“Paul McKay reminds us that, if we pay attention to life down in Poordom, we will discover responsibilities we too often evade and truths about the layered experience of poverty that we often studiously ignore. But we will also discover unexpected treasures: the gift of friendship, wisdom that cannot be purchased, and the face of God.”
— Frederick W. Schmidt, Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times
The book has two sections, one on Material Poverty and the second titled “The Riches of Spiritual Poverty.”
What follows is an excerpt about spiritual poverty:
Chapter 12: “To Be Poor in Spirit”
Scripture: Matthew 5:1–12 (NRSV)
Key Verse: (3) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Material poverty is easy enough to understand, especially when it rises to the level of destitution. It’s a terrible and undesirable human condition that stems from a lack of resources to meet basic human needs.
The notion of spiritual poverty, which unlike material poverty is a desirable state of being, defies easy comprehension. Just as the word “Trinity” is not found or defined in the Bible, the term “spiritual poverty” is absent and never explicitly explained. But, as with the Trinity, it’s embedded in many scriptures. It finds its highest expression in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1–9, where, in verse 3, Jesus says, “Blessed [i.e., “happy”] are those who are poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.”
Happy are those, that is, who abide in spiritual poverty.
I would define spiritual poverty as a state of constant detachment from the things of the world in order to advance God’s will for love, justice, mercy, peace on earth, and good will to all. It involves the continual emptying of our inner beings of cravings for money or power or any treasures that rust. This emptiness within us makes room for God to fill our hearts with love and gladness. It’s the built-in desire—nurtured by all the Christian disciplines we practice such as prayer, worship, Bible study, and fasting—to live in all humility as self-sacrificial servants, not as masters. It’s tied to the emptiness of Jesus as explained by Paul in Philippians 2:5–8 (NRSV):
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
This biblical call to imitate Christ in servanthood and humility, by keeping ourselves emptied of natural desires for things of the corruptive world and open to the love of God and neighbor, is in effect a call to spiritual poverty.
* * *
Poverty is a word used so commonly to denote a lack of money and resources that we lose sight of its ambiguity.
A few years ago, I went through a period when my spiritual life felt so empty and dry that my daily prayers were a drag. Words that typically poured out to God from my heart in prayer wouldn’t come. During this time, I went on a spiritual retreat at a monastery and confided this to a spiritual director, a witty nun who smiled and said to me, “You’re in a prayer slump—it happens to the best of us!”
This delightful nun said that when she gets in such slumps, she prays these words: “Lord, please accept the poverty of my prayer life.” The acknowledgment of such “prayer poverty” unlocks the guilt and anxiety over what we fear is our failure to somehow communicate perfectly with God. Never mind that God is not grading our prayers with As or Fs anyway. If we only take the time to sit still and lean back in the arms of God, He hears even our poorest attempts at speaking to Him.
My point is that the concept of poverty can be applied to many and varied conditions. Mother Teresa, for example, lamented what she described as “poverties” of morality and of spirituality itself in affluent Western societies, where people think they are so god-like that they don’t need the true God. She also spoke often of such poverties as loneliness and alienation suffered in wealthy nations.
Rich or poor, we all go through periods of illness or depression in which we suffer from “emotional poverty.” That kind makes us feel dead inside, disconnected from all the normal things in daily life that have nourished our holistic health and well-being. . .
. . . I mentioned in the introduction to this book that my beloved Aunt Newell incarnated what it is to be poor in spirit. That’s because, as I noted, she was a servant whose inner being was so thoroughly bent toward pleasing God as to be detached from the corruptive things of the world. She was perhaps the most devout and humble Christian I ever knew….