The Spiritual Practice of Being Poor in Spirit

UNPACKING THE BEATITUDE:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus in Matthew 5:3, NIV

Blessed are those who really need God, for they will find him. Blessed are you when you are completely dependent or marginalized, when you have hit bottom, failed, or have fallen short, when you are desperate, have no options, and are helpless—for God is there and you are not alone! 

It’s in this “poor in spirit” place where we have access to the goodness and power of the mysterious kingdom of heaven (that place where God’s will is reality and where God’s desire that we come to know him more is fulfilled).

WATCH THIS FILM: 

Before you step into this spiritual practice, I highly recommend you watch the film Nomadland. It’s a story about ordinary people who, in many ways, exemplify and embody what it means to be “poor in spirit”.

UNPACKING YOU:

While becoming a more “poor in spirit” person is, first and foremost, a God thing, there are things you can do to grow this spiritual disposition. 

Riffing on theologian Monika Hellwig’s list of the “spiritual advantages” possessed by the poor, writer Philip Yancy came up with a list of healthy signs that affirm that a person truly is poor in spirit. 

To begin, read this list and identify which sentence LEAST describes you.

  1. I know that I am in urgent need of help.
  2. I know how to depend on other people who are poor, just like me.
  3. I know how to put my security in people and not in things.
  4. I have no exaggerated sense of self-importance, no exaggerated need for privacy.
  5. I expect little from competition and much more from cooperation with others.
  6. I can distinguish between necessities and luxuries.
  7. I can wait, because I have acquired a kind of dogged patience born of acknowledged dependence.
  8. My fears are realistic and never exaggerated because I know that one can survive great suffering and want.
  9. When I hear the good news about God preached to me, it sounds like good news and not like a threat or scolding. 
  10. I can respond to the call of God with abandonment and uncomplicated totality because I have so little to lose and I’m ready for anything.

Once you’ve identified your biggest impediment to being poor in spirit, unpack it a bit:

  1. Why is acting this way a problem for you? Write down your answer.
  2. What do you do instead of acting in this spiritually poor way? Write a paragraph describing what the opposite of being spiritually poor looks like in your life.
  3. How has life shaped you to be this kind of person (i.e. what made you less spiritually poor than you could have been)? Write a list detailing any negative formative influences.
  4. What practical steps can you now take to re-orient yourself? Write a paragraph describing how a spiritually poor you would react differently to a common life occurrence (stressor).
  5. What words would you use to ask God to make you into more of this kind of person? Write them down. 

Once you’ve completed this exercise (and not before) continue with the reading below.

UNPACKING SPIRITUAL POVERTY:

  1. I know that I am in urgent need of help – God is help. If you don’t need help, then you don’t need God. So, the challenge in life is to increase your awareness of your helplessness (hopefully in a healthy way). There are lots of ways to do this. Some live with the end in mind. Death is the great ‘I need help’ equalizer. Others wait for calamity to hit. There is nothing like cancer, divorce, or an economic crisis to wake one up to one’s need. Still others try to practice their helplessness in the ordinary times of life. When they see others struggle, they let those moments remind them of the frailty of the human condition (there but for the grace of God go I). When they bump up against the seemingly intractable nature of a personal negative character trait, they are brutally honest about their inability to fix themselves. When they help others, or see someone helping someone else, they thank God for the helping nature he’s built into human beings. Every helping human image bearer is a parable to them—a pointer to God (like in the movie Nomadland)!
  1. I know how to depend on other people who are poor, just like me – Depending on others exercises your capacity to depend on God. When you trust someone, you enhance your ability to trust God. You build a habit of trust. You strengthen those neural pathways where trust travels. You become a more trusting person. Imagine the freedom that could come to your life if you trusted people more. You’d have so much more capacity to trust God. 
  1. I know how to put my security in people and not in things – The job of marketers is to convince you to put your trust in things and not people. Things are exciting, easy to control, always new, and disposable. Undoing this consumer conditioning is a huge endeavour. Putting your security in people takes effort. Relationships require submission. Only meaningful community can teach you how to do this (so that you’ll learn how to be relationally secure in God). In fact, every facet of what it means to relate to others (listening, speaking, loving, receiving, etc.) can become a spiritual practice that helps you engage God more. Can you imagine every relational moment leading to this greater end?
  1. I have no exaggerated sense of self-importance, no exaggerated need for privacy – Writer C. S. Lewis once noted that the “self filled with self” has no room for God. Selfish pride has no place in the kingdom of heaven. Selflessness rules where God is concerned—and it has an exaggerated need to make room for others. People who know that God has made room for them know how to make room for others. When they selflessly give up their privacy they are reminded of God’s ever-hospitable heart. By making room for others, they, counterintuitively, become bigger people (and more God-like)!
  1. I expect little from competition and much more from cooperation with others – God is a selfless community of love: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s inconceivable to think that there would ever be competition within the Godhead. For God, love begets a spirit of cooperation that leads to incredible synergies. When you choose to put your power aside for the sake of cooperation, you image an all-powerful God who does the same (the Spirit working with the Son working with the Father). Of course, God also does this in relationship to us—putting his power aside to come to us via the incarnation and choosing to work with and through us in the world. Every time you choose to cooperate with another, you’re treating that person the way God treats you. Cooperation is an act of selfless love.
  1. I can distinguish between necessities and luxuries – When you know who you are in Christ, luxuries lose their lustre. When God is your treasure, you’ll find that you don’t need much more. Nice stuff is nice, but it really doesn’t define you. The more you grow in your relationship with God, the less you’ll find you actually need. God is more than enough to satisfy any need. The more God fills your life, the less room there is for more stuff. Life is less cluttered when you know who you are in Christ. There is a light in you that’s brighter than this world’s shiny things.
  1. I can wait, because I have acquired a kind of dogged patience born of acknowledged dependence – Selflessness puts others first—it lays down its life for its friends. Waiting can often be synonymous with selflessness. It’s also a huge part of what it means for ever-impatient people to live in relationship with God. To know God is to know how to wait. When you wait for others, you practice waiting for God. When you let them in ahead of you, you image God’s “you-first” heart. People who are poor in spirit don’t rush to be first. They wait their turn and use times of waiting to grow their capacity to value others (drivers, shoppers, family members, etc.) like God does. Every act of intentionally conscious waiting is a spiritual exercise to them. When they are patient with others, they echo and experience God’s patience with them. 
  1. My fears are realistic and never exaggerated because I know that one can survive great suffering and want – The poor in spirit remember well. They don’t lose sight of the difficult things they’ve gone through. When life gets tough, their memories strengthen them. They know that if God had the power to care for them then, he surely has the power to care for them now. When they read the stories of God’s faithfulness in the bible, those stories feel personal. It’s as though the God who was faithful to real people then is with them now—in an equally personal way.
  1. When I hear the good news about God preached to me, it sounds like good news and not like a threat or scolding – The poor in spirit are in touch with their need. They live vulnerable lives and know what it’s like to be saved by others. They know what it feels like to be surprised by the good graces of someone they don’t know. And they know that they’ll likely need that same grace throughout their lives. The poor in spirit live grace-receptive lives… grace-expectant lives. Their expectancy makes God’s good news something they were waiting for… like a gift. The poor in spirit know that all that fills their life is a gift. 
  1. I can respond to the call of God with abandonment and uncomplicated totality because I have so little to lose and I’m ready for anything – When you were young you had a lot more freedom to go with the flow. You didn’t have much. You weren’t weighed down by schedules, payments, and obligations. Life was lighter and you were free to take risks and do last minute things. It’s this kind of life that God wants you to rediscover again. Jesus once said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3, NIV) The poor in spirit are childlike—God’s children. 

MEDITATIVE READING:

Read the following Psalm daily for the next week. Slowly. Repetitively. 

Let its words shape and form you. 

“My heart is not proud, Lord,    

my eyes are not haughty;


I do not concern myself with great matters
    

or things too wonderful for me.

But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    

I am like a weaned child with its mother;  

like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    

both now and forevermore.”

Psalm 131, NIV

CLOSING PRAYER:

Psalm 131 is a prayer (in fact, anything that you say to God is a prayer). 

Take the words you wrote down earlier, in response to question 5 in the “Unpacking You” section, and craft them into a prayer. It can be long or short. 

Then pray that prayer to God. 

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