Editor’s note: The following is a condensed version of a recent sermon by Towne South Church of Christ Lead Minister Brad Giffin.
In the first 12 verses of Matthew, Chapter 5 Jesus describes what his Kingdom is like and what life is like for those who are a part of it. He uses eight phrases that all begin with the words, “Blessed are.” Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the merciful .... And by “blessed” Jesus means “happy.”
In these Beatitudes, Jesus gives us a list of characteristics or attitudes that result in true happiness or blessedness. I want to warn you right up front that they are very paradoxical. They are counterintuitive to how most people think they will find happiness.
The very first Beatitude is found in Verse 3. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does it mean to be “poor in spirit,” and how can we develop that quality in our lives?
First of all, this is not the language of our culture. You don’t find many people today who talk about how they’re down and out, or poor in spirit, or how they’ve really messed up. There is however, a rare group of people who are willing to truly own up to their failures and inadequacies. Mostly you can find them in some kind of recovery group, 12-step program or support group.
You see, the first step to being in a group like that is to admit that you are absolutely powerless to manage your life. And the first step that Jesus gives us here to experiencing vital kingdom life is to come clean and admit we’re powerlessness, to admit that we are recovering “self-aholics.”
I think it’s so interesting that Jesus begins not with what we think about God, but with what we think of ourselves. Because what usually hinders us, and keeps us from experiencing the reign and rule of God in our lives, is our view of ourself.
Maybe you’ve heard about the wife who was trying to solicit a compliment or two from her husband. She said, “Honey, do you love me because I’m astonishingly beautiful, extremely sharp and intelligent, or stunningly sensual?” Her husband responded, “Well, most of all darling, I’m grateful for your vivid imagination.” You see, we will pay almost price to exult self. We’re self-aholics.
Most of you are aware of the many controversies over the years that have surrounded athletes and the illegal use of steroids or other enhancement performance drugs. Why would anybody risk possible long term physical disability to promote their athletic career? The answer is, because it offers short-term exultation of self, and we all struggle with self-aholism.
We’re into self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-improvement, self-righteousness. And then Jesus comes along and challenges our self-aholism and self-delusions with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If you’re going to enter the kingdom of God, the first thing you have to do, according to Jesus, is lay pretense on the alter and come clean. We are all self-aholics, but only the poor in spirit will admit it.
The poor in spirit confess their spiritual bankruptcy, their poverty of true righteousness. To be poor in spirit is to acknowledge, “I struggle with self-aholism.” You admit that there is nothing you could ever do that would be good enough or righteous enough to earn you citizenship in God’s Kingdom.
The Greeks had about nine words for “poor.” But the word Jesus used here is the word for abject poverty. The idea is that the only way to receive the Kingdom of God is by begging. That’s how spiritually bankrupt we are before God. We’ve got to get over our self-aholism and begin to see ourselves the way God sees us.
In Luke 18: 10-14, Jesus illustrated this truth about those who are confident of their own righteousness and look down on everyone else in the following parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus sees two kinds of people, those who exalt themselves and those who humble themselves. He sees the proud, and he sees the poor in spirit. Which are you?
How do you become poor in spirit? In order for a self-aholic to become poor in spirit, he must hit bottom. Philippians 3:5-6 gives us a great example of that. It tells about a young, very intelligent, impressive man of his day. He had quite a spiritual resume. He would have told you, “I am a Jew circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin. I’m a Pharisee. I’m a Hebrew of Hebrews. Regarding legalistic righteousness, I have lived a faultless life.”
He was pretty impressed with his resume. But then one day as he was traveling down the road to Damascus, the Lord showed up and he was humbled. He hit bottom, and it completely changed his attitude. He later wrote in Philippians 3:7-9, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
What the apostle Paul was saying here is: “The day I hit bottom was the day I stopped being a resume reader, and started being a ‘breast beater.’ Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” That’s what it means to be poor in spirit. That’s the first step in overcoming self-aholism.
So how can we develop an attitude of being poor in spirit? We must compare ourselves to God instead of others.
One of the things that feeds self-aholism is comparing ourselves to a standard that is too low. We compare ourselves to others and we think, “Well, I’m not perfect, but I’m better than they are.” You see, in order to exalt self, we have to find a standard that makes it easy. You’ll always be able to go to the temple and find somebody and say, “Lord, I thank you I’m not like him, or her.” You’ll always be able to find someone like that for your self-aholic prayer. But poverty of spirit is the result of comparing ourselves to God. If we would compare ourselves to Him instead of our neighbor, our self-aholism would stay in greater check.
William Beebe, the naturalist, used to tell this story about Teddy Roosevelt. At Sagamore Hill after an evening talk the two of them would go out on the lawn, and they would search the sky for a certain spot of light in the lower left-hand corner of the great square of Pegasus. And then Roosevelt would say, “Now that’s the spiral galaxy of Andromeda. It’s larger than our Milky Way. It’s one of a hundred, million galaxies. It consists of one hundred, billion suns, each larger than our sun.” Roosevelt would then grin and say, “Now, I think we are small enough. Let’s go to bed.”
We must also trust God’s response to the poor in spirit. God is eager to show mercy to beggars. He is going to respond in mercy, grace and forgiveness. The amazing thing about God is, if you declare bankruptcy, he’ll wipe away your debts.
And then finally, we must keep admitting we are still in recovery. “Poor in spirit,” is not an event, it’s a lifestyle. We’re all recovering self-aholics. We’ll never be perfect on this side of heaven. Until the Lord returns or calls us home, we will struggle with sin and self-aholism.
The Lord humbled Saul on the road to Damascus, and Saul learned to be poor in spirit. Even so, it was a lifelong process. According to Timothy 1:15, Saul — who became the apostle Paul — would later write toward the end of his life and ministry: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst.”
Notice he did not say, “of whom I was the worst.” He said, “of whom I am the worst.” The struggle against sin, pride, and self-aholism is a lifelong struggle. If we are going to be poor in spirit, we must be on guard against self-aholism.
Back in 1985 the most talented young matador in Spain was named Jose Cubero. In one bullfight he put on a brilliant exhibition. The bull, weak and wounded, finally fell to its knees when Cubero put his sword through the bull’s chest. The crowd went wild. Cubero turned his back and bowed to receive their applause, and the bull got up and lunged — his horn went right through the Matador’s back and into his heart and he died. Cubero thought he had killed something, but it wasn’t dead yet.
Don’t turn up your nose or walk away from this idea of being poor in spirit. It’s not an event, it’s a lifestyle. We must keep admitting we are still in recovery.