Voices

The poverty paradox

Only those who recognize and mourn their utter spiritual impoverishment will receive God's rich spiritual blessings

Issue: "Arafat: The devil you know," Sept. 20, 2003

MOSCOW-"BLESSED ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). This verse is quoted so often that it takes effort to grasp its meaning and importance. Some say that the blessing is only for the future-and it's true that the reward for thousands of Russian Christians who were put to death under Stalin, or for courageous servants of God like Father Alexander Men (bludgeoned to death with an ax on his way to church in 1990), is in another world, not this one.

Nevertheless, according to the teachings of Jesus, there is a present dimension to the kingdom of God-for we can indeed receive mercy now, become God's children now, and be comforted now. The best blessing we can have is a real and living relationship with the God who is on our side, who is with us. So when Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit, He is telling us that the hand of God is stretched out to the grieving, the persecuted, and the hungry in the midst of their pain.

Jesus is not simply offering economic relief, nor is He sanctifying poverty and hunger as a spiritually more blessed state than economic well-being. Consider the Old Testament background: The poor man is the afflicted one who cannot save himself and whose only hope is in God. Isaiah talks about this kind of spiritual poverty: "When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water." In Isaiah, the poor are described as those with a "contrite and humble spirit." With such God is pleased to dwell.

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Make no mistake about it: Jesus is declaring good news to those for whom the experience of impoverishment, of emptiness, and of failure is a spiritual crisis. To those who sigh and groan under the weight of this crushing poverty, Jesus beckons and says, Blessed are you who feel the pain of your poverty, your failure, and your weakness, for you will surely find God's strength and comfort as you acknowledge your need before Him.

This is the paradox and the mystery of the gospel. Those who feel the burden of their sin, those who acknowledge their moral bankruptcy, those who are truly penitent, are the truly righteous. And those who feel they are righteous and see no need for repentance are the real sinners. God can be rich toward those who mourn their poverty-stricken state, but those who are rich in their own righteousness are denied the blessings of the kingdom. Truly, God fills the hungry with good things, but the rich He sends away empty.

Jesus is not telling us here that suffering will make us more mature. He is teaching us that we face an unattainable ideal apart from the grace of God. Without that grace, who can consistently live out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount? Who among us can turn the other cheek day in and day out? Who among us can always love our enemies, always pray for those who deride us and humiliate us, and always wish them well? Who is able to live perfectly free from lust and unholy desire? Whose life is wholly free from fear and untroubled by anxiety?

The Sermon on the Mount, if it does anything at all for us, ought to leave us crying for mercy, for it demands a moral perfection that is beyond any of us; it calls for truth that no child of Adam can ever attain on his own. But the Good News is that mercy is present. For Jesus the Savior says we are blessed if we acknowledge the meagerness of our own resources and confess our brokenness and poverty of spirit. He says there is mercy, healing, and freedom for all with opened eyes-and He even says He will open them for us.

-Krister Sairsingh converted from Hinduism to Christianity and now teaches about religion and the history of ideas at three colleges and universities in Moscow

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