certain aspects of Jesus’ teaching to greater or lesser degrees.
Per Llyod-Jones, to assume that the teaching is a commendation of poverty is an incorrect assumption; in the context of the passage, he sees it as a call to not rely on riches – and this is a risk whether one is rich or poor in material wealth.
So how might one understand Luke’s wording as opposed to Matthew’s? When considering the overall ecclesiastical tradition, poor in spirit is to be understood as poor in some spiritual quality:
MHA: In the words of Macarius the Great, to be poor in spirit means to be “never thinking [oneself] to be anything, but holding [oneself] in a lowly and humble attitude as one knowing or having nothing, even though [one] does know and does have much.”
John Chrysostom says that it means to have a humble and contrite in mind. So why not say “humble” instead of “poor in spirit”? Because it means much more: it means to be awestruck, to tremble at the commands of God.
The problem is, in English we don’t have another singular word to describe poor in spirit that works better than “humble” or “humility,” so I will lean on this occasionally throughout this post – as both authors do in their writing.
This is the teaching of the poverty of spirit. It regards a man’s attitude toward himself. As noted in an earlier post, the Sermon is the clearest indicator of the difference between the natural man and the Christian, demonstrating the line that divides those within the Kingdom from those without. In a world that emphasizes self-reliance, self-confidence, self-expression, and implores you believe in yourself, nothing emphasizes this division more than “blessed are the poor in spirit…”
There is no human way, through self-confidence and the like, to bring in the kingdom. No “Act of Parliament” will bring in the perfect society:
DMLJ: Everywhere we see displayed this tragic confidence in the power of education and knowledge as such to save men, to transform them and make them decent human beings.
It is humility that the Bible regards as the greatest virtue, and as demonstrated by the opening of the Sermon, it is the necessary first step in living the complete Christian life.
OK, all of that sounds lovely, but let’s get down to brass tacks. What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Lloyd-Jones begins by describing what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean we should be diffident or nervous, retiring, weak, or lacking in courage. It doesn’t mean going over the top to make sure everyone sees and hears just how poor in spirit we are. Nor does it mean that the only man poor in spirit is the one who makes a large sacrifice, or becomes a monk or some such.
MHA: The Christian teaching about humility was often attacked by philosophers of an anti-Christian bent, such as Friedrich Nietzsche.
It was seen as the characteristic of slaves, as abjection or subjugation. But it is not this:
MHA: the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev wrote about the unfairness of such a view of humility. He contrasts this “false and decadent” understanding of Christian humility with the understanding by which it is viewed as a “manifestation of spiritual power in the conquest of selfhood,” that is, of course, egoism and egocentrism.
According to Berdyaev, “So far from being opposed to freedom, humility is an act of freedom.” Nothing can compel a man to humility, which is “part of our inner, hidden life.” Humility frees a person from the torment caused by wounded vanity.
We don’t have to carry the weight of our fallen nature. This is the emptying; it is quite liberating, in the best sense of the word.
Now that we know what it doesn’t mean, just what does “poor in spirit” mean? In Isaiah 57, God dwells in the high and holy place, with the one that is of a contrite and humble spirit to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the contrite of the heart.
It was the spirit of Gideon, who, when told of the great things he was to do, he said no, it isn’t possible: I belong to the lowest tribe and to the lowest family in the tribe. It was the spirit of Moses, who felt deeply unworthy of the task laid on him.
It was the apostle Peter, clearly a naturally aggressive man, who, when he truly sees the Lord, says ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ Lloyd-Jones notes, Peter never ceased being a bold man, he did not become nervous or diffident.
Or the apostle Paul, who was fighting against pride at the end of his life. Paul had reason to feel pride, even boastful, of his confidence in the flesh. But on seeing the risen Lord, he wrote of his fear and trembling: who is sufficient for these things?
But, of course, the highest example is to be found in the Lord Jesus Christ. He became a man; He would live as a man; He would be crucified as a man. He would spend hours in prayer, demonstrating His reliance on God.
MHA: …the strongest and most vivid example of humility is Jesus himself. … The apostle Paul speaks of Christ using the concepts of humility, obedience, humiliation, and poverty. In his words, Christ is the one who “made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant.”
To be poor in spirit is to have a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of self-assurance and self-reliance. It is a consciousness that we are nothing in the presence of God.
Metropolitan Alfeyev references Gregory of Nyssa from the fourth century, summarizing:
…God alone is truly blessed, and the acquisition of blessedness is possible for human beings through the imitation of God.
Here, he would cite Gregory directly:
“What greater poverty is there for God than the form of a servant? What more humble for the King of creation than to share in our poor nature?” … He who holds the universe in His hands finds no place in the inn, but is cast aside into the manger of irrational beasts. … the King of all heavenly powers does not push aside the hands of the executioners. Take this, He says, as an example by which to measure your humility.”
We are not to rely on our natural birth, our position in life, or that we belong to the right family or nation. Not even on our own morality or conduct. We are to look to God in utter dependence.
DMLJ: The way to become poor in spirit is to look at God. Read this book about Him, read His law, look at what He expects from us, contemplate standing before Him. It is also to look at the Lord Jesus Christ and to view Him as we see Him in the Gospels.
…look at Him, and then you will have nothing to do to yourself. It will be done. You cannot truly look at Him without feeling your absolute poverty and emptiness.
MHA: Humility is impossible if a person does not place himself before the face of God, if in light of the presence of God in his life he does not re-examine his moral values, if he does not turn to God for help to fulfill his commandments.
Thus far, my entire focus has been on the first half of this Beatitude: blessed are the poor in spirit. But Jesus offers a “why.” Those poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
DMLJ: …there is no entry into the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, apart from it. There is no one in the kingdom of God who is not poor in spirit.
Metropolitan Alfeyev discusses and expands on this idea:
The kingdom of heaven is the overarching idea that holds together all of Jesus’ teaching. The entire Sermon on the Mount as a whole, and the Beatitudes in particular, are a guide to the way to the kingdom of heaven, which should not at all be thought of merely as the end point of a journey.
…the kingdom of heaven is, in Jesus’ language, an all-encompassing concept: it cannot be reduced to the present, nor to the future, nor to an earthly reality, nor to eternity. … The kingdom of heaven is eternity superimposed on time, but not merged with it.
Which reminds me of what Jesus said, recorded in Matthew 16:28:
Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.
Metropolitan Alfeyev, again citing Berdyaev:
“The acceptance of circumstances which have fallen to one’s lot must be interpreted as mastery over the external world, as the victory of the spirit… Christianity bids us to overcome the world and not to submit to it. Humility is not submission, on the contrary, it is a refusal to submit, and movement along the line of greatest resistance.”
To be poor in spirit does not indicate the weakness of a man; it is the highest strength, a recognition and acceptance of one’s place in the world. The one poor in spirit, as Christ describes, does not run away in fear from his lot in life; he acknowledges and lives in it and through it.
Nicolas Berdyaev lived his life just this way, demonstrating the strength of one who is poor in spirit. He was arrested and subsequently interrogated by head of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky. Per Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book The Gulag Archipelago:
[Berdyaev] was arrested twice; he was taken in 1922 for a midnight interrogation with Dzerjinsky; Kamenev was also there.... But Berdyaev did not humiliate himself, he did not beg, he firmly professed the moral and religious principles by virtue of which he did not adhere to the party in power; and not only did they judge that there was no point in putting him on trial, but he was freed. Now there is a man who had a "point of view"!
He was, instead, expelled from Russia to Berlin, and, eventually moved to Paris.
Throughout the Old Testament and even in other ancient literature, humility is contrasted with pride. In Jesus’s teaching, He went even beyond humility to “poor in spirit,” and placed it in the first place in His most extensive (documented) Sermon.
We devote one day a year to Christ’s humility in His birth. We devote one day to His humility in death. In contrast, we devote an entire month to pride, and, further, are regularly reminded to recall it year-round.
Contrast the character of Christ with the character of those who march in the parade. How far we have fallen from being poor in spirit? Who is the stronger: the one who chooses to live out in accord with his lot in life and strive forward in it, or the one who buckles to whatever is the latest feeling or fad?