Life as Intended: Pride and the Poor in Spirit
At the start of every new year we give thought to the kind of people we are and the changes
we would like to make in order to be the people we want to be. All of us sense a gap between our profession and our practice. We know we are not doing exactly what the doctor tells us we should do, nor are we the kind of spouse or family member we should be, we are not the kind of Christians we want to be – at least on our better days. So, at new years we make resolutions.
We all know ourselves well enough to know that none of these ever last the entire year, but, we figure, even if they last six months we will benefit from that amount of personal improvement.
Who defines the good life?
What kind of people should we be? What is it that constitutes the well-lived life? Who has the right to say what kind of life is worth living? We are here today in church at the start of the year 2011 because we assert that God, our Maker knows best, and that Jesus, who came to live life down on our human level, has the authority from God to define the well-lived life.
For the next several weeks we are going to study Jesus’ central teaching. One day, shortly after Jesus’ ministry began and crowds were beginning to come to hear him teach, Jesus went up on a hilltop. From there he delivered his famous “Sermon on the Mount.” It begins with nine statements about the blessed life called the Beatitudes. This is Jesus’ core, central teaching, essential to living life well.
The church has reflected on the teachings of Jesus over the years. As spiritual leaders tried to understand his teachings and help their communities to put them into practice, they identified seven fundamental, soul-killing obstacles that Christians must avoid in order to follow Jesus. These have been called the Seven Deadly Sins. They are: pride, envy, sloth, greed, lust, wrath, and gluttony.
Not long ago Jeff Cook wrote a book in which he paired the Beatitudes of Jesus and the Seven Deadly Sins. It is quite interesting and I hope, helpful to us, as we begin 2011, to use this pairing of classical theological reflection and the core teachings of Jesus to help us as we try to understand and to practice the well-lived life as God defines it.
Our commitment is to let our Lord Jesus define for us what the “good life” is; what constitutes the “well-lived life.” When there is a conflict between our culture’s definition of the good life and Jesus,’ we will notice it. We will re-affirm our commitment to allowing God and only God to set our agenda regardless of what Wall Street says, or what the Politicians say, or what the talking heads on TV and radio try to convince us is true. We are Christians: we make no apologies for following Jesus.
We begin with the first deadly sin, the sin of pride, the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.”
Pride begins the list of the seven deadly sins. Cook explains that “Pride is the natural love for myself magnified and perverted into disdain for others.” It is not only thinking too much of ourselves, pride is also thinking of ourselves too much. Pride is making myself the center of the universe.
Augustine called pride the foundation of sin, for, “Pride made the soul desert God, to whom it should cling as the source of life, and to imagine itself instead as the source of its own life.” It was pride that motivated Adam and Eve to violate God’s commands. Being finite was not good enough for them; they wanted to “be like God, knowing good and evil.” Pride is the essential soul-killing sin.
C. S. Lewis helps us understand Pride. In his famous book Mere Christianity he says:
“There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people… ever imagine that they are guilty themselves… And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.” (p. 148)
Nobody wants to admit to being proud. We will admit to being lazy, ill-tempered, even gluttonous before we will say we are prideful. So how do we know if this is a problem for us? Lewis says,
“…if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, …or patronize me or show off?” (p. 149)
I hate that!
Ouch! He got me there. Cook points out that “Obsession with self is the defining mark of a disintegrating soul.”
Many sins we can do behind closed doors, or when we think no one is watching – if they knew, we would feel shame. Pride is the opposite; it is public – everybody can see it. When we show disdain for people for any reason, race, status, eduction, taste, accent, condition in life, we show disdain for their Maker, and we publicly display our own spiritual immaturity.
Self-justifications, excuses, reasons we give for our smug disapprovals, are all evidence of our failure to grow up. As persons who are made in God’s image, our gifts differ, our advantages of birth differ, our life-experiences differ, but none of us is superior to any others. Pride is not just inappropriate, it is an inherent error that displays profound ignorance of the truth. Pride is soul-killing.
The Poor in Spirit
By contrast with the prideful person, the truly blessed person is, according to Jesus, “poor in spirit.”
3. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What did Jesus mean when he said “blessed are the…”? He did not mean that they were the happy ones – in fact it would be ridiculous to say “happy are those who mourn.” Nor did he mean “try to be this way and you will be better off.” These conditions, starting with being “poor in spirit” are not achievements we can attain – as though, if we worked hard, eventually we could become “poor in spirit.” Rather these conditions are just that: conditions. If a person is in the condition of being poor in spirit now, they are in possession of the kingdom of heaven – meaning the same as the kingdom of God.
So what does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Listen to how Eugene Peterson translates it the Message version:
3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
A person is “poor in spirit” when they know that God is the one without whom they would not make it. He is their provider, sustainer, the one whom they call out to, the one they rely on for the strength to make the next step.
The bible does not glorify poverty: being poor is never a good thing in itself. In fact poverty is a dangerous condition – the poor are taken advantage of, they are often oppressed, they are vulnerable, life for them is precarious. There is no idealization of poverty in the bible.
But because poverty is so bad, the poor tend to be the very people who cry out to God. The poor don’t have any pretenses. Because life is difficult, they know that they are in need of help, of God’s protection from abuse and oppression. God’s people, the Israelites were all poor in Egypt where they were slaves. When they cried out to God about their condition of poverty and injustice, God heard them and delivered them. Dozens of times we read of God’s special concern for the poor:
Isaiah 25:4 “For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.”
Proverbs 19:17 “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full.”
Proverbs 14:31 “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.”
It is not a virtue to be poor – it’s horrible. But because it is, the poor cry out to God, and because they cry out, he listens, he cares, and he watches out for them. Blessed are people who know that God is the reason for anything and everything positive and good in their lives; blessed are the poor in spirit.
How did the poor in spirit get that way? Not by pretending to be poor in spirit, but by living day by day, in conscious contact with their Maker, calling on him for help, in frequent gratitude for his presence. In other words, the poor in spirit got that way by cultivating their relationship with the Lord.
Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
They are blessed because they are the ones who know that everything is not as it seems on the surface. They are blessed because they recognize the unseen world all around them. They know that the Kingdom of God has come!
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Clearly this is counter-cultural. The focus of this blessed life is not about accumulating a massive pile of material objects and obtaining great power. It is not about being the one who gets his way or the one in charge. The blessed life is a life of humble dependence on God, day by day.
Of course, the person who is poor in spirit naturally looks at the world differently. She looks at the poor of the world as God does, and cares for their needs. She hates injustice and systemic oppression. He works to eliminate poverty, disease and discrimination. The blessed person who is poor in spirit, prays every day, “may your kingdom come” – even more today than yesterday.
The person who is poor in spirit asks, “where can I get involved? How can I help? Where can I contribute my gifts for the sake of the kingdom of God?”
And when all is said and done, the person who is poor in spirit does not need applause like the prideful person waits for, but rather simply feels blessed to have been a part of the work of God in the world; blessed to have been a faithful citizen of the kingdom.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In 2011 (and always) this is our mandate: this is who we want to be, unapologetically. By God’s grace, this is who we will be!