What Does it Mean to Be Poor in Spirit? [Beatitudes]

Poverty is painful. Anyone who has experienced it will tell you that it comes with great distress. We fight against it, and rightfully so. Scripture speaks of the poor with great concern. The poor do not want to be poor. They struggle from day to day to have what they need. If they could get out of the situation, they would, but they do not have the means.

At the same time, we are told, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall see God.” There are many ideas about what this means. Some have said it means to take care of the poor. Others have said it is to take vows of poverty. Finally, many have simply interpreted this to mean that if you are poor, you will see God.

The main problem with these explanations is that they miss a key word in the text, “spirit.” We are to be “poor in spirit.” In fact, all of the beatitudes are spiritual qualities. They are characteristics of people who have been born from above. The rich, though they have their own challenges in knowing God, are not excluded from seeing God. Likewise, the poor are not guaranteed salvation simply because they are poor. The idea that the poor are good, and the rich are bad is shallow reasoning. There are evil rich people and evil poor people. There are godly rich people and godly poor people. To be poor in spirit must go much deeper than this. Being poor in spirit is more than taking vows of poverty as well because even that can be an act of pretense. It can be done before men in order to receive their praise.

So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? The beatitudes are not things we do to be saved; they are something we become as a result of God’s work in our hearts. They are a change in our nature. Spiritual poverty is realizing we have no merit before God because we have all sinned and fallen short of his glory. According to scripture, our righteousness is as filthy rags. They are unacceptable to a holy God and deserve his wrath. We are also dead in our sins, and nothing we can do can get us out of this situation.

The reality is, due to our sin, every person alive is already poor in spirit. When the text says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” it is not talking about our actual poverty of spirit. Instead, it is talking about the acknowledgment of our poverty.

To be awakened to our poverty of spirit is not something we can do in our power, it must be a work of God. We are naturally proud, and once we acknowledge our poverty of spirit, it is unpleasant and leads to the second beatitude, which is mourning. It is something the old nature does everything in its power to resist, but it is the first step to being filled. Matthew Henry put it this way, “This poverty of spirit is a disposition of soul, by which we are emptied of self, in order to our being filled with Christ.”

We see it exhibited in the life of David when he wrote, “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles” (Psalm 34:6). David was king. He was not poor in the things of this world, but he knew, before God, he was nothing. There was no merit in David that caused God to save him. It was God’s grace alone.

When you realize you are poor in spirit and see the glory of Christ, it changes you. All of a sudden, we become willing to part with all that we have in order to know him because all we have is worthless without him. To use a parable of Jesus, we become willing to part with all we have to possess the Pearl of Great Price (Matt. 13:45-46). Moses choose to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt (Heb. 11:25, 26).

The author of Hebrews continues, “Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated-of whom the world was not worthy-wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” – Hebrews 11:36-38″.

Why would these people be willing to give up so much? It was because, by faith, they had become poor in spirit and knew where their true riches were to be found. They had died to themselves. They may be poor in spirit, but they have a part in the kingdom of heaven. This poverty of spirit will often translate into a concern for the poor, which is why the two are often associated, but being concerned for the poor does not necessarily mean one is poor in spirit.

Christ is King over his kingdom, and we have nothing in ourselves that can claim any merit to it, but when we see our poverty of spirit, mourn over our sinfulness, approach Christ in meekness, and hunger for the righteousness we do not possess, we will be filled. We will have Jesus, who has filled us with his righteousness. Being in Christ, you’re part of his kingdom, which is under his governance, guidance, and guard. Like Christ himself, his kingdom will never fail, and we shall see God. Only by seeing our poverty can we truly be filled.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:3

D. Eaton

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