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Blessed are the poor in Spirit

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Summary of the Sermon

“[T]hese Beattitudes indicate more clearly than anything else in Scripture the utter and essential difference between the natural man and the Christian….Now there is perhaps no statement that underlies and emphasizes that difference more than this ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ Let me show the contrast. This is something which is not only not admired in the world; it is despised by it….What emphasis the world places on its belief in self-reliance, self-confidence and self-expression!” (35)

MLJ then develops the concept of “poor in spirit” in concrete examples.

First, it is a matter of seeing one’s sinfulness and poverty before God — not as a matter of being better or worse than other human beings.

Second, to be “poor in spirit” is different than the emphasis on “personality” — by this I believe he means the charismatic leader type, the one who is able to gain a great deal of personal attention, attention directed to him (or her). He contrasts this to the truly great leaders of the Church, “You read the old recovers of the activities of God’s greatest workers, the great evangelists and others, and you observe how self-effacing they were. But, today, we are experiencing something that is almost a complete reversal of this. Advertisements and photographs are being put into the foreground.” (37)

He then has this footnote, “I was interested to observe, since stating the above, Bishop Frank Houghton’s tribute in The Christian to the late Miss Amy Carmichael. He points out how one who made such free use of pictures and photographs in all her books never once inserted a photograph of herself.”

Third, to be “poor in spirit” is not a groveling humility, the Uriah Heep, “I’m just a humble man shtick.”

Fourth, nor is it the suppression of one’s actual personality, it is not the crushing of one’s humanity.

What is it then: It is a human being before God:

Isaiah 57:15 (ESV)
15  For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.

That then is what it meant by being “poor in spirit.” It means a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of self-assurance and of self-reliance. it means a consciousness that we are nothing in the presence of God. It is nothing, then, that we can produce; it is nothing that we can do in ourselves. It is just this tremendous awareness of our utter nothingness as we come face-to-face with God. That is to be “poor in spirit.” Let me put it as strongly as I can, and I do so on the basis of the teaching of the Bible. It means this, that if we are truly Christian we shall not rely upon our natural birth.” 40-41

Observations:

Plainly we cannot bring ourselves to be “poor in spirit” — it is not something we do to ourselves. Rather, it is something which happens to us when we are brought before God. It is the inherent response of the creature before the Creator. Therefore, we must labor to get a sight of God in Jesus Christ; for that is the humbling power.

Second, we must see how difficult a thing this is. The subject state of humility is quite painful for a human being. It leaves us alone before God in the ultimate existential danger. Therefore, we have a natural tendency to avoid it.

I think this tendency is particular dangerous for the professing Christian, because there is the conflict between the admitted need for poverty of spirit & there is also the inherent reluctance. Therefore, there is a constant temptation to be satisfied with something less than actual being “poor in spirit” while using the words.

This conflict is especially acute in the present time. MLJ notes the then contemporary problem of “personality”. If his critique was fair in the 1950’s, then the critique understated in the 21st century. It is no longer an embarrassment to be self-promoting, it is positively encouraged — and often rewarded with the accolades of (well-meaning) Christians.

The solution is not utter invisibility — after all I would not know about MLJ if his sermons were not published. And often it is extremely difficult to maintain a proper humility, because pride is an instant chameleon.

But too often, the contemporary Christian leader will throw himself down from the roof of the temple to be seen by men, even though he will use his words to say that he was merely seeking the glory of God. And when others see that man or woman getting Christian praise for self-promotion (often in a manner which would have been consider tacky by everyone only a few years ago), the temptation is great to seek personal glory and say, “this is all for Jesus.” (And I am not talking about athletes in particular, I thinking of those in vocation ministry).

Thus, if the leaders have not poverty, how can we expect the rest to have any? And if the church lacks poverty of spirit, how then can it be effective? The church cannot rely upon the spirit and word of God, because God must be kept at arm’s length. He can be referenced, but we don’t really want God coming to service. We then become the cursed people who honor God with our lips, but our hearts are far from God.