“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Back in 1978, I spoke in Aspen, Colorado to a gathering of InterVarsity students and people off the street. At the end of my talk, one of the students asked a very common question. He said, “Isn’t Christianity a crutch for people who can’t make it on their own?”
My answer was very simple. I said, “Yes.” Period.
What’s Bad About a Crutch?
I can’t remember how the conversation went from there. So let me just pick it up here. My return question would be, “Why is the thought that Christianity is a crutch considered to be a valid criticism of Christianity?” People don’t usually look at a crutch and say, “That’s bad. It’s just a crutch.” People don’t, in general, think that crutches are bad things. Why does a crutch become a bad thing when it’s Christianity?
I think the answer that most critics would give is this: if Christianity is a crutch, then it’s only good for cripples. But we don’t like to see ourselves as cripples. And so it is offensive to our self-sufficiency to label Christianity as a crutch.
But Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). In other words, the only people who will ever come to get what Jesus has to give are sick people, people who know that they are spiritually and morally and very often physically crippled.
Everybody Has a Creed
Everybody has a creed. All people believe in something, and shape their lives around it. Even agnostics believe very strongly that you ought not believe anything very strongly (which is why it is so hard to be a consistent agnostic). We all have a creed that we live by, whether we can articulate it or not.
What is the creed behind the conviction that if Christianity is a crutch, it is undesirable and unworthy of acceptance? I think the answer is this: the creed behind this criticism of Christianity is the confidence that we are not cripples, and that real joy and fulfillment in life are to be found in the pursuit of self-reliance, self-confidence, self-determination, and self-esteem.
“The only people who will ever come to Jesus are those who know they are spiritually and morally crippled.”
Any Messiah who comes along and proposes to replace self-reliance with childlike God-reliance, and self-confidence with submissive God-confidence, and self-determination with sovereign grace, and self-esteem with magnificent mercy for the unworthy — that Messiah is going to be a threat to the religion of self-admiration. That religion has dominated the world ever since Adam and Eve fell in love with the image of their own independent potential when they saw it reflected back to them in the eye of the serpent: “You will not die; you will be like God.”
The Creed of Self-Reliance
Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American poet and philosopher who died about one hundred years ago, wrote a famous essay called “Self-Reliance.” It captured the spirit of the age, and the spirit of our age.
Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string. Discontent is the want of self-reliance. It is infirmity of will.
Now we see the creed behind the criticism of Christianity as a crutch. The real infirmity of the world, according to Emerson, is lack of self-reliance. And so, to his dismay, along comes Christ, not with a cure for the disease, but a crutch! Christ is a stumbling block and an offense to Emerson and to people like Terry Cole-Whittaker in our day — yes, and even to us — because it takes the disease that we hate most, namely, helplessness, and instead of curing it, makes it the doorway to heaven.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Men of God, Poor in Spirit
What does this mean? What does it mean to be poor in spirit? To find out let’s look at some great men of God in Scripture.
Abraham — In dealing with the Lord about Sodom and Gomorrah, he said, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27).
Jacob — When Jacob returned to the promised land after spending twenty years in exile, he wrestled with God in prayer and said, “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness which thou hast shown to thy servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies” (Genesis 32:10).
Moses — When God came to him with a mission to lead his people out of Israel, he said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt? . . . Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either heretofore or since thou hast spoken to thy servant; but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Exodus 3:11; 4:10).
The reason God got angry at Moses is not because of his humble assessment of his own abilities, but of his lack of faith in God’s ability. God responded and said to Moses, “Who made man’s mouth? Who makes him dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Exodus 4:11–12).
The Antidote to Low Self-Esteem
What is the biblical solution when a person is paralyzed by a sense of guilt or unworthiness or uselessness? I believe with all my heart that the solution is not self-esteem. God did not say to Moses, “Stop putting yourself down. You are somebody. You are eloquent.” That is not the biblical way. What God said was, “Stop looking at your own unworthiness and uselessness and look at me. I made the mouth. I will be with you. I will help you. I will teach you what to say. Look to me and live!”
“The biblical antidote to low self-esteem is not high self-esteem; it is sovereign grace.”
The biblical answer to the paralysis of low self-esteem is not high self-esteem; it is sovereign grace. You can test whether you agree with this by whether you can gladly repeat the words of Isaiah 41:13, “Fear not, you worm Jacob. . . . I will help you, says the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.” In other words, God’s way of freeing and mobilizing people who see themselves as worms is not to tell them that they are beautiful butterflies but rather to say, “I will help you. I am your redeemer . . . Go to Egypt now, and I will be with you.”
William Carey’s Secret
William Carey did not have high self-esteem. He castigated himself again and again for his sin. When the fire of 1812 destroyed dozens of his precious manuscripts, he didn’t blame the devil. He said, “How unsearchable are the ways of God!” And then he accused himself of too much self-congratulation in his labors, and said, “The Lord has smitten us, he had a right to do so, and we deserve his corrections.”
When he had outlived four of his comrades in mission, he wrote back to Andrew Fuller, “I know not why so fruitless a tree is preserved; but the Lord is too wise to err.” When he died in 1834 in Serampore, a simple tablet was put on his grave with the words he requested. And when you hear these I want you to ask, What was William Carey’s secret? How could he persevere for 40 years over all obstacles — as a homely man, suffering from recurrent fever, limping for years from an injury in 1817, and yet putting the entire Bible into six languages and parts of it into 29 other languages — what was the secret of this man’s usefulness and productivity for the kingdom? The tablet on his grave reads,
Born August 17th, 1761
Died June 9th, 1834
A wretched, poor, and helpless worm,
On Thy kind arms I fall.
The secret for William Carey was not self-esteem. He was poor in spirit to the very end. “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm,” he calls himself, knowing very well his sin and failures.
His secret was in the last line of his epitaph: “On Thy kind arms I fall.” This was his secret in dying and this was his secret in living. He cast himself, poor, helpless, despicable on the kind arms of God. For he knew the promise of Jesus: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for to them belong the merciful and mighty arms of the King of kings.
Saints from Scripture Who Were Poor in Spirit
My prayer is that all of us at Bethlehem will find the secret of productivity and usefulness and happiness not in the pleasures of self-esteem, but in the power of sovereign grace. “Fear not you worm Jacob. . . . I will help you, says the Lord.”
Old Testament Saints
David — “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Everyone agrees that this is the spirit that pleases God after you are taken in adultery and murder. But what about the times when you are doing good?
When the collection for the temple was being taken, David prayed, “Who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from thee, and of thy own have we given thee” (1 Chronicles 29:14).
In other words, even when David and his people were performing an act of virtue, David did not yield to the impulses of self-esteem. Instead, he was carried away by the impulses of sovereign grace: “Who are we that we should be able thus to offer willingly! To God be the esteem, to God! and not to us, even in our virtue.
Solomon — “O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in” (1 Kings 3:7).
Job — “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).
Isaiah — “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).
So we learn from Job and Isaiah that one source of lowliness is to see God in his power and holiness.
New Testament Saints
John the Baptist — “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie . . . He must increase, I must decrease” (John 1:27; 3:30). Could this be why Jesus said, “Among those born of women, none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28)? “If anyone would be first he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
“Everybody is powerless, helpless, and bankrupt without God.”
The Tax Collector — Jesus told a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector who went up the Temple to pray. Concerning the tax collector he said, “But the tax collector, standing far off, he would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you this man went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:13–14). Which is just another way of saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
The Centurion — “When [Jesus] was not far off from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, ‘Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.’ . . . When Jesus heard this, he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude, ‘I tell you, not ever in Israel have I found such faith’“ (Luke 7:6–9).
The Canaanite Woman — When Jesus at first refused her request for help, since she was not a Jew, she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” To which Jesus responds, “O woman, great is your faith!”
So we learn from the centurion and the Canaanite woman that poverty of spirit is right at the very heart of what true faith is.
Peter — When he saw the power of Jesus on the Lake of Gennesaret, “Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’“ (Luke 5:8).
Paul — “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18).
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7).
“I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15–16).
What Is Poverty of Spirit?
- 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.
The reason I say it is a sense of powerlessness and a sense of bankruptcy and a sense of uncleanness and a sense of unworthiness is that, objectively speaking, everybody is poor in spirit. Everybody, whether they sense it or not, is powerless without God and bankrupt and helpless and unclean and unworthy before God. But not everybody is “blessed.”
Who Is Blessed?
When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he does not mean everybody. He means those who feel it. That is why it is so appropriate to take the first and second beatitudes together. “Blessed are those who mourn,” clarifies the subjective side of being poor in spirit.
Blessed are the poor in spirit who mourn. Blessed are the people who feel keenly their inadequacies and their guilt and their failures and their helplessness and their unworthiness and their emptiness — who don’t try to hide these things under a cloak of self-sufficiency, but who are honest about them and grieved and driven to the grace of God.
Blessed are you! because you are going to be comforted. Fear not, you worm, Jacob! Fear not, Moses, Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:6–8), Isaiah, Peter! For I will be with you, I will help you, I will strengthen you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Yours is the very kingdom of God. Amen.