What does it mean to be poor in spirit?
Being “poor in spirit” is one of the beatitudes that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3). It is the first attitude mentioned and sets the stage for all the rest. To be poor in spirit means to recognize one’s complete dependence on God and to acknowledge that everything we have – both materially and spiritually – is a gift from Him.
At its core, being poor in spirit requires humility. A person who is poor in spirit understands that he/she is not self-sufficient, but relies fully on God’s grace. This state of humility stands in stark contrast to the self-reliance and pride that often mark our human condition. The poor in spirit recognize that on their own, they are spiritually bankrupt before a holy God. They know that no amount of personal effort or righteousness can earn salvation. Salvation is a free gift dependent wholly on Christ’s redemptive work on the cross.
To be poor in spirit means acknowledging that we bring nothing of worth to offer God. It is to understand that we are totally destitute and helpless without Him. When Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed, He is saying that those who humble themselves before God and depend fully on Him will receive the kingdom of heaven. God values and honors those who recognize their need for Him. They understand that He alone fills the void we have within us.
The poor in spirit do not try to justify themselves before God. They understand they have nothing to offer Him that does not first originate from His own hand. They seek no glory for themselves, but turn the spotlight onto Christ. This poverty of spirit stands opposed to the self-righteous and arrogant who try to earn salvation through good works or spiritual one-upmanship. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day typified this attitude that the poor in spirit avoid.
To be poor in spirit requires facing the truth about ourselves. That truth being that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness and restoration. The poor in spirit stop trying to prove their worthiness and accept the pardon Christ freely offers. They understand that only He can transform them into what they were meant to be.
A poverty of spirit manifests itself in many ways. It is ultimately an attitude of complete surrender and dependence on God. Some characteristics of being poor in spirit include:
– A deep sense of one’s own sinfulness and moral failure before God
– An acknowledgment of our inability to save ourselves through good works or religious rituals
– A willingness to be taught and corrected by God
– A sense of personal unworthiness to receive all God’s blessings and benefits
– An attitude of humility and authentic repentance for sin
– A desire for God above all else, wanting only His favor and direction
– Contentment in simplicity, not driven by materialism or status
– Acceptance of persecutions and suffering for Christ’s sake
– Selfless charity and generosity motivated by Christ-like love
– A life marked by prayer, worship, and thirsting for God
Jesus makes it clear that the poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Though the world may overlook the humble, God notices and honors those with a poverty of spirit. He shares His kingdom with those who know they depend fully on His grace and seek to exalt only Him.
The Old Testament speaks often of God’s concern for the poor and vulnerable. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reveals that material poverty alone is not what God values most. The external posture merely reflects the type of spiritual poverty God desires. His kingdom belongs to those who are poor regarding their righteousness before Him.
The concept of poverty of spirit appears at times in the Old Testament as well. For example, King David writes in Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” David recognizes after his sin with Bathsheba that no amount of ritual or offering can make up for his moral failure before God. What God truly wants is a heart humbled and agonizing over its spiritual destitution.
Isaiah also describes the type of humility and contrition that God honors: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). God values those who tremble at His word, meaning they recognize His holiness and their own inadequacy. This humility is a posture the poor in spirit embraces continually.
The Apostle Paul speaks about having a spirit of poverty toward oneself but an attitude of wealth toward others: “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3). Being poor in spirit means a willingness to think truthfully about our spiritual condition while being generous in love toward others.
Paul also writes that God intentionally chooses those the world considers foolish to shame the wise. He says, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty… that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). Being poor in spirit is about boasting in the Lord, not ourselves. The humble allow God to get the glory.
Some examples of poor in spirit figures in the Bible include Job, who humbled himself before God even in great suffering (Job 1:20-22). Ruth, who though poor and a foreigner, sought God and His people (Ruth 2:10). Or the tax collector Jesus describes who simply pleads for mercy, not claiming any righteousness of his own (Luke 18:13-14). The Bible consistently elevates the humble in spirit.
On the contrary, the religious elites Jesus condemns in Matthew 23 exemplify a spirit of pride and arrogance that is the antithesis of being poor in spirit. Jesus says they “love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’” (v. 6-7). Unlike the poor in spirit, the Pharisees crave prestige and the praise of men.
In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus again contrasts the appropriate attitude of being poor in spirit with that of religious conceit (Luke 18:9-14). While the respectable Pharisee brags about his fasting and tithes, the despised tax collector simply asks for mercy from a distance. Jesus makes it clear that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).
Being poor in spirit may sound weak or undesirable by worldly standards. But Jesus makes it profoundly clear that the kingdom of God operates by a different value system. The poor in spirit inherit God’s kingdom, obtain His comfort, and receive the blessing of the earth as their inheritance (Matthew 5:3-5). They experience the loving intimacy of God because pride no longer separates them. The rewards greatly outweigh any worldly costs.
Jesus calls all believers to embrace spiritual poverty because He knows this is the pathway to God’s kingdom and intimacy with the Father. It is the cornerstone to living dependently on His grace. As Charles Spurgeon said of being poor in spirit, “Blessed is the man who has it; he has a real possession in it. …he shall have everything else which is worth having, present peace and eternal bliss, Christ here and heaven hereafter.”