Beyond the Rope's
Blessed are the poor in spirit:
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
MANY OF US learned the words as children and grew up with them. They are lovely words with a comforting sound, words that seem to promise much and to exact little. How easily they roll off our tongues! As if we were saying, "If you are very polite, you will have an extra slice of cake with your ice cream," or, "If you get to work punctually at eight each morning, you will probably marry the boss's daughter and be taken into partnership."
When we examine our Beatitude more carefully, however, we begin to make important discoveries. We find that the words do not mean at all what we have supposed them to mean. When we study them in the light of the One who spoke them, it becomes evident that we cannot divorce the teachings of Jesus Christ from His
life. What He is actually doing is sending up a rocket in this verse to signal the direction to the Cross of Calvary. In doing so He is laying down a basic principle of the Kingdom of God.
What is poverty of spirit? Jesus does not in any sense suggest (for all the insinuations of such critics as Celsus and Nietzsche) that weakness is preferable to manliness. To be poor in spirit is not contrary to being high-spirited; rather it is the opposite of spiritual pride. Poverty of spirit means that the ground of our self-sufficiency has been removed from under us. It means that our resiliency is gone, that we have given up assuming that "everything is going to turn out all right." It is the cry of dereliction from the Cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" It is the bitter sobbing of Mary in the garden. It is the heart upon its knees.
Jesus is telling us something we very much need to know: that there is no need for us to try to "save face" before God. In the things of the Spirit it is important to be honest and frank. One of the hardest things our Lord had to bear was the criticisms of those who were making capital of their churchmanship. Such persons desired their piety to be "seen of men." There is no pride like spiritual pride. No matter how great our evangelistic zeal or how arduous our labors in the church kitchen, we may claim no heavenly trophies for our attainments. As Christians we are aware that even these duties may develop into tumors to draw off the divine life seeking to flow into us; that the only spiritual progress really
possible for us is toward the Cross, and that is toward spiritual poverty.
The secret of the Gospel's power is that it alone can deal adequately with the whole matter of pride and humility. It exposes the falsity of those who pretend to be spiritually rich. At the same time it undercuts the false humbleness of those who, like Dickens' famous Uriah Heep, use their obsequiousness as a vehicle to foster their pride. Christian humility is not merely modesty; it is the stark humiliation of Golgotha.
The more we concentrate our gaze on the Cross, the more clearly this Beatitude speaks to us. The way of the Cross is not a velvet carpet for a prince of the Church, nor is it a Via Appia for the triumphant conqueror. It is a poor way, an unfriendly and deserted way, soiled with blood, sweat, and tears. It is a way that breaks down even a man's spiritual vitality, and leaves him at the end of his tether. It leads not to self-realization but to self-sacrifice; to the wolves and the Roman execution squad. To walk this way is not to be filled with the Spirit but to be emptied by the Spirit.
When we have reached that crucifixion point call it high or low when we recognize that we are unprofitable servants, the divine blessing is released. How else could God work? He cannot fill our cups with the Water of Life until they have been drained of all other waters. That is why the blessed ones are those who are poor in spirit. It is their poverty, their insolvency, that gives them the capacity for taking on treasure. Who enjoys
a meal when his stomach is already filled? "The righteous have no need of a physician." Until a man's hands are empty he cannot reach for the hand of God. There is only one way to the resurrection and that is by way of the Cross.
A day of penitence and sober reflection, therefore, could be the equinox of God's springtime in our lives. It was as he sat in dust and ashes that Job saw the Lord. What Christ is teaching us is more than a "principle of the Kingdom," it is the secret of life itself.
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As soon as we seek to apply the principle in our daily walk, it becomes apparent that our first need to be "poor in spirit" is not in our relations with each other but surprisingly enough in our prayer life. All men are children of their times, and while we twentieth-century people are more conscious of the sin and tragedy of life, perhaps, than our forebears were, we are not aware of how our era is debasing prayer. Prayer has become a weapon in the cold war. It has become a slide rule for financial investments. It has been invoked to avoid medical expenses and to heighten luxury. It has been made into an escape hatch for thwarted ambition. Many people have callously and blasphemously tried to manipulate God through prayer. They have sought to make a "science" of prayer, comparing it with electricity, speculating upon its "wave lengths" and "vibrations" and treating the Holy Spirit as if He were a kind of space-station transmitter.
Perhaps it is natural that in a century of exploitation and propaganda there is danger of prayer becoming a racket. Just as scientists have launched their fabricated moons in an effort to gain a purchase on space, so "religious" people are exporting prayer into the unknown in the hope of obtaining a favorable trade balance with Something Out There. More than one Organization Man, impressed by the boom in religion, has sought greater efficiency for his business by inviting God to sit with his board of directors.
The question seems not to be, "What is God like?" or "How may I seek His face?" but simply, "How can I control Him?" Thus in addition to providing an inexpensive psychiatry, prayer becomes modern man's technique for outfoxing the hounds of his own materialism, and his insurance program against the wrath of God.
The Beatitude changes all this. It makes clear that our prayers are to begin neither with wishing nor with scheming. True prayer begins with nothing. "A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise" (Psalm 51:17). It begins in Gethsemane with the words of Jesus, "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine." A missionary tells of visiting an Indian woman in the last stages of cholera. Her body was wasted and her breathing was labored, and he had only a few minutes. With great effort he taught her to repeat in the darkened room the beginning of the Twenty-third Psalm, "TheLordismyshepherdIshallnotwant." That is the beginning of prayer!
The very thought of trying to manipulate God is
profane, and should strike terror into the honest believer. Here surely it is true that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Such "praying" is always childish and self-answering, but it can be outgrown. The moment we give over our immature efforts to use the Almighty for our own ends, and begin to yearn for Him for His own sake, our boldness returns. When a man lifts up empty hands to God they become holy hands.
Because we spend so little actual time in prayer, we are tempted to look at it as a professional skill rather than simply a conversation with God. We even think it is performed at its best by professionals in proper garb. A corrective is needed here. Ezekiel once had a vision of wheels, but his wheels were not the leaders of the Church. Prayer is not ecclesiastical politicking. Today, as in the days of Moses, the mighty man of God may be a Church leader and he may not, but it is certain that if his prayer has prevailing power he is not a spiritual giant, he is a spiritual dwarf. He is the poor in spirit. Like Peter, he is "broke" "silver and gold have I none" that is, he is broken. As God cuts him down to grasshopper size, or to worm size, he discovers just how valuable are all his programs of pious affiliation.
Again, so many of us have come to feel that prayer, like the Christian life, is a moving passenger train that we ought to be aboard. We run and try to jump on, but through ineptness we fail to make the step. As in a nightmare we see that our efforts to cling are in vain, and we lose our grip. One by one we watch the cars pass us by. Other people find Jesus Christ, learn to pray, find victory
in their lives, acquire a testimony, and move on, but we remain mute.
The prayers of others frequently frighten us, they are so artistically and fervently expressed; they fairly radiate joy and assurance. We become quite discouraged. Yet the one prayer that Jesus Christ honored above all others was the wail of a thieving tax collector: "God be merciful to me, a sinner." As Charles Spurgeon remarked from his London pulpit, "This publican had the soundest theology of any man in all England." He described himself as a sinner, and in the world of the Spirit what is a sinner? He is nothing. The New Testament was written not by men of spirit but by the Holy Spirit of God moving in men of nothing.
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There are thousands of us who are able to discourse seemingly upon any subject, like the television experts, but at the moment of spoken prayer our jaws are frozen shut. Why? Is it because our sins rise up and condemn us? Is it because, after all, we do not really believe? Why do God's people become inarticulate and feel they cannot call upon Him? One of the commonest apologies, of course, is that one has not "come that far yet," one has not "moved along spiritually to the point" of prayer, one has not acquired sufficient skills to verbalize prayer.
Does prayer then require some sort of expertise? How much training is needed for a man to say, "Thank you, Lord!" or "Abba, Father," or "God be merciful to me, a sinner"? The Cross certainly does not suggest
that God requires polish and finesse from the men who approach Him. Humanly speaking, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the worst bungle in history, yet it accomplished our salvation. To pray we simply need to open our mouths and begin a conversation.
A spoken prayer is the fastest-working therapy in the world because it is the most natural. It reveals every man at his truest and best, because in real prayer every man checks in at zero on the register. He comes not trusting in himself but asking for help. I have never known a stammerer to stammer when he was talking intimately to God. In counseling with people I usually endeavor to get them to pray aloud: nothing else tells me so clearly whether their problems have a solution.
Recently I talked with a lady whose hair had turned white at forty, who had stopped working and was fearful that she was losing her mind. There were some superficial signs of neurosis, but when she prayed with me her prayer was utterly lucid and rational, and pointed in the direction she wanted to go to wholeness. It did not take much insight to conclude that she was spiritually sound. Within a few weeks she had talked and prayed her way through her fear symptoms and had gone back to work.
Many people object to verbalized prayer because it makes them feel self-conscious, as if there were really "nothing there" and they were talking to themselves like mutterers on the street. The truth is that in prayer it is impossible to talk to oneself. Frank Laubach tells of a young man who remarked to him archly that prayer
was nothing more than mere autosuggestion. Dr. Laubach replied, "My boy, God can use autosuggestion." A West Coast minister, Robert Boyd Munger, has challenged anyone to pray fervently to Jesus Christ for five consecutive minutes aloud without finding his life dynamically redirected.
Our prayers start where we are, in poverty of spirit. If we continue to wait and our prayers seem to others to grow richer in spirituality, it can only mean one thing: that we are really becoming poorer in spirit as God proceeds with His pruning and stripping. The way of the Cross is the way to God, but it is not a way up, it is a way down.
The men of the Bible were keenly aware of their spiritual meanness. Their prayers are characterized not by demands but by self-emptyings. Listen to this prayer of Hezekiah the king in the days of Isaiah: "I said, I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord, in the land of the living . . . Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me" (Isaiah 38:11,14).
Out of his desperation Hezekiah received an answer, and his rejoicing is still contagious after twenty-seven centuries: "What shall I say? He hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it . . . O Lord, by these things men live . . . The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day . . ." (Isaiah 38:15-16,19).
The prayers of the early apostles had the same characteristic note. "We know not what we should pray for
as we ought," says Paul, "but the Spirit [himself] maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered" (Romans 8:26). Instead of being "mighty men of prayer," the apostles were "unmighty men of not-prayer," yet God gave them both prayer and power in the midst of their poverty.
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There is a sense in which we can find the whole Bible a commentary on this Beatitude. From peak to peak, from Mount Moriah where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, to Mount Calvary where Jesus of Nazareth endured the humiliation of a Roman gallows, the cry is echoed: "The poor in spirit shall enter the kingdom!"
Abraham went to God with absolutely nothing; he walked out of his Father's house "not knowing whither," not even knowing who had called him. Thus was he rendered fit for the Lord's summons.
Moses was probably the most unpromising prospect for leadership that a people ever had, yet he goes down in history as one of the greatest. He had an Egyptian name, a speech impediment, a weak set of knees, an ugly disposition, a criminal record, and a price on his head; he was despised by Hebrew and Egyptian alike. His life was bankrupt, and because of that, God could use him.
I am fond of the story of David in the cave of Adullam. It is a perfect illustration of what Jesus was talking about. David was being hunted down like an animal by the king's troopers. He was hiding in the meanest hole in a primitive and poverty-stricken land, and his crew
matched the environment. "Everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them." (1 Samuel 22:2) They had nothing to lose, and were ready for anything even for God. That meant God could do something with them, and He did. He met David with blessing upon blessing, even to the royal scepter. The dispirited became the vehicle of the Holy Spirit.
There are other fascinating illustrations of the Beatitude in Scripture. The widow of Zarephath welcomed Elijah into her home when the household was on the verge of starvation. "I have not a cake," she said, "but a handful of meal in a barrel, and little oil in a cruse: and . . . I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die" (1 Kings 17:12). The prophet Elijah might have been discouraged by this lack of provender, since the Lord had told him that the widow would "sustain" him. Instead, Elijah found that it was the lack that set up conditions so that God could act. He told her to prepare what she had, and the Lord would take care of the rest which He did. The cruse of oil became a cup running over, a symbol of divine blessing. Centuries later Jesus Christ added a footnote to this story. He pointed out that the woman of Zarephath was not even one of "God's people," as the Israelites called themselves.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, seems to have been a wisp of a Galilean peasant girl about whom very little is known. If she had noble character and distinguished ancestry, she did not
trade on it. She speaks of herself as the "handmaiden of the Lord" of "low degree" and "low estate." Luther suggests that if God had wanted human nobility and honor for His Son, He could have chosen Caiaphas' daughter to bear Him. Instead, God found that Mary's qualities or lack of qualities were eminently usable. Experts may differ on how Mary might have scored in a modern intelligence or personality test, but this is sure: in the test of spirit the Lord seeks out the low score, and Mary qualified.
Jesus in effect illustrates the Beatitude in parable after parable: the beggars are called in and banqueted after the guests fail to make their appearance; the young prodigal sinks to the status of the swineherd and even of the swine. When he has nothing, he remembers his father's house. The story of the rich young ruler makes us see that it is not enough even to know the commandments and the catechism. The young man turns away from Jesus sorrowfully, for without a broken spirit he cannot follow.
The most remarkable thing about Pentecost was not that the early apostles were all "of one accord" or that they spoke in many languages. The most remarkable thing was their poverty of spirit they were empty, so they could be filled.
The Apostle Paul drives home the point in a hundred ways. He tells how the Savior of men "made himself of no reputation" for our sakes. How those words cut across our pride! Think of the infinite pains we take to erect our own reputations. Our character is our masterpiece,
representing a lifetime effort to lay claim to honor among men. Yet Jesus (as Paul says) took the form of a slave, and humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death (Philippians 2:7-8). As for Paul, there are many who consider him the second greatest man who ever lived. Certainly he traveled to spiritual high places that leave the rest of us earthbound. Yet near the close of his life he wrote a very simple epitaph for himself. It was: "The Chief of Sinners."
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Goodspeed translates this Beatitude, "Blessed are they who feel their spiritual need." There is not one of us who will not face at some time the gap between what he is and what he ought to be as a Christian. It is good to learn at the beginning, therefore, to accept ourselves not as we ought to be but as we really are, because at the Cross we find God accepting us in our misery and poverty. We are prepared for the "exchanged life" that Hudson Taylor speaks of, as God takes away even our rags that He might clothe us in the glorious raiment of His righteousness.
In answer to our prayer the message of this Beatitude comes as a gift of hope: our heavenly Father takes us as we are, with all of our lack and shortcoming. The only requirement He makes is that we come with an empty vessel. And here is the promise: that men's extremity is God's opportunity, and that our place of despair shall become the scene of Christ's atoning victory.
Thomas Hooker was a beloved Puritan preacher who is honored
in New England today as the father of constitutional liberty. As he lay dying in Hartford, the members of his flock gathered around him and sought to comfort him. "Brother Thomas," they said, "yours has been a life of great achievement and piety; now you go to claim your reward." Hooker retorted, "I go to claim mercy."
No pretense, no contrived "front" will do before God, who treats all "fronts" as whited sepulchres, and checks every man's luggage before the final journey. Thus the paradox: the spiritually rich are the spiritually empty. How easy it is to say, and how difficult to learn! So much in modern life seems to teach the exact opposite.
For example, in suburban America today there is a strong drift to the churches on the part of young married couples. Are they being drawn by a deep hunger, a sense of spiritual need or a conviction of their sinful state? A revealing survey was made by William H. Whyte, Jr., in this connection.1 In one suburban community Mr. Whyte found that the residents considered their churches to be "prestige groups" where social values were to be gained by being included. Salvation seems to have been the last thing in anyone's mind. People joined the house of God for friendship, stability, and "belongingness." What factors made them choose one church rather than another? Here they are in order of importance: first, the minister; second, the Sunday school; third, the location; fourth, the denomination; and fifth, the music. Somewhere in the mechanics of motivation the Gospel was overlooked.
Mr. Whyte does not comment on the results of his door-to-door findings. He does not have to. His statistics reveal all too clearly that there is an "infinite qualitative difference" between signing the roll of a local church and entering into the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet Jesus Christ exacts the same requirements in suburbia that he does anywhere: poverty of spirit. The survey only highlights the Beatitude. Christ died for those in the tracts as He died for those across the tracks. All are leveled at the Cross and there is no difference. The only kind of prestige that counts with God is that which is sealed by the blood of His Son. The only social value He honors is our love for each other, which is His love shining through.
Here then is our Lord's meaning: the spiritually rich are the spiritually empty. "That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die" (1 Corinthians 15:36). But when God finds that at last the road has been cleared of debris and obstruction, He comes in with power.
So we see that our pilgrimage will be a different kind of journey from any we have ever taken. In science and in education we proceed with experimental faith from the known to the unknown, but to walk into the land of blessing we must forget even what we "know." Only in the spiritual world must the Pharisee leave his post of attainment, beat his breast alongside the publican, and declare that he possesses nothing of his own. Only in personal encounter with Jesus Christ do we surrender everything and declare our way to have been the way of failure, that it may become the way to the Cross.
It is when we let go of the rope that we discover that underneath are the everlasting arms. It is when we have no spirit at all that we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. "We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us" (2 Corinthians 4:7).
1. The Organization Man, Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1957.
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