Blessed are the Mourning Poor
I remember a discussion I had with a supporter of the LGBTQ+ lifestyle on Facebook, wherein I told him that the SOGIE bill is discriminatory against faith-based institutions. But he told me that it is not. So I asked him, if a person says things in keeping with his religious beliefs that would affect the self-esteem of a member of the LGBTQ+ community, are they going to consider it a hate speech? And he answered, why would you want to say things that can hurt the self-esteem of others? Then I replied, that’s what I mean. The Scripture’s conviction of sin and call to a lifestyle of repentance is never good for the self-esteem of a blatant, unrepentant sinner. Therefore it(the preaching of the truth) will always be considered as a hate speech against the LGBTQ+ community, hence the bill is in fact an affront to religious freedom. The world’s highest virtue is the protection of human self-esteem, and people will try to redefine verses like this just to accommodate high self-esteem. But as John Piper would put it, “What we need today is not a higher opinion of ourselves, but a bigger view of God. He is the root of real happiness, not self-esteem.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Relationship to God and Others(vv. 3-10)
One way to look at this string of congratulatory remarks is to divide it into two groups of four. The first four talks about our relationship or dispositions toward God(vv. 3-6), and the last half is about our relationship or demeanor toward others(vv. 7-10). There’s a progression of thought here. The grounds of our demeanor toward people is our disposition with God. Reversing the order is deadly. First we must have a right standing in the sight of God before we can be right with others. That is, if you’re trying to please God by being right with people first, then that’s a works-salvation. Therefore getting the order right is very important. So we will deal with the vertical aspect first. Verses 3-4 today, vv. 5-6 next Sunday, then the horizontal aspect(vv. 7-12) on the following Sundays.
Happy are the Poor in Spirit(vv. 3)
The first of the beatitudes is “blessed” or “happy” are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But what does it mean to be poor in spirit?
There are at least two errors we need to avoid when dealing with this passage. First is the view that the poor in spirit is referring primarily to the victims of social injustices, or the minority groups, or even the economically poor. If this was the case, then this will exclude the privileged and the rich. It is as if there’s any virtue in poverty. Second is the view that a mere recognition of our sinfulness is enough to be considered poor in spirit even without repentance. In this view God’s will is to help all sinners boost their self-esteem and not to cast them down by any sense of guilt and helplessness.
The grounds of our demeanor toward people is our disposition with God. Reversing the order is deadly. First we must have a right standing in the sight of God before we can be right with others.
The Humble, Contrite, and Trusting
Now if being poor in spirit is not just having a generic admission of the universal finitude or even sinfulness of man, nor being the society’s poor, then what is it? To answer this, let’s look at some men from the past who I think demonstrated what being poor in spirit is like.
In Genesis 18:27 Abraham considered himself to be but dust and ashes in the sight of God. This is different from universal admission of human mortality and finitude, because Abraham’s evaluation of himself was with reference to God. People can easily admit fault in the horizontal level, but with zero regard to the holiness of God. Yes they will admit to being finite, perhaps even a sinner, a mere human who from time to time commits mistakes, but their concern has nothing to do with God. Do note also that Abraham was a rich man, and he definitely don’t belong to the unprivileged.
Or take Jacob. When God blessed his life, he recognised before the Lord that he’s unworthy of all His blessings(Genesis 32:10). But not with most people today. They think that if you received lots of blessings, then you must be worth the effort. But for Jacob, with more blessings, he recognised his own unworthiness before God.
Now you might say that pitying yourself is being poor in spirit. Not so fast! Consider Moses in Exodus 3:11 and Exodus 4:10-12. Moses’ humble assessment of his own abilities is not enough. God rebuked him not because he’s prideful but because he failed to trust God’s abilities. Yes he recognised his inefficiency, but he missed seeing God as efficient and in control of everything.
For David, whether finding himself in sin(Psalm 51:17), or when he’s doing good(1 Chronicles 29:14), he still have a broken spirit and contrite heart. He did not succumb to self-pitying nor to the impulses of self-esteem, but instead trust God’s grace.
Consider Job. When he saw God for who He really is, he said this words, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). Not only there’s a right recognition of his place in the sight of God, but also responded rightly to sight of God by repenting of his sins.
We have many more examples in the Old Testament, like Joseph, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah. Now in the New Testament we have John the Baptist saying that he must decrease and Christ must increase. And the tax collector from Jesus’s parable that was justified because he asked God to be merciful to him a sinner. Or Paul who consider himself to be the chief among sinners, least of the apostles and who knew nothing good dwelling in him except Christ.
What then is Poor in Spirit?
Here’s a list of what it means which I just borrowed from John Piper:
- It is a sense of powerlessness in ourselves.
- It is a sense of spiritual bankruptcy and helplessness before God.
- It is a sense of moral uncleanness before God.
- It is a sense of personal unworthiness before God.
- It is a sense that if there is to be any life or joy or usefulness, it will have to be all of God and all of grace.
Happy are those who Mourn(vv. 4)
I like how John Piper stated it. He said “a sense of”. Because in one sense everyone is really poor in spirit. Apart from God, all human beings are powerless, spiritually bankrupt, and helpless, morally unclean, unworthy, with no life, no lasting joy, and definitely not useful in God’s ministry. But not everybody is “blessed”. The blessed are those who feel it. Those who mourn over it, and not hide it by a false sense of self-sufficiency. They cast themselves under the mercy of God, rather than projecting themselves to be strong and able. So we can say that the second beatitude clarifies for us who are the poor in spirit(vv. 4). Not only that, verses 5-6 also clarifies for us who are the mourners(but this is for another time). The blessed are those who after realizing that they’re spiritually deficient mourn and cry out to God for grace.
God’s Solution for Discouragement
What then is the implication of this truth on the ministry of preaching and counselling? What is the bible’s way of dealing with people encumbered by a sense of guilt and unworthiness? The solution is not to boost their morale by giving them a sense of high self-esteem, more self-confidence and self-sufficiency. We don’t just say hold on to life, you can do it. Rather, God’s way of removing the load of guilt and uselessness is by telling us to rest in him. He will give an accurate assessment of who we really are before him. Like in Isaiah 41:14, God will not comfort us by saying that we are beautiful butterflies, but by telling us that we are just helpless worms, and He is the one who will help us. He is our Redeemer.
Therefore blessed are you if you are aware of your own poverty in spirit. Blessed are you because you’re mourning over it, and found yourself approaching the throne of God’s grace. Be assured that He will not cast you away, but instead you will be comforted by His tender mercy and grace.