The Poor In Spirit Matthew 5:3

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 5:3

The more usual interpretation of “the poor in spirit,” however, has more interest and attractiveness, and deserves consideration.

1. Poverty of spirit is not poverty in the lower soul but in that higher part of man which comes into immediate contact with the Divine, in the higher soul which comes face to face with God, in that spirit with which “the Spirit bears witness that we are the children of God.”

The simplest way to grasp its meaning is perhaps to consider its opposite, i.e., the moral distortion of being lifted up in spirit. This uplifted spirit is the spirit of self-exaltation which filled the heart of Nebuchadnezzar when he contemplated the glories of the great Babylon which he had built. This is the spirit of those who are self-satisfied and at ease, who call their lands after their own names, and look at everything through the medium of their own self-importance. For such the world has no significance except as it affects their interest or their convenience. This is the radical spirit of worldliness; for it is the spirit which makes self the centre of everything. This spirit is the seed-ground of sin. All kinds of wrong become possible to the man who makes his own pleasure or aggrandizement the supreme rule of his life. Conscience has little place in the heart of the man who makes self the axis of reference in all his conduct. This inflated egotism is flat against the order of the universe, and essentially hostile to the Kingdom of God It is in one sense the starting-place of evil; it is in another sense its climax. Egotism in moral life is the cause of most of the heedlessness and sinfulness of the world; and yet it is only after a prolonged indulgence of selfishness that the humane and kindly instincts of nature are destroyed. The evil principle of self works till all the finer, better, and purer feelings and aspirations are brought to naught. It stands out then as the naked antagonist of all that is good.

And so Vergil and Dante come at last to the Angel-Guardian of the Cornice, against the place of ascent to the next ring—the Angel of Humility, “in his countenance such as a tremulous star at morn appears.” He bids them to the steps and beats his wings on Dante's forehead. There comes to Dante's ears the sound of sweet voices singing, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and he notices that, though mounting steep stairs, he is lighter than when walking on the level below. Why is this? Vergil explains that one of the seven Sin-marks on Dante's brow has been erased by the Angel's wings, the Pride-mark, and that all the remaining six have, at the same time, become much fainter than before; a beautiful indication this of the doctrine that Pride is the deadliest foe of human salvation. When the last Sin-mark is removed Dante will experience not merely no difficulty in mounting but actual delight. Dante feels his brow on hearing this and finds that only six of the marks remain, and Vergil smiles at this. True humility is not even conscious of being humble.1 [Note: H. B. Garrod, Dante, Goethe's Faust, and Other Lectures, 140.]

2. Poverty of spirit is not a feeling of self-disgust which comes over us when we compare our gifts and talents with those of others; it is born from no earthly inspiration, it proceeds from coming face to face with God. A man may be poor in spirit while his soul is on fire with enthusiasm for the cause of God, for the good of man. It is born of a double sense, both of the Divine greatness and of the Divine nearness. It is shown in unrepining acquiescence in our present limitations; it is shown in acceptance of the will of God in everything; it is shown not in self-depreciation, but in the strength that comes of trustfulness. It is the attitude which, in the presence of God, recognizes its entire dependence, empties itself, and is as a poor man, not that it may be feeble, but that God may fill it. It is the virtue which sends a man to his knees bowed and humbled and entranced before the Divine Presence, even in the hour of his most thrilling triumph. He cannot vaunt himself, he cannot push himself, he is but an instrument, and an instrument that can work only as long as it is in touch with its inward power; the “God within him” is the source of his power. What can he be but poor in spirit, how can he forget, how can he call out “worship me,” when he has seen the Vision and heard the Voice, and felt the Power of God? Poor in spirit, emptied of mere vain, barren conceit, deaf to mere flattery he must be, because he has seen and known; he has cried “Holy, Holy, Holy”; he knows God, and henceforth he is not a centre, not an idol, but an instrument, a vessel that needs for ever refilling, if it is to overflow and do its mission. His is the receptive attitude; not that which receives merely that it may keep, but that which receives because it must send forth. And so he accepts all merely personal conditions, not as perfect in themselves, but as capable of being transmuted by that inward power which is his own yet not his own—his own because God is within him, not his own because he is the receiver, not the inspirer.

I am sure there must be many who have a difficulty in understanding these words of our Lord—“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” It must almost seem to them as if He had meant to pronounce a blessing on the cowardly and mean-spirited; whereas the blessing is on those who know and keep their place in the Divine hierarchy. We are dependent creatures, not self-existent or self-sufficing; but there is nothing degrading in this dependence, for we share it with the eternal Son. When we forget this, we lose our blessedness, for it consists in the spirit of sonship, by which alone we can receive and respond to our Father's love. God does not call for the acknowledgment of our dependence as a mere homage to His sovereignty, but because we are His children, and it is only through this acknowledgment that we can receive His fatherly love and blessing. The blessedness arises out of the spirit of dependence, and when that spirit departs the blessedness departs with it; therefore as the spirit of independence is the spirit of this world, we need not wonder at its unblessedness, for that spirit shuts the heart against God and cuts off its supply from the Fountain of Life.1 [Note: Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, The Spiritual Order, 233.]

3. Only he who has discerned the ideal can feel what is described in the text as poverty of spirit. The man contented with himself, satisfied with his work and his position, to whom no ideal opens itself as something yet unattained, can never feel poverty of spirit. In short, this foundation Beatitude, on which all the other Beatitudes are built up, sets forth a universal law of human life; it describes the attitude of mind characteristic of the wisest, strongest, best of the human family. The greater a man is in any walk of life the wider his vision, and the keener his insight the greater is his poverty of spirit in the presence of the perfection he has seen.

So doth the greater glory dim the less.
A substitute shines brightly as a king
Until a king be by; and then his state
Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
Into the main of waters.

The vision of the greater glory, showing the contrast between what he has seen and what he has in possession, makes the man full of poverty of spirit. The stars shine as brightly during the daylight as they do at night, but they are invisible because of the greater glory of the sun. One can be content with his present state only when he has seen no brighter, clearer vision.

Miss Ellice Hopkins writes her impressions of a visit to the Briary at this time:

“At a very unassuming looking house at the foot of the Downs lived another of the Immortals, our great painter, who always went by the name of the ‘Divine Watts.' Mrs. Cameron took us to see his studio, and to be introduced to him. We found a slightly built man with a fine head, most courteous in manner, and with the simplicity and humility of the immortal child that so often dwells at the heart of true genius. There was something pathetic to me in the occasional poise of the head, the face slightly lifted, as we see in the blind, as if in dumb beseeching to the fountain of Eternal Beauty for more power to think his thoughts after Him. There is always in his work a window left open to the infinite, the unattainable ideal.”1 [Note: George Frederic Watts, i. 299.]

4. 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. Hill-tops 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 things grow. If only we are truly poor in spirit, our life will be rich in its fruits.

A consciousness of want and shortcoming is the condition of success and excellence in any sphere. Of those who aspire to be doctors, lawyers, painters, musicians, scholars, I would say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit—blessed are they who are conscious of their defect and want—for to them the high places of their professions belong.” The only hopeless people in the world are the self-satisfied people, the people who do not think they need anything. The only man who will ever make a great scholar is the man who is keenly conscious of his own ignorance, who feels, like Sir Isaac Newton, that he has but gathered a few pebbles on the shore of the infinite ocean of truth; who carries the satchel still, like Michel Angelo, into an old age, and who, like J. R. Green, dies learning. But the man who starts by thinking he knows everything dooms himself to lifelong ignorance. A sense of want, humility of mind, is the very condition of excellence and success.1 [Note: J. D. Jones, The Way into the Kingdom, 31.]

The most marked of all the moral features in Dr. Duncan's character was humility. He was singularly humble, in consideration of his great talents, of his vast treasures of learning, and of his attainments in the Divine life. But if we set all these aside, and compare him with other Christian men, we cannot but come to the conclusion that out of all the guests bidden in these days by the King within the circle of our knowledge, it was he that took the lowest room at the feast. This lowliness was allied to the childlike simplicity which pervaded his whole Christian course, and was made more evident by the helplessness which rendered him so unfit to guide himself in common matters, and so willing to be guided by others. But its root lay in his sense of the majesty of God, which was far more profound than in other men, and humbled him lower in the dust; in his perception and his love of holiness, and the consciousness of his own defect; in his sense of ingratitude for the unparalleled love of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in his abiding conviction of past sin and of present sinfulness. This habitual humbling was deepened by the wounding of his very tender conscience, through yielding himself to be carried away by what chanced to take hold of his mind. These combined elements rendered him an example of an altogether rare and inimitable humility. Men who may be reckoned holier might be named out of those who served the Lord along with him; but among them all it would be hard to find one so humble. The holiness of Robert M‘Cheyne, if not so deep, was more equal, and more thoroughly leavened the character hour by hour. The holiness of William Burns was in some respects as deep, and it was singularly constant. They were both more watchful, and therefore more evenly holy. But in the race to stoop down into their Lord's sepulchre, John Duncan outran them both; he was the humblest of the three, and of all the men whom most of us have known.1 [Note: A. Moody Stuart, Recollections of the late John Duncan, 175.]

5. We must also distinguish between poverty of spirit and self-depreciation. There is a false humility which finds pleasure in calling itself a worm and a miserable sinner, simply as an excuse for being no better. It is a false humility which pleads its humbleness as an excuse for aiming low. It is a false humility which says, “We are no better than our fathers were,” as an excuse for not trying to rise to a higher level, and for maintaining a low standard and perpetuating abuses. It is a false humility which leads us to take the lower room, that we may shirk our duties and avoid taking a lead when we are called upon to do so. It was not true humility that led the idle servant to bury his talent in the ground. Whatever name it may assume, it is conceit and pride that in the heart believes itself fitted for higher things, and is discontented with its part on the world's stage. It is pride that wishes to be ministered unto, and is too conceited to minister. There is no true humility in pretending to be worse than we are, in underrating the gifts that God has given us, in declining to take the part for which we are fitted.
Do you want a cure for that false humility, that mock modesty which says, “I am not worthy,” and trumpets its denial till all the world knows that an honour has been offered; which, while it says with the lips, “It is too great for me,” feels all the time in the heart that self-consciousness of merit which betrays itself in the affected walk and the showy humility? Would you be free from this folly? Feel that God is all; that whether He makes you great, or leaves you unknown, it is best for you, because it is His work.2 [Note: Stopford A. Brooke.]

to be continued