‘Spiritual Poverty’ is a Prerequisite to Discipleship


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 sermon begins with a collection of statements known as the Beatitudes, each beginning with the phrase, "Blessed are they . . ." Most Christians are so familiar with the Beatitudes that we 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.


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.


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.


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.


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?

Elliot Toman lives with his wife and four children in Kingston, New York, where he is an aspiring church planter. He spends his spare time studying the Bible, publishing comics and occasionally writing about the church and Christian life.