“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
Poor in spirit. It is amazing how easy it is to gloss over Jesus’ epic red letter words in the Bible. We read his exhortations and commandments through our tainted human lenses and forget that He wants nothing more than our devotion and love even if we do not fully understand how or why. He knows our innermost desires and what makes us feel happy and fulfilled in this life better than we do, but what does that look like? What is the mechanism that God uses to draw us closer to himself and experience authentic joy? The answer might be something we would never expect.
True happiness is a difficult concept to grasp. Everyone looks for it and has their own theory on how to attain it, but yet no one seems to have found the perfect solution. The world has plenty of suggestions: own a nice car, live in an affluent neighborhood, party every weekend, quit a relationship when it gets hard, fit in with the right crowds, and generally find satisfaction in being comfortable and safe. Comfort has become a human tendency more today than perhaps ever before, with air conditioning, cushioned seats, fast food, and a sense that difficulty and hardships should be avoided at all costs. There is nothing wrong with any of these comforts of life in and of themselves, but when they are used to avoid any type of suffering and to fulfill the deepest desires and longings of the human heart, we often find ourselves feeling empty and alone.
Part of our job as Christians is to provide an example of how to live a happy, fulfilling life in this world, and what better place to look for direction than the Beatitudes- the guide Jesus presented as a key to getting to heaven and dragging others with us? And if we are following this ultimate life-map, we may as well start with #1- blessed are the poor in spirit. It sets the stage for the remaining seven and prepares us for the torrent of inspiration that Jesus provides during the Sermon on the Mount. Why is this one first? Because we cannot be meek, merciful, pure, peaceful, etc. without first realizing that we need a Savior.
Realizing Our Need
Being poor in spirit is not simply physical deprivation, but the realization of our deep human need for the living God. We fill our lives with day to day activities and try to nurture our own souls without the help of a Savior, but the bottom line is that we are all desperately in need of one, whether we like to admit it or not. This mindset can be difficult to achieve, especially in America, because we have a natural human instinct to be self-sustaining in order to get ahead in life and avoid being in a state of poverty or desperation. So instead, the common mentality is that being poor, in need, or in pain are not good things and that if we are to find ourselves in one of these states then we should immediately attempt to flee the situation and return to a state of comfort and ease.
This may be an effective means of escaping financial poverty, but when the same concept is applied to our Christian journey, the results are disastrous. If, whenever faced with trial or hardship in our spiritual lives, we immediately try to rectify the situation and dispel any sense of poverty or desperation, we ultimately find ourselves closer to earthly comforts but further away from the God who loves us. One of the great mysteries of God is that he uses suffering and hardship as a way of not only disciplining and shaping those he loves but also in order to draw us closer to himself and to subsequently provide us with more happiness in this life. James 1:2-4 says,
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
So why do we go to great lengths to avoid sufferings if they are designed by God to draw us closer to him? We should be embracing spiritual poverty, embracing the realization that our existence depends utterly on God.
But our desire for an easy life gets in the way.
I will be the first to admit that it is extremely difficult to live with a sense of spiritual poverty when life is good. We tend to forget the goodness of God and the impact his divine will has played in our lives when our families are healthy, we are financially stable, and we live comfortably. So how do we embrace Jesus’ call to be ‘poor in spirit’ even when we do not feel it? When times are good?
Allow me to propose two methods: embracing hardships as a means of growth toward the kingdom of heaven, and fasting/abstinence.
Looking Up When There is Nowhere Else to Look
The closest I have ever felt to God was when my wife and I discovered that our unborn child had a defect that rendered him incapable of surviving outside the womb. The utter desperation I felt during this time was one that, although incredibly painful, created the most uniquely joyful, peaceful, content state that I have ever felt because when your world is rocked and you are thrown violently into an abyss of spiritual poverty, you have no choice but to look up to the Savior of the universe in your dire need and rest completely in His divinity.
I remember thinking something like: This hurts like hell, but nothing in this world is offering me any consolation in losing my son. The only thing that can possibly bring any meaning or peace to this situation is God. And so for nine months I prayed, read, meditated, wrote, and cried longingly to God because it was my only option. And so without knowing it at the time, I experienced a taste of what I believe Jesus wants us to feel- poverty of spirit. And I have been trying to recapture that sense of openness and desperation for God ever since, even though it was the most difficult time of my life.
Is it painful? Yes. Is it hard? Um. Yes. Is it worth it? YES.
Fasting and Abstinence When Times are Good
“Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion.” (CCC, 1430)
But what about when times are good and there is no worldly hardship drawing us to God? There are still ways to experience spiritual poverty. Basic human needs like food, water, and air are obviously essential to life, but take one away and our souls enter a state of deprivation similar to when we are experiencing hardships in our lives. Fasting from food is a simple way to create poverty of spirit and a is a method that has been practiced by Christians and Jews for thousands of years. When a basic staple is removed we have no choice but to enter a state of poverty and mourning, which, contrary to popular belief, does not necessarily indicate sadness or lack of joy (blessed are those who mourn anyone??). Removing a small piece of comfort like having food on demand enables us to “fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, wholeheartedly, universally and entirely” (St. Francis de Sales).
And fasting can take many forms! Abstaining from phones, TV, cars, hot showers, or alcohol can all serve as methods of creating spiritual poverty. And the next time the air conditioning dies in church or you have to walk instead of drive or your shoes create a blister or your internet service cuts out, use these situations as an opportunity to allow God to pierce your soul through the “poverty” you are experiencing instead of complaining or scrambling to quickly return to a comfortable state.
Because of our first-world access to amenities in America, it can be easy to replace our hardships and regain an easy state of living, but next time adversity arises in your life, however large or small, remember what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10 about the thorn in his side:
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
As difficult as this may be sometimes, it is how God has chosen to provide us with happiness and a pathway to heaven.
We are all searching for the path to true happiness. May we all be inspired to embrace the joy that comes from sharing our hardships with the Lord and acknowledging our need for a savior:
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:16-18)