Thoughts on Spiritual Poverty

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by Ray DeGraw

[Over the next few Sundays we are publishing a series from Ray that will focus on the Sermon on the Mount, analyzing each characteristic of godliness found in Matthew 5-7. Next essay here.]

Vector CalculusI begin this series looking at how we can increase such characteristics by understanding them more perfectly (more completely, wholly, and fully developed).  I am starting today with being poor in spirit and will move on to the other characteristics in the order in which they appear in the sermon itself.

As I have pondered the phrase poor in spirit, it has 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. In other words, I started thinking about what it means to BE poor?

1) Poverty is the lack of ability to own or purchase things. It also 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 things that truly are necessary but out of one’s price range, one must rely on another person to provide it.

For example, 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 or that were needed to do specific things we hadn’t wanted to do previously (like buy gas to go on dates).

2) Poverty, in and of itself, is only a bad thing if it keeps someone from obtaining things that they truly need. For example, not having cable TV (or TV at all) is inconvenient in our time, but it certainly is hard to argue that TV is truly a need, unless emergency notifications are provided via TV and in no other way or access is a required part of a job. As long as basic necessities can be met, poverty is not evil or bad by any reasonable stretch of the words.

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 but merely desirable or luxurious. 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?

திருவண்ணாமலை (Thiruvannamalai)

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, or 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 He who is able to provide the spiritual capital she lacks. Without spiritual poverty, one would never recognize his need for help – so he would never ask for it – and he would rarely receive it – so he would not grow spiritually.

2) Spiritual poverty, in and of itself, is only a bad thing if it keeps someone from obtaining spiritual things that they truly need. For example, not having access to spiritual communications given to all (like access to the words of prophets in the moment they are given) is inconvenient in our time, but it certainly is hard to argue that universal communication is truly a need. As long as basic personal (including emergency) communications can be received, spiritual poverty is not evil or bad 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, and good). 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 to do rather than what they want to do.

In summary, being poor in spirit allows a person to recognize the need for a Redeemer (someone to purchase them and free them from the chains of their poor and lowly state), to 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 spirituality. It allows one to simplify life, recognize distractions, and eliminate impediments to spiritual growth.

Conversely, a perception of being rich in spirit 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. This perception of spiritual richness leads one to believe he needs no help – no redeemer – no prioritization, since he believes he can have it all right now.

If 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 require admission that we need those gifts. Such spiritual richness leaves one alone, isolated from the yoke that lightens burdens and provides spiritual rest. People who see themselves as spiritually wealthy have their reward – as opposed to the Lord’s reward.

I welcome any input regarding thoughts that hit you as read this post. (Next essay here.)

About Ray DeGraw

I am the husband of my high school sweetheart and father of six children. I basically have no life outside of family, work and church - except blogging, which I have been doing actively, to put it mildly, for the past 5 years. I have lived in almost every section of the United States and currently reside in Carson City, NV. I have written at Things of My Soul, Mormon Matters, Times & Seasons and StayLDS.com - and commented more than occasionally at various sites in the Bloggernacle.

7 Responses to Thoughts on Spiritual Poverty

  1. Bonnie says:

    Ray, I’ve been thinking about this all day. I’m intrigued, especially since I just finished my private course of study on the Doctrine and Covenants and am getting ready to embark on my new one: the Sermon on the Mount/Sermon at the Temple. This series was especially timely for me.

    On one hand, this issue of disdain for poverty fires my soul. I spend my life thinking about poverty, and I appreciate that there are certain circumstances and attitudes that grow in people who live in poverty that are ideal. I chose a couple of years ago to leave my corporate position when the choice was to move or commute 3 hours, and to embark on a life dream. I have learned so much in the last 24 months, but we’ve also lived in a sort of voluntary poverty. I get the wilderness and all that it has to teach us, all the ways it protects us. I am largely at peace with it, and almost completely unafraid of it.

    On the other hand, I am loyal to other readings of this verse, largely that the poverty of pride is the ideal that qualifies one for the kingdom of heaven. In addition, I think the Lord promises us remarkable and unexpected spiritual wealth: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly“. The great opportunity of the gospel is to enjoy spiritual wealth in the face of temporal poverty – it’s thumbing our nose at “you can buy anything in this world with money.” Much of our faith is built on developing spiritual wealth (the oil in our lamps).

    Still, your path of reasoning is very elegant. It’s the same process I use to deconstruct my dreams, and it’s very familiar to me. And certainly, we exist in a perpetual state of spiritual poverty if that means our ability to buy salvation, blessings, or grace for ourselves. We can’t command those things, which is a freedom that wealth seems to offer us temporally. Yet I also can’t let go of the spiritual wealth that IS offered and enjoined upon us. The Lord’s most common exhortation is “ask and ye shall receive.”

    Perhaps the difference I’m perceiving is that the spiritual wealth that the Lord offers us is a gift, and provides us less freedom to command spiritual blessings than to receive them. We may be spiritually abundant, but yet spiritually impoverished, because we recognize that we are not the source and are 100% dependent on the Lord for the continuance of those blessings, like daily breath. Air to breathe is abundant around us, you could say we are rich with air, but we don’t command our breath, so we are impoverished and dependent.

    Perhaps this is the way I can both revel in your interpretation and yet disagree with it. :)

  2. Ray says:

    Bonnie, thanks for the input. I don’t disagree with anything in your comment, but, just to elaborate and clarify:

    I am not discouraging what I might call “shared spiritual wealth” – or, to put it directly in Biblical terms, an understanding of what I believe is meant by being “joint-heirs” with Christ. When my spiritual wealth is combined with his, I am spiritually wealthy. It’s when I perceive myself to be spiritually wealthy on my own that I become spiritually proud – and that’s why I see a real and powerful connection between pride and humility and natural perceptions of wealth and poverty.

    At the core, I just don’t think we see the value in being “poor” – so we substitute “humble” without analyzing the amazing and enlightening reasons why the actual wording is “poor in spirit” and NOT “humble”.

  3. Bonnie says:

    Yes, there is reason for that wording, I agree. Much to consider.

  4. templegoer says:

    That was really useful to me Ray in that the idea of being ‘poor in spirit’ has had a lot of resonance for me recently. This has enabled me to see it as a state of grace, of being blessed, and thus to re-frame this as a good not a bad. Of being in a state of awaiting further blessing and thus closer to God, and not having chosen to spiritually alienate myself. I will now have a more settled mind as I travel through being poor in spirit.

  5. Paul says:

    Loved this: ” It means recognizing and turning to He who is able to provide the spiritual capital she lacks. Without spiritual poverty, one would never recognize his need for help – so he would never ask for it – and he would rarely receive it – so he would not grow spiritually.”

    I’m wondering who is really spiritually rich? (Vs. who just thinks he is?)

  6. Becca says:

    I liked your comments about poverty, and I think I have been searching for a way to describe this for a while. I feel like I have the words now. I think that the important thing to learn about poverty (as you’ve said, that since necessities can be provided, it is not a bad or evil thing) is that ability to prioritize. Having more resources does not necessarily help us to have “more” of the things that we need. In fact, at times, having more actually prevents us from having more of the things that we need, if we are not careful with our excess. For example, our income is much higher than “poverty” but due to poor choices we have made financially we struggle sometimes to have more of the things that we need, because we spent our resources frivolously on things that we do not need. We have a hard time prioritizing. Similarly, in a spiritual light, someone who does have continuous access to the words of the prophets may actually have less of what they need, spiritually, than someone who does not have continuous access to the words of the prophets. I think of someone who attends Church faithfully every Sunday, but is still not truly converted, and then contrast that with someone who has never even heard of the Church, but the minute they hear the message of the gospel they are ready to accept it because even without the gospel message they were already converted to the gospel.

  7. MSKeller says:

    I’ve always felt like it was the first, because most people don’t search for more, until they feel something missing. Many converts are those who are searching, opening doors (or willing to) those who are full and content, rarely look for more spiritual enlightenment. When we are poor in spirit, we are humble and open and other inspiration is welcomed with open arms.

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