Thoughts on Spiritual Poverty
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.]
I 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?
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.)