Poor in Spirit:
The Blessing of “I Can’t”

Poor in Spirit:
The Blessing of “I Can’t”

Few things get under my skin like hearing one of my children say, “I can’t.” Whether it is at the homework table, on the athletic field, or in the kitchen after having asked them to wash the dishes, “I can’t” just isn’t acceptable in our home. It may not carry the shock value of some other four letter words, but it is far more profane and offensive to my ears. Like my grandmother used to say, “Can’t never could, and won’t never will.”

As a parent, I want my children to have the attitude that they can do anything they set their minds to. Whether learning to solve for “x” or training to hit a bomb over the center field wall, “I can” is a great attitude to have. In fact, it is the only attitude to have if they want to be successful. There are times they will have to ask for help from others, and sometimes it will come naturally. Obviously they will excel at some things and struggle with others, and I want them to give God the glory, regardless of the outcome. But I always want them believing they can.

Well, almost always.

A Drowning Man Cannot Be Saved…

In his book entitled The Normal Christian Life, Chinese church leader and Christian teacher, Watchman Nee, shares a story that clearly illustrates that “I can” isn’t always the right mentality.

Nee was staying in a facility with a large number of other Christian brothers, and the bathing facilities in the home where they stayed were inadequate. As a result, the group went for a daily plunge in the river in order to cool off and clean up. During one of their daily swims, a man in their group got a cramp in his leg and was unable to stay afloat. Nee noticed that the man was struggling and starting to sink beneath the surface, so he motioned to a friend who was an expert swimmer to hasten to his rescue.

When Nee saw that his friend made no move toward the drowning man, he was incensed. He, along with all of the other men in their company, became agitated and began shouting, “Don’t you see that the man is drowning?!” Still, the expert swimmer did not make a move. He stayed calm and collected, apparently unwilling to assist the man who was fighting for his life against the river’s current. As time progressed, the struggling man’s voice grew fainter, his efforts more feeble.

Imagine being in the drowning man’s position. Just imagine.

The reality is, you are. And so am I. But the stakes are much, much higher.

Just as it became clear that the perishing man was no longer able to exert any effort to stay afloat, the swimmer made his way over with just a few swift strokes. Within a matter of seconds, both were safely ashore. When Nee reached the pair, he held nothing back in chastising the rescuer. “I have never seen any Christian who loved his life quite as much as you do!” he exclaimed. “Think of the distress you would have saved that brother if you had considered yourself a little less and him a little more!”

The rescuer’s response reveals an essential truth of the gospel.

“Had I gone earlier,” he replied, “he would have clutched me so fast that both of us would have gone under. A drowning man cannot be saved until he is utterly exhausted and ceases to make the slightest effort to save himself.”

God Helps Those Who Can’t

I grew up in West Texas, where those who “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” are held in especially high regard. I was taught the importance of hard work, and I grew up believing that an honorable man earns everything that he has. We subscribed to the maxim “God helps those who help themselves” so devoutly that I legitimately believed it had to be in the Bible somewhere.

In case you thought so too, it’s not.

I am grateful for my upbringing and the work ethic that my family instilled in me. That said, overcoming the spirit of self-reliance has been a constant struggle for me in my relationship with Jesus. The reality is that I have a sin problem. So do you (Romans 3:23). I can’t solve mine. You can’t solve yours either. The penalty for both of us is death (Romans 6:23). We can’t help ourselves. We need a Savior. Jesus is that Savior (Romans 5:8), and He helps not those who help themselves, but those who know they can’t help themselves.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells His listeners, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” For years, I completely missed the intent of what Jesus is communicating here. It would have made sense to me if He would have said something about being “rich in spirit” and “poor in flesh,” since Paul tells us in Galatians that we are to “crucify our flesh” (Galatians 5:24) and “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). But, no. Jesus says, we are blessed when we are “poor in spirit.”

It turns out that the “Spirit” Paul references and the “spirit” Jesus speaks of aren’t one and the same. Paul, of course, is referring to the Holy Spirit. We definitely want to be rich in our relationship with Him. On the other hand, Jesus is referring to the spirit of man, that which makes us believe that we have anything good in us apart from God, or that we deserve anything from Him.

Augustus Toplady wrote the great hymn “Rock of Ages.” One of the verses of that hymn captures the reality of what it means to be “poor in spirit”:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I die!

“Rock of Ages,” Augustus Toplady

D. A. Carson, a prominent evangelical scholar and author, puts it this way:

Poverty of spirit is the personal acknowledgment of spiritual bankruptcy. It is the conscious confession of unworth before God. As such, it is the deepest form of repentance. . . . From within such a framework, poverty of spirit becomes a general confession of a man’s need for God, a humble admission of impotence without him.

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World, D.A. Carson

In short, to be “poor in spirit” means to see ourselves as we really are before God. It is a recognition that we inherently have nothing that would commend us to Him, that we are spiritually bankrupt and destitute. We have no claim on His mercy. He owes us nothing. We deserve nothing but hell, and we can’t do anything about that reality on our own. And Jesus says we are “blessed” when we realize that fact.

Jesus also tells us that unless we become poor in spirit, we cannot experience the kingdom of heaven. This is true in multiple senses:

  • Poorness of spirit is required to experience God’s saving grace. When Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that nobody comes to the Father except through Him, He is not just putting the kabash on New Age spirituality and polytheism. He is also making it clear that we cannot reach God based on anything we bring to the table. Unless we are poor in spirit, at least on some level, we will have no motivation to come to Jesus. And if we don’t come to the Father through Jesus, then we don’t come to the Father at all.

  • Poorness of spirit is required to experience God’s presence and power in our daily lives. Psalm 138:6 tells us, “Though the Lord is on high, yet He regards the lowly [humble]; but the proud He knows from afar.” While humility and poorness of spirit are not precisely the same thing, they are closely related (you cannot be proud and poor in spirit simultaneously). If you are not experiencing intimacy with God and you notice that He does not seem to be working through you as much as you would hope, ask Him to more fully reveal the depth of your need for Him.

  • Poorness of spirit is required to walk out the Sermon on the Mount, which is Christianity 101. It is no accident that Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Before any of the other beatitudes can become a reality in your life (remember, the beatitudes are not things to do, but things we are to become; flowers in the garden of our hearts), poorness of spirit is non-negotiable. If you are not poor in spirit, you will not mourn. If you are not poor in spirit, you will not be merciful. If you are not poor in spirit, you will not hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on. Before Jesus tells us what it looks like to live in His kingdom, He needs us to know, we can’t live there of our own merit.

Examining Your Fruit

So how can we know how we are doing in the area of poorness of spirit? As I alluded to above, I think there are probably varying degrees to which someone grows in this quality of heart.

Let’s start with an example from Scripture:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18: 10-14, NKJV

If you are more like the tax collector than the Pharisee, if you have recognized and confessed your sin, your inability to save yourself, and your desperate need for Jesus to be your Savior, congratulations! You are certainly walking in poorness of spirit, at least at some level.

But as with anything in the Christian life, those who are in relationship with Jesus are constantly growing. Here are some points you may want to consider as you evaluate your spiritual growth in this area:

  • Are you offended when confronted with the fact that you are a sinner, or like the apostle Paul, do you recognize the fact that you have an ongoing struggle with indwelling sin (Romans 7:15-24; feel free to read verse 25 as well, since it is the theme of the entire passage)?

  • Are you keenly aware of your own spiritual inadequacy, or do you wear yourself out trying to keep up the appearance of self-righteousness?

  • Do you place a high value on the mercy of God because you know that you cannot live without it?

  • Do you boast only in Christ because you know that every good thing in your life is because of Him?

As you consider these points, I want to remind you once again that the beatitudes are flowers that God wants to bring forth in the garden of our hearts. They are not about what we do, but about who we are. At the same time, who we are is most clearly evidenced by what we do and how we think, so I think the questions above serve as a helpful metric.

Ultimately, poorness of spirit is a gift of grace. Ask Him for more.

More grace, Lord.

(Go back and read Part 2 of series)

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The Blessing of “I Can’t”

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