Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

February 13, 2012

Humility is essential to the Christian life. That message is said in various ways and various places throughout the New Testament.

One of my favourite references is in 2 Corinthians where St. Paul says he will boast only of his weakness. The Lord says to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (12.9).

The person who is poor in the spirit – the first beatitude – knows this clearly: God's grace is sufficient. One needs nothing more. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with being weak; God will use it for his purposes.

This is hard for us today because so much tells us we are sufficient and that we don't need God. Look at the incredible human accomplishments of the past century – the conquest of many diseases, television images broadcast immediately around the world, a powerful computer within a telephone that you carry in your pocket, and so much more.

My parents' generation went within a couple of decades from having an outhouse in their backyard to living in a society of unprecedented wealth.

Why would we think that we need God when we've done so much without him? Or have we?

Can we really do anything without God? This is the question that the first beatitude - Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven - asks us to consider.

A failure to be poor in spirit can cut either of two ways. Most obviously, it betrays itself as pride. This pride need not, although it can, show itself in a superior attitude, a haughtiness that says, "I am better than the common person."

More basically, the pride that is opposed to poverty in spirit comes in the assumption that I am the cause of my own success.

The pride that opposes poverty in spirit is the assumption that I am the cause of my own success.

The pride that opposes poverty in spirit is the assumption that I am the cause of my own success.

From the Christian perspective, the self-made man is an illusion. This is true, not only in worldly matters, but in spiritual ones too. When we dare to presume that our goodness or our salvation is the result of our own efforts, we fail to give God the credit.


Moral theologian Germain Grisez says those who are energetic and ambitious are often oppressors. If they are motivated by self-interest, they are liable to be unfair, expedient and excessively attached to the results of their actions (Christian Moral Principles, p. 634).

In our wealthy society, we have an abundance of presumption. Those who stand on their own two feet economically can be easily hypnotized by an illusion of power and independence.

Jesus wasn't kidding when he said, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10.23). In terms of human fulfillment, wealth is more likely to be an obstacle than an asset. Then, Jesus went on to say, "For mortals, it is impossible (to be saved), but not for God; for God all things are possible" (10.27).

Grisez says this is the perspective of Christian revelation: "The success of one's undertakings is guaranteed by divine power and love."


For St. Augustine, the gift of the Holy Spirit that accompanies poverty of spirit is the fear of the Lord. This gift is not fear as we know it, but a sense of awe at God's omnipotence and glory. The one who fears the Lord has an attitude of receptivity before God. One is open to what God wants to give.

There is no virtue in being materially poor. But material poverty lends itself to poverty of spirit in that the poor know they are powerless. They know that the way out of their predicament are few and far between. If one is materially poor, one may be better disposed to realize that everything comes from God.


There is a second way of failing to be poor in spirit. One may also fall short by laziness or inertia rooted in the belief that nothing I do matters. One falls short of poverty of spirit because one has no spirit at all.

Rather than working diligently alongside God and trusting that "for God all things are possible," one has simply given up.

This cynical, despairing spirit is all too common in our society, a society proud of its great accomplishments. Despair is the fruit of a lack of faith, a fruit of an absence of the fear of the Lord. It is a failure to be poor in spirit.

Faith in God, however, brings hope and hope is not passive. Hope is utterly dependent on God. It is also a reason for acting.

The person who is poor in spirit is a servant. Neither passive nor obsequious, he or she is both humble and motivated. The motivation comes from the will to serve God, not from self-seeking.

Those who are poor in spirit trust in God, accept all that happens as part of God's plan and graciously receive the fruits of their work as God's gift. There are no just desserts; there is only gift.


The poor in spirit see their mission as being faithful and letting God determine the criteria of success.

In examining one's conscience in relation to the first beatitude, one should ask oneself: