Today we have a guest voice here on Theology in Overalls.
Chale Atikonda is a Master of Arts in Religion student and serving as Teacher’s Assistant at Africa Nazarene University in Kenya, Africa. He is an aspiring writer in the area of Theology. He is a Youth Pastor of Chiimba Church of the Nazarene and he is from Malawi, Africa.
His paper, entitled “Poverty of Spirit,” was edited by Eileen Qui.
Matthew 5:3; Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν).
There have been a good number of interpretations of what Jesus meant when He said that the “poor in spirit” are blessed. Some people believe that Jesus recommended physical poverty as a merit to enter into the eternal Kingdom of God. Others believe that Jesus meant one must suffer under the guidance of the Spirit, such as punishing the body by denying it food, sleep or good clothing, and in extreme cases, even punishing the body by beating it, causing bleeding wounds to make one poor in obedience to what they believe to be the leading of the Spirit of God. Before I embark on explaining what I believe Jesus meant when He called us to the poverty of the Spirit so that we are able to attain the Kingdom of God, let us begin from the original language in which this verse was written in.
|πτωχοὶ||(of one who crouches and cowers) beggarly, poor||are the poor|
|Πνεύματι||wind, spirit||in spirit,|
|αὐτῶν||Self (emphatic), he, she, it (used for the third person)||for theirs|
|Βασιλεία||kingdom, sovereignty, royal power||is the kingdom|
Although the Greek word πτωχοὶ basically means “poor”, this text appears many times in Hebrew scripture and the usage of its equivalent Hebrew word is broader than the Greek word. The Hebrew word “עני” meaning “poor” describes a person who can do nothing on his/her own and is totally dependent on other people to provide all their needs. Ryan Shaw concurs by stating that “in Hebrew ‘poor’ reflects the humble and helpless putting their trust in God. The ‘poor’ admit Spiritual bankruptcy.” In addition to this, the Bible hub comments, “Poverty in any shape helps to stir in man a sense of need, a disposition to consider himself as dependent….” Therefore, in the original language, the word “poor” describes someone who cannot do anything on his/her own and all needs must be provided by someone else. A good example can be a baby who always needs an adult to give them what they need and be at their service all the time. However, the difference from a baby is that the “poor,” as described in the original language, know that they are unable to do anything for themselves. Therefore, they must become attached to someone who has the ability to provide for their needs.
THEN WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?
In this verse, Jesus meant that the blessed are those who know that they cannot do anything on their own and therefore, recognize that they always need God to meet all their needs. The poor in spirit recognize their spiritual bankruptcy and are humble enough to completely submit themselves to a master who is rich in everything to provide for their needs. The logic behind this is that one cannot submit oneself as a poor person to a master/provider to provide for him/her without some form of worship or service to this master/provider. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun concurs, “Everyone worships someone or something…. Human beings cannot help but assign ultimate value and worth to someone or something. Of course that does not mean everyone worships God. One’s ultimate devotion can rest in money, success, a person, a garden, a creed, a cause so forth. Ultimately, what we are devoted to will shape our lives.” That is why there are numerous people who worship their jobs and give their all in serving or working. They work hard not because they love what they do or take pride in their work, but because they know that their job provides them with what they need. Without their jobs, they cannot get what they need and make ends meet. They are poor in the eyes of their job. Ryan Shaw argues in agreement that “Poverty of Spirit means I need God for everything. It is confidence in God, not natural circumstances or abilities.” So Jesus meant that blessed are those who come to this state, see themselves weak and insufficient without God and they, therefore, join themselves to God with humbleness in living, service and worship. Such people qualify to attain the Kingdom of God.
SPIRITUAL VS PHYSICAL POVERTY
1. THE MATERIALLY POOR
Physical poverty has the ability to cause spiritual poverty, although there is danger and risk when applying this principle without any limitations. There are people who are materially poor and choose to follow Jesus because they have read or heard from a Christian that Jesus provides. They seek Jesus for what they will gain from Him to meet their personal needs. For example, people may follow Jesus because they need Him to give them jobs, children because they are fruitless, a marriage partner, food and the list goes on. Jesus recognizes such people in John 6:26 when he rebuked those that were following Him not for spiritual reasons but because He had fed them with physical food the previous day. Though it is possible for physical poverty to cause spiritual poverty, there is a great danger in too much dependence on this principle because it makes the assumption that the moment one attains physical riches or wealth, he/she also becomes rich in spirit. While not always the case, many people do seek God for physical wealth, and finding those riches results in them no longer having any use and need for God. Soon After those who may be spiritually poor to begin with become spiritually rich. Pride overtakes the person, and one will no longer have much time for God. In a rare circumstance one may seek Jesus for what they need from Him and truly find their identity in Jesus as He meets their needs.
People were created to possess nothing and no one but God alone. Material possessions, what we have and do not have, should not be the cause of our spiritual poverty, but instead, the cause should be relationships, who we have or do not have. This “who” is God. We should be searching to be filled by God, instead of being in search of physical riches or wealth.
Jesus warned us of how dangerous physical riches are in blocking someone from pursuing the Kingdom of God. The Bible records in Matthew 19:23-24 “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” There are debates concerning this verse of what Jesus meant. Some believe that Jesus meant that it is impossible for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God just as it is impossible for a camel to enter the needle’s eye. Others believe that Jesus meant that it is difficult, but there is a slim chance, or it requires great effort for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. However, there are some debates and arguments which go deeper than that.
Some claim that the “Eye of the Needle” was a gate in Jerusalem which opened after the main gate was closed at night. It was impossible for a camel to pass through this gate unless it stoops and has its baggage removed. This story is believed to have been in existence from at least the 15th century, and possibly as far back as the 9th century. However, there is no widely accepted evidence for the existence of such a gate and whether Jesus meant that particular gate if there was one, nor whether He meant a real camel as an animal passing through the real sewing needle’s eye. Another argument that has some support is that Jesus did not mean a camel passing through the needle’s eye; it is a Greek misspelling and He meant a rope passing through the needle’s eye. Joseph Reuss records some of these proponents by stating that “Cyril of Alexandria (fragment 219) claimed that “camel” is a Greek misspelling and that kamêlos (camel) was written in place of kamilos, meaning “rope” or “cable”. More recently, George Lamsa, in his 1933 translation of the Bible into English from the Syriac, claimed the same.”
Despite the lack of clarity on the meaning of this verse, it is clear by Jesus’ words that He recognized physical status as one of the agents which has the ability to affect either negatively or positively one’s spiritual status. Physical riches have the ability to smash down one’s spiritual poverty. On the other hand, it is possible to be physically poor but spiritually rich. It is also possible to be physically rich but spiritually poor. The book of Job gives us the best example of a person (Job) who was rich but did not let his possessions define his relationship with God. He is the man who was physically rich but spiritually poor in all circumstances.
2. POOR BY CHOICE
There are those who choose to be poor because they believe that being physically poor in whatever area of poverty by the leading of the Spirit of God is the merit to enter into the Kingdom of God. As I mentioned in the introduction, there are those who attempt to be poor through limiting materials, a physical punishment by choice such as denying oneself good clothing, food and anything that carries any form of contentment. Church History records the story of a celebrated priest by the name Simeon the Stylite who spent 37 years upon a tall pillar. Simeon was a Syriac ascetic saint who, according to Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, developed this way of life following a reading of the Beatitudes. He decided to live all those years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo. Food was given to him through well-wishers and sometimes children would put food on a pole and extend it up to him. Women, including his own mother, were not allowed to come near the pillar he spent his entire life on. He was found dead by his disciple on 2 September 459. His body was found stooped over in prayer.
Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire writes, “In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion.” Simeon understood the Beatitudes as total surrender and making oneself poor before the Lord by denying himself from anything that the physical body enjoys except being in the presence of the Lord. There are other undocumented practices practiced by some Christians which end up being harmful to their physical bodies. Others adopt the extreme fasting Spiritual discipline which at the end causes them to suffer from health complications, including death. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun argues by stating that “Wanting to work with and watch Jesus is where transformation begins. Willpower and discipline alone can never fix your soul. Striving, pushing and trying harder will not recover your life. Unforced rhythms of grace depend on something more than self-mastery and self-effort.”
Yes, spiritual disciplines are vital, and making yourself poor for the sake of giving all your attention to God is good. However, it should not drive you to think that observing a particular discipline will earn or win God’s heart if your heart is not for God but divided between God’s Kingdom and the Kingdom of darkness. Some Christians perceive that you can coax God into doing something for your life only when you fast in prayer, and that the everyday lifestyle does not matter. For them longer fasting brings longer results and greater answers from God. As part of this may be true, it is harmful to adopt such beliefs. The same God who can answer your prayer in fasting can also answer your prayer on full stomach – what matters is where your heart is. You do not need to make yourself physically poor before God just because you want to earn His favor. God has already poured out His favor to everyone and you do not need to work for it. Your heart must be in right standing with God. Put your total dependence in God no matter how much you possess, how big or small your body is, how healthy you are, or whatever material possession you may have – it will bring you happiness as you live for Christ. Bear in mind that physical possessions have the ability to smash down your spiritual poverty. If there is any possession that is taking away your heart from God, you get rid of it and trust God to fill that place. Therefore. It is not a matter of forsaking everything that you possess but forsaking your allegiance and reverence to what you possess and giving that position to God.
Therefore, physical riches and poverty can impact spiritual poverty, but are not the sole defining factor. In all physical circumstances, blessed are those who know that they cannot do anything on their own and therefore always need God to meet their needs, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
 Ryan Shaw, “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount: A Call to Kingdom Life as True Disciples,” IGNITE Media, 2017, Page 19.
 Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciples Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, Inter-Vasity Press, Illinois, 2015, Page 27.
 Ryan Shaw, “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount: A Call to Kingdom Life as True Disciples,” IGNITE Media, 2017, Page 19.
 Joseph Reuss, Matthäus-Kommentare aus der griechischen Kirche (in German). Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1957, p. 226.
 Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, W. Clowes and Sons, Stamford Street, London, 2012.
 Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciples Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, Inter-Vasity Press, Illinois, 2015, Pages 17-18.
Bible Hub. 2004. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/edt/matthew/5.htm (accessed April 10, 2020).
Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciples Handbook: Practices That Transform Us. Illinois: Inter-Vasity, 2015.
Gibbon, Edward. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . London : W. Clowes and Sons, 2012.
Reuss, Joseph. Matthäus-Kommentare aus der griechischen Kirche (in German). Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1957.
Shaw, Ryan. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount: A Call to Kingdom Life as True Disciples . IGNITE Media , 2017.