“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:5).
Jesus’ very first words in the first of his five recorded discourses in the Gospel of Matthew pertain to those who are poor in spirit. What is the specific blessing promised to those who are poor in spirit? The Kingdom of Heaven itself, variously described as the spiritual realm over which God rules as King and Savior of its inhabitants; the completion of God’s perfect and complete will; the full experience of graceful blessedness in the enjoyment of righteousness, peace, and joy; and relationship with God Himself (Romans 14:17; Galatians 5:22-23; Revelation 21). Such a bold and multifaceted promise at the very least deserves prudent consideration.
In this verse, Jesus says something quite astonishing—something absolutely contrary to the workings of this world—which is the most beautiful, simple, and profound paradoxical truth I have ever heard.
The Kingdom of Heaven is the spiritual realm that belongs not to the mighty. Not to the rich. Not even to the religious zealots or the most righteous, nor the most fervent do-gooder. Rather, it belongs to those who are poor in spirit; to those who realize their own wretchedness and poor spiritual state. It is not the complacent Pharisee, assured of his own goodness, who is justified before God, but the tax collector, who beats his breast in shame (Luke 18:9-14). The Christian message does not simply present another way in which man can reach the pinnacle of Spiritual Enlightenment, Righteousness, or Supernaturalism. It suggests that we are completely incapable and undeserving of attaining such a state; and that understanding and believing this truth is the exact means of attaining it!
I believe the blessedness of poverty of spirit is one of the most central doctrines of Christianity, and the one that sets it apart from other worldviews. Jesus teaches that the qualities of righteousness, goodness, and holiness belong to those who are deeply aware and convicted of their own lack of righteousness, goodness, and holiness. God only counts as righteous those who believe they are not good and in any way deserving to be considered such. Poverty of spirit is the foundation on which every other aspect of the Christian walk is built. And it is precisely this teaching that shows that faith in Jesus of Nazareth is the only successful path of humility.
Many religious seekers and worldviews pursue humility. Yet the world’s attempts at humility are inherently contradictory. Just as I cannot pull myself into the air by exerting an upwards force on myself, so too I cannot seek to elevate myself through self-abasement. I cannot “empty self” with self. For every human attempt to reach a place of spiritual blessedness is centered on our own efforts.
I have been struck by the prideful nature of any effort to achieve righteousness by oneself. Nothing could be more important than one’s relationship with the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. As such, what could be more arrogant than the belief that I can be like Him who binds the chains of the Pleiades and looses the cords of Orion by my own strength (Job 38:31)? What could be more shocking than the notion that I, a finite human, can be on par with the Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 37:16)? More haughty than the presumption that because I am good in my own eyes, that I am good in the eyes of the Eternal One, to whom a thousand years is like a day (Psalm 90:4)? In man’s own effort to be in a good standing with God, he adopts a position as prideful as pride can be. The position of poverty of spirit is the one of sanity.
When the spiritual focus is on human action, many are deceived into arrogance, while many others are driven into despair. The arrogant insult the Holiness of God, forgetting that because He cannot look at wrong (Habbakuk 1:13), our best works are no more than filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). The despairing insults the Grace of God, not realizing that God’s goodness and power is greater than one’s heart (1 John 3:20). In both cases the underlying error is a focus on the self and one’s actions more than God and His actions.
Jesus addressed this exact issue: “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent'” (John 6:28-29).
Once again, I find Jesus’s answer to be so brilliant because it is so paradoxical. Jesus addresses the fundamental question that all religions attempt to answer: How does man do the works of God? Jesus flips the question on its head, for it is fundamentally flawed. Man cannot truly do any works of God in his own volition. The only work of man, if it even can be considered a work, is belief. And to the extent that belief is work, it is the work of God! It is an God-given attitude of utter dependence on—that is, faith in—Jesus Christ, our spotless Lamb, our great High Priest, our humble Servant, and our King. Poorness of spirit is precisely the attitude one must have to believe in Him to whom He has sent. One must let go of all notions of self-righteousness to let Jesus Christ become one’s full-righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30; Jeremiah 23:6).
The notion of poverty of spirit is not found only in the teachings of Jesus. It is central to the biblical narrative, which features intertwined themes of humility, repentance, contriteness, sacrifice, righteousness, faith, and good works, moved by the unmerited magnanimity of God.
In summary, the doctrine of poverty of spirit is the truth that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs only to those who believe they do not deserve it. I hope I shall never get over such a beautiful, simple yet profound, paradox!