By J.R. Miller
"Blessed are the poor in spirit--for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:3
The quest of happiness is universal. Men's conceptions of happiness differ greatly--and they seek it along widely divergent paths--yet in every heart, the desire is for the same end--happiness.
The beatitudes give the secret of happiness and tell us where and how it may be found! The word blessed means happy. Of course it means more than men usually understand, when they use the word. Happiness as the world views it--is the pleasure that comes from things that happen. It is on the surface, chiefly, and is affected by every disturbing influence. But blessedness has in it a divine quality, and is not dependent on circumstances or conditions. Yet blessedness is that which human hearts really crave, and here in the beatitudes, are marked out the paths which lead to it.
But the world does not accept either this divine ideal of happiness, or these ways of finding it. It seeks the pleasures of the senses, and of the passing moment, and would find it in easy ways. These paths Christian blessedness, are too rough and steep. These laws of the blessed life, are too serious. The beatitudes run directly against human nature. Still it remains true, that here is the secret of happiness, and that these are the ways which lead to it.
The first beatitude is on poverty of spirit. We must try to get a correct definition--a mistake here will lead us far astray in our quest for the exact quality or condition of blessing indicated.
Precisely what is poverty of spirit? It is not poverty in one's worldly condition which is intended; or else many who are not entitled to it, might claim the blessing. No doubt also there are blessings in a state of poverty such as that, for example, in which Jesus Himself grew up--not poverty caused by men's own fault and sin--but the poverty merely of lowly circumstances. Such poor people live purely, honestly, faithfully, contentedly. Their life is ofttimes almost ideal in its simplicity. They know nothing of the great world's wickedness. There are many very charming things, in the life of the godly poor. Many of the loveliest virtues flourish in them. They are rich in gracious qualities. Such poor are indeed blessed--theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
But evidently it is not poverty alone as an earthly condition, which is meant in this beatitude. Not all worldly poor--are poor in spirit. One may be poor--and yet very proud.
Nor did Jesus mean poverty of nature. His own life was the richest in all its endowments and faculties, in all its powers and capacities, that this world ever saw--and yet He was poor in spirit.
Nor did He mean spiritual poverty, in the sense that one's spiritual life should be feeble and dull. Christ came into the world not only that man might have life--but that they should have abundant life, fullness of life. Jesus has infinite patience with the weak and with those who have little faith and many infirmities of character; but He wants us to be strong, abounding in all graces, bringing forth much fruit. He does not call poverty of spiritual life, blessed.
Nor, again, does this beatitude refer to that affectation of humility which is found in some people who in their common speech are profuse in self-depreciation. They are continually saying uncomplimentary things about themselves, telling others how unworthy they are, of how little value are their works or services. They seem to think that there is a virtue in talking lowly about themselves. But this is not true humility. It is most unwholesome. Perhaps it is never quite sincere. If some other person said the same mean, depreciatory things about these people--they would probably be very angry! Too often it is pride, not humility--which prompts such self-condemning.
Jesus Himself, in whom this beatitude found its perfect interpretation, never spoke in this way of Himself. He never said that He had no gifts, no abilities, that He could do nothing. Just before the record which tells of His washing His disciples' feet, we read of His consciousness of His divine origin and destiny--He knew that He came from God, and therefore He did this act of such wonderful condescension. True humility is entirely consistent, with full consciousness of one's ability.
What then is meant by being poor in spirit? It consists in the consciousness that one has not in himself, the abilities which would make him worthy of God's favor. Not only does he lack the qualities which would make his life holy and beautiful--but he knows that he lacks them! He has a lowly estimate of himself. His type is not the Pharisee, whose prayer showed no sense of need whatever--but the publican, who was overwhelmed by the sense of his unworthiness and his lack of all that would commend him to God. It is the opposite of pride. It is that spirit which is not puffed up.
To be poor in spirit is to stand before God in penitence, with nothing of our own to commend us, saved by grace alone. This does not hinder the Christian joy, which comes from the assurance that we are children of God and heirs of glory. We may appreciate our glorious privileges and rejoice that our names are written in the book of life--and yet not have a shadow of pride, because it is altogether of the mercy and the grace of God, that we are thus honored.
In our relations with others, this quality will save us from all pride, and lifting up of ourselves above them--as if we were better and worthier than they. It will lead us to hold the noblest powers of our being, as not too fine to be used in the serving of the lowliest of our fellow men who need the service. It will lead us to prefer others in honor, rather than ourselves. It will keep us from being conscious of the worth in ourselves, or of the beauty of the work which we do. Self-consciousness always mars spiritual loveliness! Moses knew not, that his face shone. The man who is poor in spirit is not himself aware of the shining of his own life, the splendor of his deeds, or the power of his words and ministries.
There is a beautiful legend which tells of a saintly man who was very greatly beloved by the angels who had seen much of his godly life on the earth. The angels asked God to give to this man some new power, some mark of the divine favor, some new gift which would make him still more useful. They were told to talk to the man--and ask him what special power he would like to have. The angels came and asked him what gift he would choose, which God might bestow upon him. He said that he was content and needed nothing more. They continued to urge him to choose something which God might do for him or give to him. Would he not like to have power to perform miracles? He said no--that was Christ's work. Would he not like power to lead a great many souls to Christ? He answered, No, for it was the work of the Holy Spirit to convert souls.
The angels still begged him to name something which they might ask God to grant to him. He answered at last, that if he must make a choice, he would like power to do a great deal of good among men--without even knowing it. So it was that from that day his shadow, when it fell behind him, where he could not see it, had wondrous healing power; but when it fell before him, where he could see it, it had no such power.
This is the spirit of true holiness and poverty of spirit--nothing for self, everything for God. One who has learned this lesson, is ready for noble service. God loves to use the life that will keep itself out of sight, and only honor Him.
It is significant that this beatitude of poverty of spirit comes first in our Lord's chart of life. It is not merely an accidental arrangement of the beatitudes that gives it this place. Poverty of spirit comes first--because it must be first. It is the foundation on which alone the fabric of spiritual character can rise! It is the rich soil in which alone other graces will grow and flourish. Hilltops are barren, because the soil is washed off by the rains; but the valleys are fertile, because there the rich deposits gather. In like manner, proud hearts are sterile, affording no soil in which spiritual graces can grow; but lowly hearts are fertile with grace, and in them all lovely character grow. If only we are truly poor in spirit--our life will be rich in its fruits!
The form of blessing for the poor in spirit, is that theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They belong to this kingdom. Their character makes the citizens of it. The kingdom of heaven is wherever the laws of the heavenly life rule in men's hearts.
A little child was greatly concerned over the thought of the distance of heaven from him, and the question how he could ever get there. His wise mother told him that heaven must first come down to him--that heaven must begin in his heart. This is always true; to be in the kingdom of heaven--is to have heaven in us. To be poor in spirit includes all of the heavenly life, and all who have these qualities are already in the beginnings of heaven itself!