Our call to discipleship is founded in the Great Commission given to us by Jesus before he ascended in glory: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:16-20).
The ongoing work of discipleship is to teach and demonstrate obedience to the commandments of Jesus, and the most concentrated collection of commandments we’ve received from him can be found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7—the Sermon on the Mount.
THE BEATITUDES AS INVITATION
The sermon begins with a collection of statements known as the Beatitudes, each beginning with the phrase, “Blessed are they . . .” Most Christians are familiar enough with the Beatitudes that we easily forget how profoundly counterintuitive they are. Each assertion calls into question basic assumptions we hold about happiness, society, and even common sense.
It is helpful to look at the Beatitudes not as isolated statements, but as a progression of thought. It’s as if Jesus is giving us a whirlwind tour, a sneak preview, of the kingdom of heaven. Each beatitude represents a landmark, a step deeper into the kingdom. We can see this because each beatitude begins with the phrase, “Blessed are they,” except the final one, which starts this way: “Blessed are you.” Jesus suddenly turns his eyes toward us and asks, “Are you in?”
The beatitudes are an invitation, a demonstration of what God’s kingdom looks like on earth so we can decide in advance whether we are willing to accept the practical instructions—that is, commandments—given in the sermon that follows.
Take, for example, the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). We may not know what “poor in spirit” means, exactly, but nobody looks at the word “poor” and sees something positive. Poverty is always regarded as negative, and reasonably so.
WHAT, EXACTLY, DOES ‘POOR IN SPIRIT’ MEAN?
As the first beatitude, we can understand spiritual poverty as being the key that opens the gate to the kingdom of heaven, which is what Jesus says. Whatever spiritual poverty is, the observation of it is the first step to being a disciple and to making disciples. And if we are to teach others to observe spiritual poverty, we must understand and demonstrate it ourselves.
Fortunately, the lesson is not as cryptic as it might seem. In my experience, we tend to look at the word “poor” and say something like, “Well, I know being poor is bad, so when Jesus uses that word, he must mean something different than actually being poor.” Misguided as that is, if we say that Jesus is not merely talking about physical poverty, we can at least pat ourselves on the back for being half-right.
Something that is spiritual can be understood as being, for lack of a better word, deeper than something that is physical. For example, I can force myself to show physical kindness toward someone without actually feeling kind toward him or her in my heart. But I can’t feel kindness toward someone and then treat him or her with outward, physical contempt. The spiritual attitude is deeper than the physical expression.
So when we talk about spiritual poverty, we are talking about a form of poverty that is deeper than physical poverty. What, then, is poverty?
Poverty is characterized by obvious signs: hunger, exposure, uncertainty, vulnerability. The basic defining factor of poverty is lack of choice. For example, if I have $50 in my pocket, my options for lunch are far less limited than they would be if I had $1. Or, if I wanted to travel from New York to San Francisco, a $1,000 budget would afford me far more options than a $100 budget. The defining attribute of wealth is the freedom to choose. Interestingly, this is also the fundamental privilege on which our society is based. “So,” Jesus seems to say, “let’s tackle that first.”
Imagine a malnourished child in a third-world country, holding his hands out to passing tourists. Why does he spend his time this way? Because he has no choice. Hunger and deprivation are his hell on earth, and each pastel shirt that passes is, in that moment, his possible savior.
Imagine a single mother who works three jobs. Why does she do this? Because the deprivation of her children is her personal hell, and a little bit of overtime pay is the only salvation she can see.
WHAT SPIRITUAL POVERTY MEANS FOR FOLLOWING JESUS
In the same way that those who experience physical poverty desperately seek after physical salvation, those who experience spiritual poverty are desperate for spiritual salvation. And when we recognize the source of that salvation, we are totally committed to obtaining it. What else can we do? How else should we spend our time?
In his gospel, the apostle John recounts the story of another sermon Jesus gave; a sermon so difficult in nature that the large crowd that had been following him scattered, discouraged, to their homes. When Jesus turned to ask his apostles whether they intended to leave as well, Peter replied, “Lord, to whom else shall we go?” (John 6:68).
Jesus demonstrates right away with his first beatitude that following him won’t be easy or glamorous. Like a beggar desperate for food, each of us must come to Jesus with a spirit of poverty, knowing that salvation is what we need, and that Jesus is the only one who offers it. If we could somehow fabricate salvation ourselves or obtain it through our own efforts, we wouldn’t need Jesus—we could make our own rules, choose our own way. But sleepless nights and hours spent under the operating scalpel of Scripture have taught us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one finds salvation except through him.
3 WAYS SPIRITUAL POVERTY INFORMS DISCIPLESHIP
This sense of personal spiritual poverty offers us three crucial insights for discipleship. First, it makes us sensitive to God’s mercy. Unless God first extended his hand to us through his blessed Son, we would be lost to our Creator with no hope of reconciliation (Rom. 5:8). This keeps us humble and thankful, able to recognize God’s continual grace in the midst of our circumstances.
Second, spiritual poverty leads us to keep our eyes open for those who are also desperate for salvation. We know what it’s like to be spiritually destitute, and our hearts break for those who, in all the complexities of life, are experiencing a similar crisis (Matt. 11:28-30).
Finally, our poverty of spirit reminds us to have compassion for the lost rather than contempt. “There but for the grace of God go I.” We all are found by God in the same condition, hopelessly wallowing in sin and helpless to save ourselves (see Ezekiel 16:1-8). We are keenly aware of how empty handed we were—we are—when coming to Jesus. What, indeed, did I have to offer him? My fear? My pride? My brokenness? I came to him with hands full of bloody rags, as do we all.
ARE YOU READY TO ADMIT YOUR POVERTY?
Spiritual poverty reminds us that the deep bonds of sin and darkness that hold the world captive are one arrogant thought away from claiming us as well. Without Jesus, there is simply no telling where my self-will, insecurity, and perversion might have taken me, and might still take me if God’s mercies weren’t new every morning. How, then, can we show contempt for anyone lost in sin?
With each beatitude, Jesus reveals more of the Kingdom of Heaven—that very present reality in which God’s kingdom comes as His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Spiritual poverty is the key that opens the gate to that kingdom, placed in our empty and trembling hands by a Savior who wants us not only to enter, but to share the key with others as well.
Are you in?
But who are those persons who are white and round, and yet do not fit into the building of the tower? … These are the ones who have faith indeed, but they also have the riches of this world. As a result, when tribulation comes, they deny the Lord on account of their riches and business…So also those who are rich in this world cannot be useful to the Lord unless their riches are cut down.
The quotation above is from The Shepherd of Hermas, a text that was well-known in the first few centuries of Christianity and, while not ultimately included among the canonical Scriptures, was considered generally useful by the church. Hermas is instructive, at least, in that it reminds us along with so many other ancient Christian texts not to go looking in ancient Christian writings for examples of modern thought. To read Christian writings from this period with a 21st Century mindset is to be thoroughly confused and quite possibly discouraged.
Hermas is the account of a strongly allegorical vision that seeks to expand upon and clarify the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. For example, Jesus compares Christian life to the building of a tower (Luke 14:28), while Peter compares the church to a structure built of “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5), meaning the body of believers. The Shepherd of Hermas elaborates on this thought by describing various types of stone in and around the tower of the church, each representing a type of Christian. In this way it draws a strong parallel to Jesus’ parable of the seeds (Matthew 13).
The allegory used in Hermas to describe Christians that possess worldly riches is stones that are “white and round”–that is, stones that have been drawn from the quarry but have not yet been cut down to a useful shape. They may be wedged in the masonry of the tower, but at the slightest disturbance they are prone, because of their soft edges and excess weight, to roll out again. It is a useful reminder and a valuable warning that we should not allow the pursuit or possession of wealth to limit our usefulness in the kingdom of heaven.
Christianity requires hard edges. Jesus describes himself as the cornerstone of Christianity (Matthew 21:42). The purpose of a cornerstone is to determine the correct angles for a foundation. As long as the foundation follows the angles of the cornerstone, it is straight. If the foundation deviates from these angles, even slightly, it will become more crooked and unstable over time; it will be harder and harder to reconcile its own structure, and this will make it prone to collapse. Can a more apt metaphor be found for the 21st century church?
The pursuit of wealth, power, influence, acceptance or comfort in this world will inevitably give us rounded corners, the kind that allow us to roll along with the flow of the world around us without committing too strongly to any one conviction. This is what is known as “realism” or “pragmatism.” It is the acceptance that conviction and conscience, while certainly very noble, must ultimately take a backseat to complex realities and practical necessities. While indispensable in business and statecraft, this white roundedness is entirely incompatible with the church. I mean this not as an indictment against the viability of the church, but rather as an invitation to consider exactly how much the church can really have to do with business or statecraft.
But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? – James 2:6-7 ESV
To be a Christian requires each of us to ask difficult questions about our priorities and choices. But that is not enough. It is time for the church as a whole to examine how unstable it has become by trying to serve two masters. Are we a tower built against a straight cornerstone, or are we merely a heap of white rubble?
And some one said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” – Luke 13:23 RSV
The Jesus that we like to imagine would have had a gentle and comforting response to this question when it was asked of him. Place him at the head of the aisle in any modern American church and he is likely to say, with eyes full of compassion, something like: “Child, the gates of salvation have been flung open for you. You need only believe in me. Now, bow your head with me and say this simple prayer…”
In the Bible, however, the response is somewhat different. As always, we find that while the Bible can indeed be very comforting, its words never seek to make us comfortable.
And some one said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” – Luke 13:23-24 RSV
Having spent three decades in the Evangelical church, I have heard the topic of salvation preached and discussed innumerable times. I believe I could honestly count on one hand the number of times that a word like “strive” was used in the conversation. Striving is in fact antithetical to a modern viewpoint of salvation as I have experienced it. We understand salvation as a free gift from God, purchased through the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross and freely given to anyone who will confess their sinfulness and believe in his willingness to save them.
This is in essence not untrue. The Bible states clearly that salvation is a free gift of grace–something that no one can earn through his or her own works or righteousness (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is the truth, but it is not the whole truth. The problem with our modern understanding of salvation is not its origin, but rather its end.
Jesus described salvation as a path, a process. The Apostles wrote of it as something to be hoped for. I need not quote specific verses; you will find it to be true by opening to nearly any page of the New Testament if not the Old. It is also the normal Christian understanding of salvation throughout the history of the church. But we live in a culture that has become increasingly uncomfortable with long-term commitments–especially those with open-ended outcomes. We want simple transactions and guaranteed results. The modern church has been happy to oblige by framing salvation essentially as a golden ticket; a gift easily obtained by a single choice on our part, and once we’ve won it, we’ve got it. We can be assured of salvation, certain that we will escape judgement.
The Apostle Paul seems to say as much when he says, “Of this I am certain; that he who began a good work in you will see it through to completion on the day of Christ (Philippians 1:6).” But notice that while he speaks of assurance, he also frames salvation in terms of an ongoing process–a work that, as long as we still draw breath, has not been finished.
This is why Jesus says, “Hard is the road and narrow is the gate that leads to salvation, and few find it (Matthew 7:14).” Salvation, like everything else in Christianity, operates in an uneasy tension between two ideas. Is salvation a free gift of grace or is it a difficult journey of striving? The answer, of course, is “Yes.”
Without the work of Jesus on the cross, resurrection from the dead would be impossible, redemption would be unknowable and reconciliation to God would be unachievable. His act of sacrifice is the plainest possible testament to God’s love for us and His desire that we be returned to a relationship with Him. This is pure grace, poured out generously in the blood of Jesus, a free gift that we could never earn nor afford. At the same time, it is not passive; it is not for us to simply say, “Thanks for that,” and continue on our previous course. Salvation is a journey. One cannot accept salvation and continue with life as usual any more than one can simultaneously ride the up and down escalators at a shopping mall. Salvation is the work of Jesus, and our part is to work in synergy with him. We neither believe that it is work we are capable of doing independently, nor do we believe that it is work that has already been completed.
No one knows how long his or her journey toward salvation will be, but the nature of it is always the same: It begins with the cross and ends in paradise. It begins with death and culminates in resurrection. Until it is finished, we are in the process of dying with Christ–dying to our own wills and ways–in the hope of joining him in eternal life. Without God’s grace, not a single step of this journey would be possible; but as long as you are alive today, God is giving you grace through Jesus Christ to work together with Him in the process of your salvation. For some, like the thief on the right hand of Jesus at Calvary (Luke 23:40-43), it may be the work of mere moments. For others, it is the journey of a long lifetime. But here is the truth: If you have placed your hope in salvation, then you know in your heart that right now there is a step that you are being led to take. It is difficult. It is a hard choice, a sacrifice, a discipline, a concession. It is a dying. It is impossible as an act of your will, but you are not relying on your will–you are relying on God’s grace. As long as you draw breath, there will be another step tomorrow, and another. Remember that nothing is worth much if it’s easy. This is your salvation.
Then Jesus cried out, as He taught in the temple, saying, “You both know Me, and you know where I am from; and I have not come of Myself, but He who sent Me is true, whom you do not know. But I know Him, for I am from Him, and He sent Me.”
Therefore they sought to take Him; but no one laid a hand on Him, because His hour had not yet come. … Then Jesus said to them, “I shall be with you a little while longer, and [then] I go to Him who sent Me. You will seek Me and not find [Me], and where I am you cannot come.”
John 7:28-30, 33-34 NKJV
Without explaining in detail the context of this passage, we can see that the religious leaders who sought to subdue Jesus were faced with three limitations: First, they couldn’t see Who sent him. Second, they couldn’t lay hold of him. Third, they couldn’t follow him. In other words, the reality of Christ eluded them in his past, his present and his future. Let us examine each of these points more closely.
They could not see who sent him.
When we begin to understand a person’s point of view, we say that we can see where they are coming from. It is a way of saying that we can put ourselves in their frame of mind and empathize with their personal perspective and experience.
Repeatedly in the gospel account of John, Jesus explains that the religious leaders who rejected him did so because, while they professed to follow God, they did not really know Him (John 8:19; John 15:21; John 4:22; John 8:55). One thing we learn from Scripture is that God the Father is a Person. We can to some extent understand the nature of His Personhood because we ourselves were created in His image and likeness. A person desires relationship. A person feels emotions. A person is creative and can be unpredictable. A person is complicated.
God the Father has all these qualities to a larger and more perfect extent than we can imagine. The religious leaders who found themselves at odds with Jesus Christ largely ignored all this. They had extracted from the revelation of Scripture God’s laws, commandments and precepts and had constructed for themselves a religious worldview in which a man could be justified by his own actions and saved by his own efforts. This brought their relationship with God out of the personal realm and into the contractual. From this point of view, it was unnecessary to understand God as a Person. Indeed, it was undesirable; it is far easier to fulfill a contract than it is to please a person. If this were not true, far more marriages would last far longer.
This simplification of the relationship would be the Pharisee’s downfall. Because they no longer saw God as a Person, it was unfathomable that the fulfillment of His promises would come in the form of a Person as well–namely, Jesus Christ. They saw the messiah as a role, a title, a function that met a series of criteria, but they were unable to recognize him as a person. Indeed, they were unable to recognize any person as a person. People had simply become tools; units of measurement against their own success.
They could not lay hold of him.
When we fully understand a concept, we express this by saying that we grasp it. It is as if we can take the idea in hand, turn it around, examine its various angles and feel its textures. To grasp something gives us an element of control over it, which is why we might also say that we have mastered a school of thought or a discipline. To grasp something is to be able to affect it.
Because the religious leaders did not understand the One who had sent Jesus, they could not grasp Jesus. They had no power over him. Jesus demonstrated this repeatedly, slipping through their fingers time after time until he was ready to give himself up in his own time and for his own purposes (John 19:11).
They could not follow him.
When we are sympathetic with a point of view and can understand a person’s conclusions, we say that we follow them. In this situation, we might say to a person, “I see where you’re going.”
The religious leaders could not see where Jesus was going. Because they saw the world only in terms of power and control, rules and regulations, success and failure, they could only see Jesus as an obstacle to be removed. His teachings interfered with their criteria for success. His influence compromised their thirst for power. His forgiveness undermined their rules and regulations. Because their conception of reality had been reduced to something worldly and tangible, they could not imagine the humiliation and death of Jesus as anything other than an ultimate defeat. It was, in fact, His ultimate victory.
So blinded were the religious leaders by their own ambitions that even the resurrection of Jesus and all the signs accompanying it were insufficient to sway them from their point of view. Graves were opened, dead men walked; but like so many people today, the religious leaders were unwilling to recognize the signs of resurrection all around them.
Let’s compare the condition of the religious leaders to that of Jesus’ followers.
First, Jesus’ disciples knew where he was coming from. When Jesus asked his disciples if they planned to abandon him like so many others, Peter’s response was, “Lord, to whom else would we go? You we have seen and have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God (John 6:68-69).” The answer may not have been easy, but it was simple: If Jesus was sent by God, then his words were true.
Knowing where he was coming from, they could also grasp him. For a literal example, consider the woman who reached out in faith and touched him as he was passing by. Jesus stopped and said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out of me.” This woman was healed because, grasping who Jesus is, she was able in faith to lay hold of him. “Without faith,” we are told in Scripture, “It is impossible to please God, because whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him (Hebrews 11:6).” Similarly, having assured us that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we have no life in us (John 6:53), he tells his disciples, “Take, eat. This is my body.” Unless we believe that his body is the bread from heaven, we take mere bread, and in it there is no life, no redemption, no salvation.
Finally, having known him and grasped him, Jesus’ disciples can follow him. When Jesus was preparing to die, he told his disciples: “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now. But you will follow me afterward (John 13:36).” Only when the disciples had seen the fulfillment of Jesus Christ’s incarnation through his death and resurrection would they have the hope and the strength to follow in his footsteps. But follow him they would, even unto death. As can we, if we believe in the One who sent him and have just enough faith to lay hold of him. The difference lies not in what we see, but in Whom we believe. The power is not in what we hear, but in what we do with it.
A unique quality of our society is that in nearly every situation of our daily lives, we encounter an abundance of choices. If we go to a grocery store to buy corn chips and salsa, we are faced with a kaleidoscope of corn chip varieties, a wall of salsa brands. We can make a selection based on any number of criteria: Do we shop by unit price to feel thrifty? Highest price to feel affluent? Quantity? Flavor? Packaging?
A similar situation awaits us when we draw our smartphones, turn on our computers or switch on our televisions. There are so many choices available to us that we are mesmerized, sometimes paralyzed. Whenever I overhear conversations about the various shows people are watching, someone inevitably mentions with regret the long list of shows he or she intends to watch, but hasn’t yet found the time to.
We observed in an earlier post that choice is a marker of wealth. For example, I have a car, so I am able to drive easily to a supermarket of my choice and bask in the glow of a thousand mustards. If my neighbor cannot afford a car, she is limited by how far she can walk, how much she can carry, how long she can spend waiting for buses. The groceries she buys will be invariably selected from the corner store, where choices are far fewer and, ironically, prices are far higher. Her poverty is highlighted by a restriction of choice.
From this perspective, she actually has a clearer view of the situation we all face. Being able to drive to the supermarket of my choice and acquire the mayonnaise of my dreams, it is all too easy for me to forget that, for myself as much as for my neighbor, those choices were engineered. Every choice available to me was planned and preselected by the powers and principalities of market forces, focus groups and corporate profit margins.
Here we face the madness of modern choice: Having been overwhelmed by a glut of available options at low levels, we can easily overlook the value of choice itself, and easily miss the moment when the most important choices are snatched from us. For example, when making a big financial decision like the purchase of a car, we are presented with so many models and financing options that we may not stop to consider whether a car is worth going into debt for in the first place. Blinded by features, lifestyle statements and payment options, we are blinkered by the hundred small choices we do make into overlooking the one big choice that has already been made for us: Participation in a culture of debt.
Many people are waking up to these realities and in various discreet ways are attempting to reclaim a sense of perspective. The person who chooses to shop locally, consciously limiting her choices so that she can feel better about what she buys. The person who chooses to live in a tiny affordable house rather than a big house with a big mortgage. Conscientious choices of this kind can help us to feel sane again, and while they are good, they can ultimately miss the point.
Jesus talked a lot about choices. He compared the kingdom of heaven to a treasure that, once found, was worth giving up everything else for (Matthew 13:46). He compared the Christian life to a narrow gate and a difficult road that few people find (Matthew 7:14). He warned against being distracted from what really matters by the many cares, riches and pleasures of life (Luke 8:14).
We are so accustomed to being presented with a glut of superficial choices that we have come to expect them even when they are not appropriate. In disciplines such as prayer, fasting and charity, the element of whim utterly defeats the purpose of the exercise. In decisions such as participation in a church, methods of worship and the practice of sacraments, the application of choice and preference corrodes the very foundation of why such institutions exist. In a world of opinionated consumers, the Christian is called to be an obedient servant.
In practical terms, this has the effect of narrowing our life down to a few decisions of profound importance, the most important being this: Whom will we serve? Will my life be lived in service to my own feelings and preferences, or will it be offered to the service of the One who purchased it at so dear a price?
Food for thought. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. Am I selling my salvation for a jar of salsa?
We visited a church this weekend that is very overt in its desire to be open and accepting to everyone who passes through its threshold. This is not surprising, given the tiny size and generally advanced age of its congregation. Beggars, it is said, can’t be choosers, and in many cases the established church in the Northeastern U.S. has adopted something of a panhandling tactic when social pressures combine with financial ones to threaten its continued existence.
This particular church, which is Lutheran, announces the following in its bulletin:
Any person is welcomed at our communion table…
whether you are male or female,
whether you are able bodied, or differently-abled,
whether you are poor or rich (or somewhere in between),
whether you are gay or straight,
whether you are single, married, widowed or divorced,
whether you are old or young,
whether you like to dress up or dress down,
whether you identify as Latino, white, Asian or black,
Native American, African-American, or any rich combination of any of these…
Let us note that this invitation is extended not for participation in the service or membership in the church, but for partaking of communion, traditionally called the Eucharist. As with all denominations rooted in ancient Christian liturgy, the Lutheran church holds the Eucharist as the center of its Sunday service. The reason for this is plain in the words of Jesus:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53 NKJV)
Orthodox Christianity has always held that the sharing of Eucharist is no mere symbol or reminder, but rather a true spiritual sacrament by which we are placed in communion with the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. As such, the body and blood of Christ are understood to be truly present in the elements. To my knowledge, Martin Luther himself believed this to be true, although he rejected the Roman Catholic doctrines that undermined the mystery of this transformation. On this matter, he was in sympathy with Eastern Orthodoxy.
This is the traditional understanding of Eucharist, simply put: That the elements are transformed into the flesh of Christ so that when we partake in them, the death that is in us may be transformed into the life that is in Him. It is an act of subsuming, in which a lesser thing is covered over, negated, transformed into a greater thing.
Consider, then, the irony of a creed that highlights our various cultural labels and methods of self-identification rather than brushing them aside as irrelevant. It is not right to allow a Christian’s identity to be defined by gender, social status or heritage (Galatians 3:28). It is not right to allow a Christian’s identity to be defined by self-expression or sexual desires (Colossians 3). Not because these things are illusions, but because they are elements of us that, through Communion, are meant to be replaced by the elements of Christ.
The kingdom of God will never be established by seeking to affirm and reinforce manmade labels and methods of self-identification. Such things can only entrench the systems and cycles of this world. According to those systems, I can be a white male, an American, a consumer, a Millennial and a pervert; but they have no power to make me a member of Christ’s body, subjected to His will and dedicated to His purposes. Only the Eucharist has that power.
That is why, as a Christian, I crave the Eucharist. Every fiber of my being longs to partake of communion as often as possible because I accept that I am flawed, I accept that I am weak and I accept that I am broken. I accept these things, but I do not affirm them–not in myself, and not in others. My desire is that through communion with Christ, the death that is in us would be replaced, day by day, with the life that is in Him. “…breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which prevents us from dying, but a cleansing remedy driving away evil, that we should live in God through Jesus Christ. †”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 NKJV)
When trying to understand what Jesus means by “Poor in spirit,” it can be helpful to look at poverty in its relation to choice. I have said elsewhere that freedom choice is humanity’s defining characteristic. This is why slavery is understood as dehumanizing. To deprive someone of choice is to deprive someone of essential humanity.
While we generally equate richness to having an abundance of money and poorness to having a lack of it, in reality the only value of money is that it allows for more choice. The more money one has, the more choices are available. For example, consider a man who wants to travel from New York to Boston. If the man is rich, he has many options to choose from regarding the manner in which he travels to Boston and how long it will take. The richer he is, the more choices he has. Inversely, if he is poor, he may be limited to one or two choices. In addition, those choices are bound by more restrictions. If he takes a bus, he must consider whether the available timetables will allow him to return to work on time. If he takes his car, he must stop to think whether the wear-and-tear on his vehicle is worth the risk. A poor man may decide that a trip to Boston is simply impossible. His poverty is exposed in his lack of choice.
When Jesus declares that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are poor in spirit, part of that poverty is reflected in sacrificing a personal notion of choice.
Think about it: When was the last time you willfully committed a sin without feeling behind it a sense of freedom or entitlement? “God will forgive me.” “I deserve this.” “I have the right to…” This is a false sense of freedom. Like moving from one train car to another, it is a choice that can still only take you where you were already going: Namely, toward judgement. It is the choice of the many disciples seen in John 6:66 who, having been called out by Jesus on their shallowness, decided that they didn’t have to sit there and take that kind of abuse. Exercising their freedom, they got up and walked away from Jesus.
Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:67-69 NKJV)
So we see that Saint Peter, in order to abide with Jesus, had to give up the illusion of choice. He had to recognize that there is only one road, one gate, one key, one Shepherd. From this perspective, it is perhaps more clear why poverty is the crucial first step into the kingdom of heaven.
Stressed and frustrated by a life situation largely beyond her control, she knew that people in her circle had begun to talk about her. Her response was to write a post on Facebook, in a public forum, admonishing those who were undermining her through their gossip. Now, her reactive method of reproving a small handful of people to mind their own business had dragged her own business into the shocked awareness of countless others who, out of a natural sense of curiosity, would of course begin talking to each other. Out of the frying pan, as they say.
This was a scenario that my wife pointed out to me this past week, but the most remarkable thing about it is how unremarkable it is. Anyone who uses social media has become used to seeing people fling their opinions, emotions and prejudices into the public view without so much as a pause for thought. In fact, it could be said that “bombs” of this kind define the media, which is continually motivated by the waves produced by their impact. Social media is the 21st Century’s advancement of internal combustion.
Most of the cultural shifts that define the past decade can be largely attributed to the prevalence of instantaneous expression. The world around us is being shaped increasingly by groundswells of popular opinion that are primarily the result of strong feelings–pressure waves built up to unprecedented intensity as our prejudices, however unreasonable, are instantly validated in the emotional echo chamber of social media platforms designed to cater to our preferences.
Anyone who has struggled to build a successful marriage knows that strong emotions, knee-jerk reactions and poorly-timed expressions are impediments to relationship. The passions that draw people together must be carefully controlled or, over time, they will tear those same people apart. But this fact is less evident to us in a time when we are used to expressing every superficial thought and airing every grievance for the whole world with the flick of a thumb. Designed for convenience, at no point does social media ask us to stop and think. Geared toward consumers, the software is biased toward validating and reaffirming our preferences.
This dynamic is basically opposed to the mindset of Christianity. The teachings and examples of Jesus Christ instruct us to endure persecutions (Matthew 5:39), tolerate impositions (Matthew 5:40), and assume in any disagreement that we could well be in the wrong (Matthew 5:24-25). Saint Paul enjoins us:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you… (Romans 12:3 ESV, Philippians 2:3 NKJV, 1 Thessalonians 4:11 ESV)
In our culture, there is no space afforded for sober judgement. No time is granted for quiet living and careful reflection. Google doesn’t do soul searches. Our society expects personal expression, but the model given to us by Christ is mutual submission. No one can serve two masters, and you will be hard-pressed to reconcile these.
What, then, shall we do? I invite us to consider how many times during the day we turn to edifying “fixes” received through the quick validation of social media. How many sordid glimpses we receive into the personal lives of others. Rather than laying bare our passions and reflexively airing our opinions, let us instead submit ourselves to the deep reservoirs of mercy from Him who says, “Be still then, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)”
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10 ESV)
I found myself in a conversation yesterday about a mutual close acquaintance who, unable to break the bonds of addiction, has done seemingly irrevocable damage to his body and mind. This person cycles endlessly through programs and hospitalizations, sometimes appearing to be better and sometimes worse, but never having so far escaped the boundaries of his condition. We reflected that while many resources are placed before him for his benefit, he generally does not take advantage of any help that is not literally forced upon him.
The nature of addiction is that it compromises the essential quality of our humanity: The ability to choose. Rational, moral choice is accessible only to humans. Animals can be coaxed and trained, but cannot come to a point of self-reflective decision. We have several cats, some more agreeable in my opinion than others, but no one of them is going to wake up tonight and, after sober reflection, resolve to be a better kind of cat. It is confined to its essential animal nature.
It is this quality that makes addiction so difficult to overcome. Since choice is central to my perception of human experience, I am strongly reluctant to accept that my choice has been compromised by anything besides a strong external force. Tell me that I cannot make this or that choice because of social convention or civil authority and I may reluctantly agree. But if you tell me that I am prevented from making rational choices because of something inside myself, something I am personally responsible for, I will reject that notion outright. Self-imposed helplessness is nearly impossible to confront head-on.
That is why you are likely to feel uncomfortable when I point out that we are all addicts. Every single one of us is addicted to something. Perhaps not something like alcohol or heroin. But there are decisions you make and actions you take that you do not actually control. I will list some of mine: Coffee. Humor as a defense mechanism. A deep vein of escapism. Fear of the unknown and unexpected that manifests in occasional manic behavior. And when I come face-to-face with my own lack of self control, I will often compensate by trying to control something or someone else rather than addressing the root of the problem.
So while the essential quality of humanity is having choice, the universal condition of humanity is that we are bound by chains. This is natural, because the earth over which we were meant to have dominion is also bound by chains. Saints Peter and Jude both describe how at some point in prehistory a certain number of angels rebelled against God and, having been bound in chains, were cast down to await final judgement (2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6); cast out not into some vague abyss, but rather exiled to earth. And our parents Adam and Eve, when they rebelled against God as described in Genesis 3, subjected themselves to this same condition and were exiled outside of paradise to a creation that was bound by chains and subjected to vanity (Romans 8:20). We and the demons are all bound by the same chains, all awaiting the same judgement: Chains of our choosing and a judgement of our making.
Pity is a double-edged sword for an addict. On one hand, a person who is truly helpless is deserving of pity, of mercy and of help. On the other, pity and mercy extended to someone who has not accepted his or her helplessness will be wasted or rejected. I am out of control to the extent that I believe I am in control. Every area in which I believe that I exercise free choice, my choice is defined by the limits of my illusion of self-willed freedom. The illusion of autonomy.
There is, of course, such a thing as autonomy. We are naturally autonomous. But that autonomy is only capable of bringing us to judgement. Autonomy can only ever take us where we were already going.
This is why for God, the only possible offer of help and reconciliation must take the form of supreme pity. In Ezekiel 16, God compares his people to an unwanted infant who had been discarded like garbage at birth: “…And I saw you there, wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!'” Our condition is one of true helplessness.
And yet, for help to be realized, we must, like all addicts, give up the illusion of control. That is why with his first beatitude, Jesus explains that the gate to the kingdom of heaven can only be unlocked by spiritual poverty, absolute humility, true repentance (Matthew 5:3). Through Jesus Christ, God’s mercy is extended to everyone. But in each and every area of our lives–every dark corner, locked closet and thoughtless habit–I must work in synergy with Him by being willing to see the chains that every fiber of my being does not wish to acknowledge.
The nature of entertainment is that it is subject to whim. Entertainment that fails to divert, distract or delight its consumer is quickly set aside in favor of something more desirable. Because of this, anything that is packaged as entertainment forfeits its right to be compelling. Any message presented as entertainment, regardless of its objective truth or value, has subjected itself to the whim of the consumer.
There is a hidden danger, then, in the fact that nowadays nearly every message is packaged as entertainment.
For three or four generations, we modern Americans have followed a course that is defined by the demands of entertainment. With every passing decade, it has become easier for us to self-determine what we wish to see and hear–with the turn of a dial, the grasping of a remote and now the flick of a thumb. Soon, the mere twitch of an eye will be enough to replace or augment undesirable elements of reality with something more immediately interesting–for example, the presence of a Pokémon in a nearby bush. Popular culture has strived to meet the demands of the society by providing more avenues of entertainment and by packaging more messages in an entertaining way. We have been so thoroughly weaned on this that we seek diversion impulsively; if we are momentarily bored by a conversation or disinterested in what we are currently looking at, we will quickly produce a smartphone to distract ourselves with something more immediately gratifying.
It is difficult for any serious message to compete with this dynamic. A message that demands careful thought or self-reflection doesn’t stand a chance. As individuals in this society, if we are not being told what we wish to hear, we will flick our thumbs to another message without even stopping to consider why.
This is one of the primary reasons for the growing political and cultural sectarianism in our society. It is more and more unlikely that any one of us will be obligated, much less disposed, to devote attention to a subject that doesn’t make us feel good. When presented with discomfort, our reflexive urge is to flick to another source of input. This response is nearly always rewarded. As a result, our interests and opinions are less likely to be the fruit of nuanced consideration and diverse opinions; they are more likely to be the culmination of a glut of simple and similar messages.
This has proven dangerous in the cultural and political arena as we become less tolerant of any message that doesn’t meet our immediate expectations, however unrealistic or biased those expectations may be. It forces public figures to become liars, because any entertainment separated from the immediate context of its medium becomes a lie. We now have public figures who stand on entertainment as their primary platform and for whom the imposition of reality is an offensive inconvenience.
As dangerous as this is in the secular realm, it becomes truly deadly in the spiritual. These are the words of Jesus Christ: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Luke 13:24 Matthew 7:13-14 NKJV)”
As a Christian, the warnings of Jesus remind me to be highly suspicious of any movement, message or doctrine that makes me feel good. This is not because I masochistically believe that feeling good is bad; it is merely because Jesus states in no uncertain terms that the road to destruction is paved by convenience and lined by diversion.
The Apostle Paul warned his student Timothy of this:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (2 Timothy 4:3-4 NKJV)
By being born in a culture of diversion and brought up in a world of distractions, we find ourselves ill-equipped for the serious business of salvation. Children, let us acknowledge this diagnosis soberly rather than trying to fool ourselves into thinking that we can find an easy and comfortable balance. Every time we salve our itching ears with a momentary distraction, an easier message, a self-gratifying doctrine, our itching ear syndrome comes one step closer to killing us.
Consider, if you have the patience, the words of Bishop Hilary of Poitiers as he contended against the Arian heresy that threatened to consume the church in the mid Fourth Century A.D.:
“Though every word we [the teachers of the church] say be incontrovertible if gauged by the standard of truth, yet so long as men think or feel differently, the truth is always exposed to the cavils of opponents, because they attack, under the delusion of error or prejudice, the truth they misunderstand or dislike. For decisions once formed cling with excessive obstinacy: and the passion of controversy cannot be driven from the course it has taken, when the will is not subject to the reason. Enquiry after truth gives way to the search for proofs of what we wish to believe; desire is paramount over truth. Then the theories we concoct build themselves on names rather than things: the logic of truth gives place to the logic of prejudice: a logic which the will adjusts to defend its fancies, not one which stimulates the will through the understanding of truth by the reason. From these defects of partisan spirit arise all controversies between opposing theories. Then follows an obstinate battle between truth asserting itself, and prejudice defending itself: truth maintains its ground and prejudice resists. But if desire had not forestalled reason: if the understanding of the truth had moved us to desire what was true: instead of trying to set up our desires as doctrines, we should let our doctrines dictate our desires; there would be no contradiction of the truth, for every one would begin by desiring what was true, not by defending the truth of that which he desired (On the Trinity, Book X).”