…Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3 ESV
The Kingdom of Heaven is the possession of those who are otherwise spiritually impoverished.
The call of the gospel in these verses isn’t to the person who has everything but the Kingdom of God – rather, it is to those who have nothing apart from the Kingdom of Heaven.
Poverty of spirit vs. the Kingdom of God
If the Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17), then it makes sense, if Jesus is doing any form of compare and contrast here, to suggest that poverty of spirit involves the realisation that in and of ourselves we do not have those things that constitute the Kingdom.
If the Kingdom of God is righteousness – then in and of ourselves, we not only have no-righteousness, but are altogether unrighteousness. It’s not that we simply lack righteousness as a positive quality – it’s not simply that we are neutral when it comes to the question of righteousness – rather, it’s as if we possess unrighteousness – we possess that which is the opposite of righteousness.
If we think of righteousness in terms of justice – its not as if we have simply failed to do what is just – to plead the widows cause, to speak up for the vulnerable in our society etc – but rather, that we have directly contributed to the injustices we see around us – we are responsible for the widows cause, it’s like we killed her husband. It’s like not just failing to speak out against abortion and euthanasia – but having actually crossed the line speaking out in favor of abortion and euthanasia.
That begins to describe our poverty of spirit.
If the Kingdom of God is peace – the in and of ourselves, we not only have no peace, but in its place we have whatever the opposite of peace is.
I really value solitude and silence. I find it very difficult to read, study, pray, meditate, or write without almost total silence. But the sound of every day life is not the absence of peace. The sound of the dishwasher and refrigerator and the neighbour’s garage door and conversation – this is not the absence peace. I don’t know anyone who would walk into my house and unless there was complete and utter silence suggest the absence of peace.
The opposite of peace is chaos, war, and conflict.
In terms of our poverty of spirit, this is not just about the inner chaos and conflict that so many people face – but something that the apostle Paul describes as enmity with God. Hostile. At war with.
Am I saying that in an of ourselves, apart from the grace of God, we are at war with God? Yes! Apart from the grace of God our minds are what Romans 8:7 says they are (as the older translations put it): carnal and the carnal mind is at enmity with God.
This is perhaps part of why Jesus said we must be born again and the epistles call us over and over to be transformed by the renewing of our minds and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds.
Lastly, Paul tells the Romans that the Kingdom of heaven is joy in the Holy Spirit.
If joy in the Holy Spirit is characteristic of the Kingdom, how could we contrast it to illustrate poverty of spirit?
Again, I think it’s more than just the absence of joy – as if poverty of spirit is about being an emotional flat-liner. It’s not like poverty of spirit is a high-dose anti-depressant that takes away all the troughs and highs. Poverty of spirit puts you in the trough, the deepest, darkest, nonnegotiable valley and pit. That’s not simply the absence of joy, but rather, the presence of hopelessness.
That’s what Paul gets at when he describes the unbeliever as one without God and without hope. It’s what he gets at when he talks about those who mourn without hope.
Without hope there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Without hope there is no “this too shall pass” or assessment of the difficulties of life as “light and momentary”. To be without hope is to see this world with all its evils and conclude that this is as good as it gets.
So to be unrighteous, to be at enmity with God, and to be without hope – this perhaps begins to illustrate what it means to be poor in spirit.
It is once we realise that this is what we are in and of ourselves, that the promises of this verse become ours. Jesus said “If this is what you are, in and of yourself – great, awesome, congratu-well-done… this is the necessary prerequisite for blessing…” You see, blessing doesn’t come to those who have it mostly figured out, or even partly figured out… it’s not a case of “You do your best and God will do the rest.” It’s more like God only uses empty vessels and if you’ve got something in and of yourself, you’re not an empty vessel. If you think you’ve done enough to be worthy of God’s kingdom, if you’ve done enough good deeds, or if you have acheived some level of zen mastery, or you credit your optimism to your natural disposition – then you’re not an empty vessel and these blessings will elude you.
That’s why Peter says “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” – to those who realise the Biblical assessment of themselves apart from the grace of God in Christ in the gospel.
For in the Gospel, God takes Jesus Christ and essentially makes Him everything we were, and everything He wasn’t. Jesus Christ was totally righteousness – having a 100% approval rating before God for all eternity; Jesus is even called by Isaiah the Prince of Peace; and Jesus, part of the eternal Trinity, in whose presence is fullness of joy, has had this fullness of joy for eternity – and yet what does the Scripture say “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
This is what is referred to as the great exchange. All that we were, for all that He is.