PEOPLE WITH ATTITUDE #1 Spiritual poverty

” Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 5:2)

“Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19)[1]

 

What was Jesus talking about when he used the phrase, “poor in spirit?”   Poverty usually refers to a lack of material wealth. I come from the richest city in one of the richest countries in the world. Our images of poverty usually come through our television screens.  It breaks your heart to see families, especially children, in abject poverty. Around the world, one child dies from starvation every five seconds. That means if I count to ten all of our four children have died, and in another twenty seconds, our eight grandchildren have also died. That reality is mind-numbing as well as heart-wrenching.  The majority would be watched or held as they died. Many families spend all of their waking hours and all their effort to keep their families alive. For those families, no matter how hard they work, there is nothing they can do to break the cycle of poverty. But all of this is largely academic for people like us.  By contrast, I have not lived a single day of my life without access to food. I don’t know what it is live in poverty and have no internal reference for it.  I am assuming most of the people who will read these words will be the same.

The Bible has a lot to say about people who are poor.  Jesus clearly stated that he had come to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah[2]. His stated goal was to proclaim good news to poor people.  There he describes three types of poverty:  people who were in some form of imprisonment, people who suffered from sickness and those who were being oppressed.  The gospels are the record of him accomplishing that goal. I want to be a follower of Jesus.  From my own study of the Scriptures, I have formed a definition of what it means to be “poor.” A person is poor when they lack any of the basic things that are needed to embrace God’s purpose for their lives – not just money or food, but all of the other things – freedom, justice, self-worth, love, community, vocation, meaning.  People whose circumstances and decisions have locked them away from these things should be included among the poor as well. I think someone should be considered to be poor when, regardless of what effort they make or how clever they are, they are not able to bring about change. By that definition, there are very many “poor” people in countries like Australia. And a lot of them live in big houses and drive expensive cars. The sad reality is that very often, our culture will regard them as wealthy and not poor.  All the time the spiritual and social fabric of our society will not see the poverty of their personal world.

The only reason I say this is to make the point that when Jesus talks to us about being “poor” in something, we will have difficulty relating to that idea just because we only have our imagination to draw on to figure out what “poor” might be like. Jesus’ reference to poverty is being used in a semi-metaphoric sense. He is asking us to see something about ourselves and understand that we ARE literally poor, but he is also asking us to look at how poor people think and react. What happens when those who are food poor see a truck filled with food entering the camp. They don’t think about being proud or ashamed. They know there is food there and they need to get enough for their family and themselves. They would wait in line and not complain just because there is food they can access. They won’t be sleeping in their beds or listening to music through their earphones. They will be doing whatever it takes to get food. When people are food poor, it is the first and last thing they think about every day of their lives.

In this teaching, Jesus is telling us that there is a kind of poverty shared by every human person that we are not going to recognise easily. Jesus calls it “spirit poverty,” or spiritual poverty. This is a strange idea simply because every other form of poverty is almost impossible to avoid when it exists. Those people who have worked with aid agencies come back from Africa or other countries and often needing counselling to deal with the impact of death and suffering they have experienced. And they themselves were guaranteed food and clothing and everything else they needed. But spiritual poverty is different. It can exist everywhere but not be felt or recognised. Wow!! That is weird for sure.

Think about it. We are created by God. We are the only species on earth created in the image of God. We are designed to live as sons and daughters in the family of God. Even so, it is possible for us to live our whole lives without a relationship to God or reference to God. We can live on God’s earth, breath God’s air, sustained by God’s grace and yet have no awareness of any kind of need to be connected to God let alone worship and serve him. The story of the Old Testament people of God is a story of God making himself known in gracious amazing ways. This God establishes a connection with these people called a covenant. He commits to dwell among them with the intention that all the peoples of all nations will be able to see their “spirit poverty” and be guided to a restoration of this relationship and a life of spirit wealth. Instead, they choose to worship the idols and adopt the culture of the people groups around them and lose the distinctiveness of that very spirit wealth. Instead of attracting people to God they become religiously arrogant and cause God’s name to be dishonoured.[3]

The life and ministry of Jesus Christ gave all of us an opportunity to see how the relationship between God and his people was meant to work. We know from the famous piece of poetry recorded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians[4] Jesus set aside his divine status but not his relationship with the Father. So, when we look at the way Jesus lived, we can see what it means to live “spirit poor.” The key information on this comes in a number of references from the Gospel of John.[5] At least six times, Jesus specifically reveals something to his observers that they cannot see but is nonetheless real. What they can’t see is that He takes no initiative of his own. Everything he says and does is sourced from his relationship with his Father. He even goes as far as saying, “He tells me what to say and how to say it.”[6] These words are a bit of a mystery to those of us whose personhood has been so profoundly wired to the ideas of independence and self-reliance handed down through our culture. We default to them without missing a heartbeat. It is made harder because of the way our relationship with God has been culturally domesticated over the years. You only have to compare what happens in revival times and then compare it to non-revival times. We seem to be able to revert to something controlled and built on external behaviour rather than heart relationship. Jesus reminded the disciples about this just before he left them: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [7] If ‘with’ means what ‘with’ usually means and if ‘always’ means what always usually means, then we are talking about a reality that doesn’t stop when the worship team get off the stage, or the prayer meeting finishes up. Jesus lived this way privately for thirty years and then demonstrated how it worked throughout his three-year public ministry.

One of the features of the renewal movement centred on the Toronto Airport Vineyard has been a re-discovery of the “presence” of God. Despite some criticisms of certain unusual behaviours[8], people began to talk about God “showing up” in a meeting. It was explained by comparing two theological words: omnipresence is the belief that God is present everywhere all the time, but that presence may not be identifiable in any tangible way. The Toronto contribution has pointed to the “manifest presence” of God. This means that the God who is always omnipresent made his presence known in some tangible way – able to be experienced by at least some people and able to be observed by others. This is indeed a pattern that is consistent with the Old Testament experience. God spoke at certain times to certain people. He also intercepted normative human experience and did supernatural things (burning bush, plagues, sea pushed back, walls falling down and the like, rescuing from fire, stopping lions from eating people etc. The Toronto renewal re-awakened people to the fact that God desired to make his presence known. It was a soft but strong rebuke to a church that had become all-too-preoccupied with words spoken about God rather than the experience of a relationship with God.

And the question from me is whether that phenomenon is still too much a replication of the Old Covenant rather than the New Covenant. That question will only be answered if we ask whether it was consistent with the relationship modelled and described by Jesus. Here is the problem. Did Jesus have a constant awareness of the presence of God or was the presence of God only manifest through the signs and wonders he performed – or in the times he spent in prayer? If we are going to take seriously what we know from the six references in John’s gospel, there could be little doubt unless the words are going to be considered as metaphorical and not literal. Here they are again. You be the judge:

“Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19)

I can do nothing by Myself; I judge only as I hear. And My judgment is just because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (John 5:30)

For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me. (John 6:38)

So, Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He and that I do nothing on My own, but speak exactly what the Father has taught Me. (John 8:28)

I have not spoken on My own, but the Father who sent Me has commanded Me what to say and how to say it. (John 12:49)

And I know that His command leads to eternal life. So, I speak exactly what the Father has told Me to say.” (John 12:50)

If we are to take these statements on face value, we must assume that Jesus had an awareness of his Father’s presence, if not all the time, then often. I would say the more likely option would be the former given the information provided in these verses. This experience was not at all vague. When Jesus spoke about how that relationship worked, we have to conclude that when Jesus found himself in a given situation, he was able to “see” what his Father was doing. From that relationship, he was able to “hear” his Father’s assessment. He was told what to say and how to say it. That represents a relationship of significant bandwidth. Of course, we are going to ask the question as to HOW Jesus gained this awareness and experienced this level of intimacy with a Person who could not be seen OR whose presence could directly be verified. What was confirmed was the fact that Jesus knew what people were thinking (word of knowledge, [9])? He was able to perform healings, deliverances and miraculous provision. He was able to make storms cease and walk on top of the water. Later the apostles would testify that these were, in fact, the signs that God was WITH HIM.[10]

What does all this have to do with “spirit poor” you might ask? To me, the very nature of Jesus modus operandi on earth is a living testimony of this very phenomenon. Jesus lived his life on the earth as a model son of God. He lived the way every other son and daughter were designed to live. He is the second Adam, and the relationship with God has been restored. As from the very beginning we were designed to live in fellowship with the Father (and the Son[11]). Adam and Eve forsook that relationship. Jesus not only restored that relationship but took it to a whole new level. Jesus describes this by using a very extreme metaphor. He says we must become so dependent on God that it should be like the way a vine branch is connected with the trunk of the vine.[12] Our goal must be like his – to do nothing separately from him. To take no initiative just because we have a good idea or a well-reasoned opinion. He speaks further about this relationship by using the phrase, “Just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us”[13].

This little phrase: “poor in spirit” encapsulates just that. In terms of spiritual things, we must regard ourselves to be as spirit poor as South Sudanese people in the camps are food poor. As they are aware that they have nothing and need to find food for themselves and their families. Every time the UN food trucks show up, they rush to get what they need. In the same way, we must look to foster this relationship with God so that our only spiritual resource comes from Him. We must reject the lie of our culture that will want to tell us that we are clever enough and capable enough to live each day by our own efforts and skills. Remember Jesus said, “Without me, you can do nothing.”[14] The moment we think we can go it alone we should feel the pangs of our hunger for God. Even the Psalms can express what this feels like: “How lovely are your dwelling places, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.[15] The imagery is according to the understanding of the day. God’s presence on earth was located only in the temple in Jerusalem. We know from the New Testament that Jesus invented a new temple. I am that temple, and we are that temple. God dwells in us and is with us. When we are poor in spirit, it is because we are convinced that this relationship is urgent and essential for all of us all the time. We should regard living without being totally dependent on God as impoverishment. We should look to our dependence on God as singularly essential. We need to learn to live our lives in this way and learn from Jesus how to do precisely that.

Jesus tells us that when we offer no self-created alternative to depending fully on our relationship with God, we experience the kingdom of God. Little wonder. When we take no initiative of our own, when we offer no substitute of our own and when we depend on God for all of it his rule comes to all of our lives all of the time. This is a life challenge that we must not avoid. When the world wants to tell us how clever and how capable we are, we need to set aside those lies. We need to adopt the attitude of a spiritual pauper deliberately and that we will never BE anything or be able to DO anything worthy of our calling as sons and daughters unless it comes directly from Him.

This first distinctive attitude of kingdom people is the attitude of total dependence on God.  To be disconnected from God’s presence, his wisdom, his intentions and his ways is to be considered akin to abject poverty – a poverty of the soul. Since our culture has taught us to be self-centred, self-preserving and self-determined, we need to adopt this attitude and learn to live as Jesus did, not wanting anything that does not begin with God and end in his fulfilled purpose.

 

HOW DOES THIS WORK?

  1. We need to do an audit. How much of what we do reflects something that has come from God? Where are the areas that lack the signs of the kingdom rule of God?
  2. We need to begin to coach ourselves to “see what the Father” is doing in a given situation and then discover how we can serve that purpose.
  3. We need to ask God what to say and how to say things so that we reflect his nature and will in a given situation.
  4. We need to start in the place of prayer but extend out from there to all of the familiar places where we live our lives.
  5. We need to deliberately and directly relate to God during our daily living – asking him things and seeing if there are things, we can know from him that will enable us to link up with his purpose.
  6. We need to guard our lives in the areas of our human capability and ask if we are living by our own cleverness and ability OR living by the grace and power that comes from heaven.

[1]   See also John 5:30  I can do nothing by Myself; I judge only as I hear. And My judgment is just because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.   John 6:38   For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me.    John 8:28    So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He and that I do nothing on My own, but speak exactly what the Father has taught Me.   John 12:49   I have not spoken on My own, but the Father who sent Me has commanded Me what to say and how to say it.   John 12:50   And I know that His command leads to eternal life. So I speak exactly what the Father has told me to say.”

[2] Isaiah 61

[3]         See Romans 2: “As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’ ” Paul is referring to Isaiah 52:5 or perhaps, Ezekiel 36:20,22

[4]         See Philippians 2:6-11   Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death —even death on a cross!   Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

[5]         See the quote at the top of this article and the references in the footnotes

[6]         See John 12:49

[7]         See Matthew 28:20

[8]         things like uncontrolled laughter, rolling around on the floor, falling to the ground under the power of the Spirit of God, barking like a dog etc. have been reported by participants and witnesses of the meetings.

[9]         See First Corinthians 12

[10]       See Acts 10:38

[11]       See First John 1:1-5

[12]       See John 15

[13]       See John 17:21

[14]       See John 15

[15]       Psalm 84:1,2