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Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”—ST MATTHEW 5:2.

In the preliminary review which we took last Sunday of Christian moral teaching we saw that it is not to be taken as exhaustive, but as corrective and supplementary; that in its emphasis on inward intention it was corrective, and in its tacit assumptions it was obviously supplementary. The Beatitudes, which stand in the fore-front of Christ’s moral system, are not meant therefore to convey an exhaustive description of the Christian character; they one and all refer to moral qualities of which society can take no cognizance and to which it offers no rewards—unobtrusive qualities which press no claims and exact no recognitions, and which depend for their existence on a man’s own inward self-regulation. No doubt the qualities here described issue in action, and often in very striking action. They are the motive power of many noble acts, they inspire much of the heroism of the world, their results win the praise, the enthusiasm, the homage of mankind; but in themselves they must exist, before anything of this kind can take place, as deliberately-chosen laws of character and of inward being. They do not easily lend themselves to that self-advertisement which is the bane of our modern quasi-religious movements, and it would be hard to construct out of them materials for a thrilling biography; and yet, when accepted as a basis of character, they are full of power—their un-self-conscious influence is the strongest thing in the world, the thing that still works miracles, the thing that attracts, and moves, and sways, and tells in spite of every external gulf. They are to be cultivated for themselves not for their results; for a man would find it hard, if not impossible, to cultivate any one of them for the value of the power and influence it would give him. The passion of the heart must love them for their own sake, if it would take them in perfectly and distribute all around their precious results. They come down from heaven, and none may summon the gifts of heaven for any ulterior reason; those who would win them must love them for themselves, for their own intrinsic beauty. Every one of them, if rightly looked at, will kindle within us that sense of beauty, that desire, that longing, which is the first step towards possession. It is something—nay, it is much—to admire, to envy, to long for them, to be able to appreciate their moral beauty, to have “eyes to see and ears to hear,” even if one fails grievously to reproduce them in oneself. And the very tone and temper of our day, while in some ways it is a hindrance, comes in here to help us. In an age when men were weary of the rules of ecclesiastics, the hairsplittings of mere ceremonialists and of moral expedients, Christ first uttered them, and their simple ethical beauty went into the hearts of those who heard them. Who can say that there is not much in our modern conditions of the same weariness, produced, too, by much the same means?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I. Is it a benediction on the “soft padding of the universe,” on the feeble, on the helpless? Far from it. *Our use of the word poor-spirited leads us astray. When we use the expression poor-spirited we mean to imply poverty of nature, poverty of the lower soul—an ignoble disposition that falls short of energy or lacks the power of initiation, that is weak and ineffective, and pulpy and nerveless. Poverty of spirit in Christ’s sense is not poverty in the lower soul but in that higher part of man which comes into immediate contact with the Divine, in the higher soul which comes face to face with God, in that spirit with which “the Spirit bears witness that we are the children of God.” Poverty of spirit is not a feeling of self-disgust which comes over us when we compare our gifts and talents with those of others; it is born from no earthly inspiration, it proceeds from coming face to face with God. A man may be poor in spirit while his soul is on fire with enthusiasm for the cause of God, for the good of man. It is born of a double sense, both of the Divine greatness and of the Divine nearness. It is shewn in an unrepining acquiescence in our present limitations; it is shewn in acceptance of the Will of God in everything; it is shewn not in self-depreciation, but in the strength that comes of trustfulness. It is the attitude which, in the Presence of God, recognizes its entire dependence, empties itself, and is as a poor man, not that it may be feeble, but that God may fill it. It is the virtue which sends a man on his knees bowed and humbled and entranced before the Divine Presence, even in the hour of his most thrilling triumph. It is quite consistent with any amount of downrightness or forwardness at the call of duty; with a head uplifted, and a voice upraised to denounce oppression and to clamor for righteousness. Nay, it gives force to all this, for it destroys that subtle element of self, which is like a secret poison. It is the spirit that recognizes the Father, not only in acceptance of the Cross, but also in energy of action. “I go to Jerusalem,” it cries, “to be crucified,” and it steadfastly sets its face to go there; but it also is energetic in word and action in all that has to be done. “I do always those things which please Him,” is its ideal; and the reward is always the work and not the outward success.

Poverty of spirit is born of the conscious meeting with God. It lives by the constant daily, hourly realization of God. Therefore it keeps a man strong, it makes him stronger than all the self-asserting vaunters who trust in themselves, or in their brains, or their rank, or their money, or their power of making a noise—it makes him strong, because he is always feeling the true source of his strength, always in touch with his Inspirer. He is not casting about wildly to find support in other men’s appreciation of him; the sources of his strength are present to him—they are ever with him; he is and God is—and in his case the unforgotten Voice ever says, “Fear not, for I am with thee, I have called thee by thy name, and thou art Mine.” He cannot vaunt himself, he cannot push himself, he is but an instrument, and an instrument that can only work as long as it is in touch with its inward power; the ‘God within him’ is the source of his power. What can he be but poor in spirit, how can he forget, how can he call out ‘worship me,’ when he has seen the Vision and heard the Voice, and felt the Power of God? Poor in spirit, emptied of mere vain, barren conceit, deaf to mere flattery he must be, because he has seen and known; he has cried “Holy, Holy, Holy,” he knows God, and henceforth he is not a centre, not an idol, but an instrument, a vessel that needs for ever refilling, if it is to overflow and do its mission. His is the receptive attitude; not that which receives merely that it may keep, but that which receives because it must send forth. And so he accepts all merely personal conditions, not as perfect in themselves, but as capable of being transmuted by that inward power, which is his own, yet not his own—his own because God is within him, not his own because he is the receiver, not the inspirer. His cry is ever, “Nevertheless I am alway by Thee, for Thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel: and after that receive me with glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee: and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of Thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.”

Ah, blessed are the poor in spirit—blessed beyond words, blessed beyond imagination, because they have within them the secret consolation, the secret fount of all real strength.

II. And so the consequence follows, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven;” they sit even now on thrones: they win, even here, the highest place, in reality, and that through acquiescence in the lowest.

The Kingdom of Heaven—what is it here? Surely we shall read the words aright if we think of them as conveying the promise of a present dominion of no ordinary kind; an inward power that comes here and now, and finds its exercise in ways all unknown to the possessor, that blesses those whom it has never seen and cheers those who have felt only its shadow; an inward un-self-conscious, often unrealized power, that flows out and is conveyed in a word or a look, or even by something more subtle still. So does the Christian influence work among men. The poor in spirit make men believe that Christ is God, because they show the Divine beneath the human. “Christ is God,” shouts the mere dogmatist; “Christ is God,” cry his imitators; “Christ is God,” repeat the parrots, and it all means nothing—it is a mere phrase and leaves no impression. “Is he?” says the hearer, languidly; “how wonderful!” But translate it into life, as the man with the Christ-spirit does, and he need not shout the words, he conveys the truth through his personality, he shows the Divine through the human, he becomes a proof that needs no words to enforce it. Yes, Christ is God, because the man who is in Christ and has the Christ-spirit is so Divine, and brings Christ so near. He really teaches the Incarnation by living out its deepest truth among men in his own personality.

“Theirs is the kingdom of heaven;” they are ready now to take part in it, because they have learnt their true position in it—fit to rule because they have learnt to serve, fit to influence because they have felt the Divine spark kindling them. They illustrate in the highest sense that great law which experience is always teaching us, viz., that, if you would fit yourself to have anything, you must first learn to do without it; that you gain in the deepest sense only what you are able to forego; that you are ready only for higher seats when you have learnt to sit contentedly on the lower; that when once you have learnt that acquiescence which is born of the Divine ordering and the Father’s nearness, you are at once by no external order or arbitrary arrangement compelled to sit in the higher—cannot help it; yours is the kingdom of heaven here and now, an unearthly kingdom, so that when you ‘lose your life, you find it unto life eternal’—find it in a larger and truer way than you ever thought or dreamt of before.

“Theirs is the kingdom”—they reign even now, they may not be called to high office; their place in the world may be a very lowly one, but their rule is more of a fact now than if they had the mastery of many legions. For there is no influence so certain, so strong, so compelling, as that which is founded upon the assured sense of the Divine indwelling, and the Divine co-operation; if a man has that sense he must become poor in spirit, emptied of mere conceit and shallow pride, because he has seen what real greatness is. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven”—yes, a pushing age may teach you that the only way to advance your influence is to “strive and cry” and publish yourself to the world; it may inculcate its maxims about everyone taking you at your own valuation; and if you listen to it, on certain lower levels you may succeed, you may become the sensation of the hour, you may share with some jester or some abnormal monster of strength or activity, or some defier of social laws, the sort of fame which comes from self-advertisement; and you will not miss or rather you will never aim at the Divine rule of the kingdom of heaven; you will forfeit the possibility of ever gaining that influence that comes from a kept heart and a surrendered spirit—an influence, strange, subtle, impalpable, inexplicable, but more real and more lasting than aught else that the world can give. Yes, “theirs is the kingdom,” the empire. Even now they gain a new insight into things around them. They are not to be led away by claptrap phrases, or ensnared by frothy incompetence; they estimate distinctions at their real value. The true children of the kingdom have little regard for matters of external show, money, rank, or loud-mouthed blatancy, but their eye is ever keen for moral beauty and spiritual nobility. They detect it, proclaim it, worship it; they devote themselves to it.

Great is the power of the single eye which belongs to the poor in spirit; it is not dazzled by externalisms, or taken in by mere pretense; great is the power of that singleness of heart, that oneness of aim which never loves to over-reach, or to put others in the wrong, which is always proving its own essential dominion, which has that strange unearthly power of seeing things as they are. To see through things with too many means to see the bad side of them; it does not take much to do that, or help much when it is done, for the bad side is generally pretty obvious; but to be able to reach down through external appearances and see the hidden possibilities of unpromising things is the privilege of the poor in spirit, of those who have felt the Divine within, who have seen the Vision and heard the Voice, and have owned and recognized in Its Presence their own inevitable limitations.

And those who thus begin the inward work by making the tree good, who begin by coming face to face with the Divine and learning the true strength, those who are poor in spirit in the true sense, because they know too much about what is greater than themselves to be puffed up by the praise of men, what dangers they escape! How fearless, how simple, how straightforward, how modest, how upright the course of a man is who has really learnt the first great lesson of God and self. Be he soldier, sailor, politician or merchant, how straight, how prompt, how lofty, how noble, how trusted, how felt to be worthy of trust! To be trusted by one’s fellow-men! Surely they bear the highest rule of all, who are really so trusted; and is not the man in whom we feel is the lofty lowliness of the Christian spirit the man whom we do trust? “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Let us not then be led away any more by false and worldly maxims into the honour of mere self-advertisement, into the worship of success, however gained. Things do not always tell their own tale; high positions do not exert the influence they seem to; the history of the Church as well as the history of the State is full of the stories of the harm done, the stumbling-blocks created by the men who would climb into high seats somehow, the self-advertisers, the men of mere violent force. Let us not ever believe that the true empire is theirs; let no inner voice lure us, by a vision of the good which we might do, into following their steps. Moral empire and spiritual rule are lasting facts which will endure when the bubbles of self-advertisement have burst; they will live, and grow, and fructify. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor in spirit do not wait for it; it is theirs. And, whatever be our talents, it is ours if we follow Christ, if we live with the Father, if we walk hand in hand, spirit with spirit with Him. We shall influence others, we shall support the weak, we shall guide the strong, we shall gain the only empire worth having—the empire that will endure when kingdoms fail and thrones perish—the moral empire of the true children of the kingdom.

* Cf. Moberley on the Beatitudes.

Eyton, R. (1896). The Benediction on the Poor in Spirit. In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 14–24). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)

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