“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
This is one of those statements which remind us there are always two sides to the gospel: there has to be an emptying before there can be a filling. There is a pulling down and a raising up. Conviction must always precede conversion. If one feels anything in the presence of God except an utter poverty of spirit, it ultimately means they have never faced Him. That is the meaning of this Beatitude.
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It was the spirit of a man like Gideon, for instance, who, when the Lord sent an angel to him to tell him the great thing he was to do, said, “How can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judges 6:15). It was the spirit of Moses, who felt deeply unworthy of the task laid upon him: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). You find it in David, when he said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” (2 Samuel 7:18). When Isaiah had a vision of the majesty of the Lord, he said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). That is to be “poor in spirit,” and it can be seen throughout the Old Testament.
In the New Testament you see it perfectly in a man like the apostle Peter who was naturally aggressive, self-assertive, and self-confident. But look at him when he truly sees the Lord. He says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Or look at the apostle Paul. Here was a man with great natural abilities. But once he had seen the risen Lord on the road to Damascus all that became “loss” (Philippians 3:7). As he goes on with the task of evangelism, he asks, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). If any man had a right to feel “sufficient” it was Paul. Yet he felt insufficient because he was “poor in spirit.”
We see this most of all as we look at the life of our Lord Himself. He became a Man, He took upon Himself “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3). Though He was equal with God He did not clutch at the prerogatives of His deity. He said, “I can do nothing on My own” (John 5:30). And look at His prayer life: as you watch Him spending hours in prayer, you see His poverty of spirit and His reliance upon the Father.
Being “poor in spirit” means a consciousness that we are nothing in the presence of God. If we are truly Christian, we understand that our salvation and spiritual service must flow from God, and not ourselves. We shall not rely upon our own morality and conduct and good behavior. We shall not rely upon the fact that we belong to a certain family or nationality. We shall not build upon our natural personality, or rely upon our education, intelligence, ability, or any wealth we may have. No, all that is what Paul came to regard as “rubbish.”
“Poverty of spirit” is to look to God in utter submission to Him and in utter dependence upon Him and His grace and mercy. When a person is in the presence of God, they of necessity fall “at His feet as though dead,” as did the apostle John (Revelation 1:17). Any natural spirit that is in us goes out, because it is not only exposed in its smallness and weakness, but its sinfulness and defilement become apparent at the same time.
Let us then ask ourselves these questions. Am I like that? Am I poor in spirit? How do I really feel about myself as I think of myself in terms of God, and in the presence of God?
How does one become “poor in spirit”? You may be tempted to start by looking at yourself or by trying to change things about yourself. But that is not the way. Instead, look at God. Read the Bible, look at what He expects from us, and contemplate standing before Him. Look at the Lord Jesus Christ and view Him as we see Him in the Gospels. The more we do that, the more we shall understand the reaction of the apostles when, looking at Him and something He had just done, they said, “increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). Their faith, they felt, was nothing. They felt it was so weak and so poor.
You cannot truly look at Him without feeling your absolute spiritual poverty, and emptiness. Then you say to Him, “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling.”
—Adapted from Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by David Martyn Lloyd-Jones