Jesus paradoxically describes those as happy who are poverty-stricken in their souls. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). As upside-down and inside-out as this may sound, if we believe Jesus then we certainly want to know what he is talking about. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”?
To be poor in spirit seems primarily to connote an attitude of dependence upon, and emptiness without, God. It is a palpable sense of one’s need of God’s grace and strength — the opposite of being proud and self-satisfied (like Laodicea in Revelation 3:17-19). The lesson Jesus gives concerning the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-25) reminds us that the poor may be infinitely more rich than the worldly rich; yet, the example of Joseph of Arimathaea (Mark 15:42-46) also reminds us that a rich man can still be poor in spirit.
One can not simultaneously be poor in spirit and be calling God a liar.
This is because being poor in spirit, at its core, means embracing Jesus Christ as God’s only way of salvation (Luke 6:22-24).
One can not simultaneously be poor in spirit and be calling God a liar: “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son” (1 John 5:10).
Being truly poor of spirit towards God will also necessarily involve lowliness toward others, of course. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus pronounces woes that contrast sharply with the beatitudes in Matthew 5. He begins with this declaration:
The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in (Matthew 23:11-13).
Jesus contrasts the poor in spirit, whose is the kingdom and whose spirit is servant-like, with the proud in spirit who shut up the kingdom of heaven to others.
If you are truly poor in spirit, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is yours even now.
Yet, lest we completely disconnect the idea of being poor in spirit from our possessions, Jesus clearly teaches that it may also include physical and financial poverty, because of personal sacrifice for Christ’s sake: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). And so to the church at Smyrna Jesus addresses these encouraging words:
I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer … Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:9-10).
Poverty of spirit, then, means being rich with Christ’s promises of conquering grace, even though it may cost you your possessions, your reputation, and even your life. If you are truly poor in spirit, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is yours even now.