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What Does it Mean to be Poor in Spirit?

Lori Colbo loves to write about her Christian faith and the Bible to encourage and inspire others.


Two Important Facts About the Beatitudes

"Blessed are," is the first two words of every Beatitude. The word "blessed" means "happy." In this passage, it speaks of "a prolonged state of supreme happiness," "blissful," and "to be enlarged." It is a deep and abiding joy and spiritual vitality. At first read, the term "blessed are," is confusing, as Jesus says the way to have this kind of happiness is to be "poor in spirit," "mourning," and "meek," for starters. What can this mean? Let's dig deeper.

What are the Beatitudes? Simply put, they are the be-attitudes of the followers of Christ.

1. The Beatitudes are put in a sequential order. They are not random. The first Beatitude leads to the second and so on. This will clarify the message Christ is trying to convey.

2. The Beatitudes are not commands. These Beatitudes are what a true Christian is supposed to be. They are the character of a Christian (not for non-Christians) - those who have asked Jesus to be Lord and Savior of their lives and are filled with His Holy Spirit.

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are a gift to us who desire to be His disciples.

The opening two verses of Chapter 5 say:

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying... (NIV).

The Message version clarifies who Jesus was addressing more clearly:

When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said...

Jesus was talking to His disciples here. Not just the twelve, but all those who had been following Him, the committed. While the crowds were building below, he sought to teach His true followers. So He and the disciples (I love how The Message calls them His climbing companions) climbed a hillside and sat in a quiet place. He wanted their undivided attention with no interruptions. Thus, He was about to give the greatest sermon in all of history.

Verse 3 is where His sermon beings. The NIV version says:

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God.

Blessedness, being happy, is a deep and lasting happiness, regardless of the circumstances of life. I heard one preacher insightfully offer this example of the beatitudes according to the world today.

Blessed are the beautiful, for they shall be admired.
Blessed are the wealthy, for they have it all.
Blessed are the popular, for they shall be loved.
Blessed are the famous, for they shall be followed

Quite telling don't you think? The happiness people find in those things are fleeting and temporary. Eventually, they will come to a point and say "Is that all there is?" and "What can I do next to fill this empty hole?" Without Christ, that emptiness, those shallow things, will not fill the void or bring a deep and abiding happiness.

To be poor in spirit does not mean to be financially poor. To be poor in spirit means to be broken and humble before God. The Message version of this verse says it this way:

You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and his rule.

The language here grasps the concept of what it means to be poor in spirit. Have you ever been at the end of your rope after a lifetime of trying to do it your own way? I have. When we try to find happiness in our own self-sufficiency, talents, and abilities, and all the stuff in life, we eventually come to the place where we feel spiritually, mentally, emotionally bankrupt. Our spiritual bank account is overdrawn. The end of our rope, indeed. But this is good news because then we are broken and humble before God. It is in that state where there is less of us, and more of God. This is the time where we are finally able to get out of our own way and allow Him to show us how really great and awesome He is; that He alone is all we need; that we cannot do life without Him at the center of our life.

Yes, "Blessed is the poor in spirit." In our brokenness and humility, we come to repentance and receive God's forgiveness. We become truly blessed, truly happy, deep in the marrow of our souls. Jesus said, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt. 11:28-29). Sin and self sufficiency is the greatest burden to bear. But when we repent, humble ourselves, and take His yoke upon us, He will give us rest for our souls.

The parable of the proud pharisee and the humble tax collector.

The parable of the proud pharisee and the humble tax collector.

The Contrast Between Pride and Humility

Luke 18:10-14 tells the story that describes the state of one who is poor in spirit, and one who is full of himself and living all those things the world thinks will bring them happiness.

Also, He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (NKJ).

Pharisees were the Jewish religious leaders of the day and were revered by the people because of their daily performances of piety. Praying aloud in the streets, flaunting their knowledge of Torah, making a show of how they obey the law. When they gave to the poor, they put on a very overt public display. But in this portion of Scripture, Jesus reveals the truth about one prideful, arrogant, self-important Pharisee. I deliberately chose the New King James Version of this passage because it reveals the true selfishness and hypocrisy of this Pharisee as he's praying. Notice it says, that "He prayed thus with himself." Rather than truly speaking to God, he was speaking to himself, patting himself on the back for how much better he was than everyone else.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were considered the dregs of society. They stole, deceived, threatened, and blackmailed to fill their pockets. They were detested by everyone. But in this story, the tax collector standing before God could not even look up to heaven as he prayed for God's mercy and forgiveness. I like the picture of him beating his chest in sorrow as he cried out to God. A graphic portrayal of a truly repentant sinner. Paul said, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death" (1 Cor. 7:10).

The difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is that the Pharisee deceived himself, seeing himself as the complete opposite of what he was. He was more righteous than all others to his own thinking an he was sure God knew that. The tax collector saw himself as he truly was, a wretched and selfish thief and deceiver in need of salvation. Someone once said, "Many would be scantily clad if clothed in humility." Ouch! The truth hurts sometimes doesn't it.

Oswald Chambers wisely said, "Humility is not an ideal; it is the unconscious result of the life being rightly related to God and centered in Him." What stands out to me there are the words "unconscious result". Humble people don't know they are humble. As soon as they do, they are no longer humble. Working at being humble doesn't work. You find humility when you see the greatness of God, and the smallness of you; smallness not meaning without value, but small in comparison to the Sovereign King of heaven. We can't think humility into existence, we can't muster it up. We must surely ask God to make us and keep us humble by being obedient and honest with God and self. And when we are, there will be a result of walking in the Spirit and seeking and putting God first. This is when the Kingdom of Heaven becomes ours.

"For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation." (Psalm 149:4).

Your Love Broke Through - Keith Green

© 2010 Lori Colbo

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