PROSPERITY IN POVERTY
By Pastor Glenn Pease
After his return from church one Sunday, a small boy said, "You know what mommie? I'm going to be a preacher when I grow up." "That's wonderful," said his mother. What made you decide you want to be a preacher?" The boy said thoughtfully, "Well, I'll have to go to church anyway on Sunday, and I think it would be more fun to stand up and yell than to sit still and listen." Happiness is yelling rather than listening from the perspective of a small boy. From the perspective of a mother, however, happiness is a small boy who sits still and listens. Happiness is obviously different things to different people, and even different things to the same person under varying circumstances.
Someone has said, to be happy with a man you must love him a little and understand him a lot. To be happy with a woman you must love her a lot, and not even try to understand her. Whatever you think of that, there is no doubt that happiness means something different to each of the sexes. It also varies according to the interest of persons. The poet Gray said, it would be a paradise of happiness for him if he could lie on a sofa and read new French romances forever. Doremas Hayes, the great Mennonite scholar wrote in response to that ideal of happiness: "To lie on a sofa and read French novels forever would be no paradise for some of us. It would be a purgatory by the end of one month, and it would be the blackest depth of hell in less than a year."
We met a couple who bought a shirt for their overweight boy, and it had these words printed on it-Happiness is suppertime. Not long ago the sign at the Holiday Inn read, "Happiness is eating in the Camelot Room." But we all know that the pleasure of eating does not make life happy in any lasting sense. And there are many in poor health who do not even enjoy the temporal blessing it can be. Happiness, as we generally think of it, varies with the winds of circumstance. We tie happiness so closely to emotion, and nothing could be more variable than feelings. We can feel happy today, and depressed tomorrow, depending on the news, the weather, or any number of circumstances.
Jesus is not interested in this kind of subjective haphazard happiness. He goes to the inner man, and speaks of a happiness, or blessedness, which is a matter of character and being. It does not depend on external circumstances. Happiness rises and falls, but blessedness is a kind of happiness that remains steady in spite of the variations in feelings. The Beatitudes of Jesus are attitudes of being. Happiness in the highest sense depends on what you are and not what happens to you. There are many others who have arrived at this conclusion, but no one has been so paradoxical as Jesus. He tells us that happiness is found in just the opposite direction that men are going in search of it. It seems like nonsense to the world to find happiness in poverty, mourning, meekness, and persecution.
Even Christians wonder what Jesus means by these apparently contradictory statements. We must recognize that Jesus is challenging the world's whole system of values. Many worldly people speak highly of the Sermon On The Mount and the Beatitudes because they are not aware of the radical nature of what Jesus is saying. A true understanding of His concept of happiness will transform the life of any person, and radically alter their character and conduct. The Interpreter's Bible says, "The Beatitudes, far from being passive or mild, are a gauntlet flung down before the world's accepted standards. Thus they become clearer when set against their opposites. The opposite of poor in spirit are the proud in spirit. The opposite of those who mourn are the light headed, always bent on pleasure. The opposite of the meek are the aggressors. The opposite of the persecuted are those who always play it safe."
If we intend to be happy, from the perspective of Jesus, we will come into direct conflict with the standards of the world. This can and does lead to opposition, and persecution, and a great deal of subjective unhappiness for the Christian. Any way you approach it the Christian life, at its best, is a paradox. By means of what the world calls unhappiness, we can be happy in the highest sense, but the consequences may be subjective unhappiness in relation to the world. This paradox becomes easier to grasp if we distinguish between subjective and objective happiness. Almost everyone who writes about happiness thinks only of the subjective side-that is how a person feels and thinks. Jesus deals with objective happiness, that is how God thinks, for He alone can see life from God's perspective, and know the ultimate consequences of all we are and do. Objective happiness is not based on how you feel, but how you measure up to God's standard.
Notice how Jesus just lays it down as a fact and law of life when He says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." He does not say, may they be blessed, or they should be or will be, they just are. But what if they don't feel like it, or are not aware of it? That is beside the point. Jesus is not talking about how people feel. He is speaking of the objective standard of happiness, and if you measure up, you are happy whether you feel like it or not. In fact, it is impossible to feel happy when are mourning, or when you are being persecuted, unless you are neurotic or psychotic. Subjective happiness at all times would be abnormal for anyone. The poet was right who wrote,
If you can smile when things go wrong, and say it doesn't matter.
If you can laugh off cares and woe, and trouble makes you fatter.
There's something wrong with you.
For one thing I've arrived at, there are no ands and buts,
A guy that's grinning all the time must be completely nuts.
To be subjectively happy all the time would be unchristlike, for Jesus felt sorrow and grief. He wept, and He felt frustration over the failure of His disciples. He was angry and upset by evil and oppression. The world longs for perpetual subjective happiness. They want to feel good all the time, regardless of the sin and evil in the world. The Christian cannot and dare not even try, for that is to go in the opposite direction of true happiness according to Jesus. The truly happy Christian will be miserable at times in a world so full of evil and folly. The Christian naturally wants his share of subjective happiness, but this is secondary, and is to be a byproduct.
Our goal is to be objectively happy according to the standard of Christ. This means a Christian might feel terrible, and yet be very happy. He might say, I feel so ignorant and helpless, and it is so discouraging to have so little capacity to serve God. He feels subjectively unhappy, but Jesus says that this poverty of spirit is just what God wants in a person, and so whether he knows it or not, he is a blessed person headed for great reward in the kingdom of God. On the other hand, the Christian who says, I am satisfied with what I know, and feel happy about my service for the Lord, is really far less happy by God's standard, even though he feels better than the other Christian who is poor in spirit, and who mourns over his inability, and who hungers for more of God's righteousness.
It is one thing to feel happy, and another thing to be happy. The mature Christian is one who is able to see from the perspective of Christ, and be able to feel subjective joy even when the circumstances of objective happiness are not joyful. When he knows he is what God wants him to be, he is happy even if he doesn't feel it. This calls for an eternal perspective, and a faith in God's ultimate plan. Jesus went this way before us, and our happiness depends on our following Him. Heb. 12:2 put it, "Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
Jesus was not subjectively happy on the cross, but He was the most objectively happy person that ever lived, for He was fulfilling everything God wanted Him to be, for He was the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world. This is our goal as we study these beatitudes. Being what God wants you to be is the highest level of happiness. The first of these paradoxes is, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Poor and poverty are words which the world flees from like the plague, for they see them as the enemy of happiness. Jesus says there is a form of poverty which is the key to happiness, and all are in general agreement that this is the basis on which all of the beatitudes are built. There are three attitudes which, when combined, give us a good picture of the person who is poor in spirit. First there is-
I. THE ATTITUDE OF DEFICIENCY.
No person can be truly happy who does not recognize he has a lack in his life. We often think it would be wonderful to be totally satisfied with no sense of deficiency, but Jesus says this would be a curse. The Christians in Laodicea made this mistake. Their attitude was one of proud self-sufficiency, and this is what Jesus says to them in Rev. 3:17, "You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I have need of nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." Failure to recognize their deficiency led them into pride. They were blind to their poverty, and the result was a subjective feeling of satisfaction, but objective unhappiness in the eyes of Christ. However they felt, they were miserable according to Christ.
If they had recognized their deficiency, and been poor in spirit they would have been dependent on Christ and His sufficiency, and, therefore, prosperous and happy. They took the world's way of prosperity and landed in spiritual poverty. The way of Christ is the way of poverty, which is an honest recognition that you are deficient. This leads to growth, prosperity, and happiness. The poor in spirit are those who simply see the facts of life as they are. They tell it like it is, and they know they are far from what they ought to be. Pascal said, "There are only two kinds of men, the righteous who believe themselves sinners; the rest, sinners who believe themselves righteous." These are represented by the story Jesus told of the Publican and the Pharisee in the temple.
The Pharisee was proud in spirit, and he was unconscious of any deficiency. He thanked God he was not as other men. The Publican saw the facts. He knew he was a sinner and needed help, and he cried out for God to be merciful to him as a sinner. He, as an example of the poor in spirit, received the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says he went away justified. The Pharisee felt no sorrow for sin. He shed no tear over his callousness to human need. He felt just great, but objectively, measured by God's standard, he was a poverty stricken wretch in the filthy rags of his own righteousness. The poor Publican knew more of his deficiency and poverty of righteousness, so he turned to God in mourning, and he hungered and thirsted for God's righteousness to fill his emptiness. He went away with great wealth, the pockets of his soul being filled with the jewel of justification, the gold of godliness, and the silver of salvation. He found the prosperity in poverty of which Jesus is speaking in this beatitude.
An attitude of deficiency is essential to the highest happiness, for such an attitude keeps us open to the blessings of God. Happy are those who know they don't have, for they are open to receive. If you think you have already, you will not be open to receive. The honest Christian knows that even though he may not steal, he still covets. He knows that his spirit is far from the ideal, and is subject to envy, jealousy, bitterness, pettiness, and love of ease and pleasure. It is hard to be honest and admit our deficiencies, and the natural pride of man resists it. The world holds up self-sufficiency as the key to happiness, and the modern man wants no part of admitting to deficiency. An egocentric writer was giving a group a running account of his own great activities and achievements. Finally he stopped and said, "Enough about myself. Let's hear from you. What do you think of my latest book?"
Jesus says those who are so delighted and happy with themselves are objectively miserable, and their final state will be tragic, but those who see their deficiency, and are dissatisfied with themselves are objectively happy and are heading for great heights in the kingdom of God. The paradox is, only those conscious of the great gulf between them and God are able to draw near to God. Only those with an attitude of deficiency can be truly happy, not because a lack of anything is good in itself, but because this attitude leads to the second characteristic of the poor in spirit.
II. THE ATTITUDE OF DEPENDENCE.
A man who is truly aware of his emptiness is looking for help. The proud man is able to make it alone, but the poor in spirit knows he is not self-sufficient, but very dependent. The Greek word for poor here carries in it the idea of begging, and not merely the idea of lacking. Many translate it, "Blessed are the beggarly in spirit." The concept of dependence is in the very word.
God alone is totally self-sufficient, and no man can ever be truly happy until he recognizes he is dependent upon God. The sin which led to all human unhappiness was the sin of striving to become independent of God. Jesus counteracted the cause of all sin with the opposite attitude of total and absolute submission, and dependence upon God. Jesus was the greatest example of the poor in spirit. Listen to His own testimony in John 5:19, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of His own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing." In John 14:10 He said, The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does His works." Jesus was totally dependent upon the Father for everything. He prayed for guidance before choosing the 12; He prayed for power before healing, and for strength to meet His needs.
Jesus did not go about in pride, as if He had an all powerful manhood. He knew He was powerless and helpless in himself. His body and physical capacity was no greater than that of other men. Without God, without prayer, and without the constant leading of the Holy Spirit, Jesus could not have lived the perfect life anymore than you or I. He succeeded, not because of His own divine power, for he emptied Himself of that and became a man with all the limitations of manhood, but He succeeded by total dependence on God the Father. According to God's standard, Jesus was the happiest man who ever was, or who will ever be, because he alone was the perfect example of the poor in spirit.
Ralph Sockman said of the poor in spirit, "Whatever success they achieve they attribute to sources beyond themselves." This was the attitude of Jesus, and must be ours if we would be happy in the highest sense. Jesus said, "Without me you can do nothing." Only as we recognize this, and yield ourselves to Him in total dependence can we say with Paul, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." The attitude of dependence on Christ is the door to the kingdom, and the way to the heights of happiness within the kingdom.
Andrew Tait defined the poor in spirit as, "Those who are conscious of their own frailties and imperfections, who renounce all dependence on themselves and all pretension to merit, and, weary and heavy laden, cast themselves at the feet of Christ for mercy." You notice he includes both the attitude of deficiency and the attitude of dependence. To feel your deficiency can lead to defeat if it does not drive you to dependence upon God. The spies who went into the Promise Land saw their deficiency, and they felt like grasshoppers before giants, but they were not happy. Joshua was happy because he took the second step, and had the attitude of dependence upon God, and thus, was assured a victory. Poverty of self-sufficiency in one's own spirit which leads to dependence upon the power of God's Spirit is the key to prosperity and happiness."
The saint that wears heaven's brightest crown,
In deepest adoration bends;
The weight of glory bows him down,
The most when most his soul ascends;
Nearest the throne itself must be
The footstool of humility.
The third character of the poor in spirit is-
III. THE ATTITUDE OF DETACHMENT.
Luther said, "Poverty before God, that is, of the heart, is when one does not place his trust and confidence in temporal things." If one is to be truly dependent upon God, he must be detached from the things of the world that non-Christians grasp at for happiness. Jesus was ever calling men to detach themselves from the values of the world to follow Him. James and John were called to leave their boats and nets. Matthew was called to forsake his tax collecting. Zachaeus offered to detach himself from his wealth and share it. Paul suffered the loss of all things to serve Christ. All the values he had established in society he gave up. He became detached from all to be a slave for Christ. The rich young ruler could not detach himself from his wealth, and so could not become a disciple.
The curse of riches, fame, and power, and all the world's ways to happiness is not due to inherent evil, but because they compete with total dependence upon God. Men get attached to their wealth, position, and power, and, therefore, lose their attitude of dependence upon God. The history of Israel reveals it over and over. When she was poor and helpless, she depended completely on God, and was happy and blessed. When she became prosperous, and became attached to riches, she lost dependence upon God, and ended up under God's wrath. Prosperity was her greatest curse, and led to her poverty. It was not because wealth is evil, for it is not, but because it destroys dependence. The attitude of detachment is essential to maintaining the attitude of dependence.
If we become prosperous, the only way to avoid it being a destructive thing is to avoid becoming attached to it. Literal poverty comes in here, but we don't have time to deal with it here. The evidence would lead to the conclusion that the literal poor stand a better chance of finding God's highest happiness than the rich, because poverty leads to dependence on God, and it is easier to feel detached from what you do not possess. Potentially, the poor in this world's goods can be the richest in the kingdom of heaven.
This is a sidelight, however. The poor in spirit are those who, be they rich or poor in this world's goods, are detached from them, and dependent upon God. Dependence is the central concept of the poor in spirit. The attitude of deficiency on one side, and detachment on the other, are for the sake of increasing and maintaining dependence. Whatever leads to dependence upon God is good and intensifies our happiness. Poverty of spirit is the starting line, and only as we start here can we ever hope to experience the prosperity of Christlike happiness.