From his humble birth in a stable, to his walk to Calvary, Jesus’ words and actions made it clear that humility is the key to becoming like him.
In a culture that constantly seeks the promotion of self and accumulation of material goods, Jesus calls us to a radical life of humility and poverty. In his preaching of the Beatitudes Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are the poor in spirit … for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
But, what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Let’s unpack the true meaning of the first pillar of the Beatitudes and see how it invites us to both spiritual and material poverty. Then we will consider examples of ways we can live out this call to spiritual poverty.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
We often think of being poor in spirit as the call to material poverty, however, Jesus is also calling us to a deeper poverty of the heart in this preaching.
To be poor in spirit means recognizing that everything good in our nature comes from God. Anything worthy of praise in us comes from God and God alone.
Being poor in spirit is a type of spiritual posture, acting as “beggar” before the Lord. We beg for his mercy and grace because we know we are unable to earn them on our own.
In fact, the root word for poor in the New Testament is “ptochos” meaning a person reduced to begging—someone who was destitute of all resources, especially farm and family.
This call to spiritual poverty is not separated from the call to material poverty. In fact, they are intimately intertwined.
Giving the Glory to God in All Things: The Key to Living Spiritual and Material Poverty
If not kept in check, wealth and material goods can create attachment, causing us to fall into a mindset of “the more you have, the more you want.'' This is not to say that having material goods is bad. It depends on the disposition of your heart.
If our material possessions cause us to lose focus on God and our need for him, this is where wealth hinders our spiritual poverty. It is the mindset of self-sufficiency we ought to be weary of.
For example a person who is not poor in spirit may think: “I have a great job, a beautiful house, multiple cars, and I take frequent vacations—why would I need God? I am doing just fine on my own!”
When we lose sight of our nothingness, our total dependence on God, and think that our success is fabricated by our own efforts, we fail to recognize God is the giver of all things.
Instead, someone who is spiritually poor may think: “God has blessed me with many wonderful things. Through his grace sustaining me, I am able to provide for my family and enjoy the gifts he has given. I recognize that all of these things are gifts from him and I wish to share them with others.”
God does not call all of us to sell all our possessions and rid ourselves of everything, but he does call us to always prioritize him over material things.
Three Ways to Live Spiritual Poverty
Spiritual poverty can look different for the various states of life. Some are called to radical lives of material poverty, while others are blessed with wealth that they use as a means to serve God and others.
Below are three ways we can practice to recognize our total dependence on God and live out spiritual poverty:
1. Receive the sacrament of reconciliation
The first step in recognizing our need for God lies in recognizing our sinfulness. When we acknowledge our faults, we bring light to all the ways we are in need of God’s grace. The sacrament of reconciliation is an opportunity to assume the position of beggar, imploring God for his mercy, thus living the call to spiritual poverty.
Put it into action: Pick a day in advance to go to confession. Take time examining your conscience to thoroughly look at your shortcomings and meditate on your need for God and his grace.
2. Use the trifecta of phrases: “may I?” “thank you” and “sorry”
When we are proud and reliant on ourselves, we are unable to ask for help, acknowledge kind acts from others or recognize when we have done wrong. A practical and down-to-earth way to enhance our spiritual poverty is simply making regular use of the phrases “may I?” “thank you” and “sorry.”
In a 2020 audience on the meaning of being poor in spirit, Pope Francis stated, “When I give some advice to newlyweds who ask me how to carry on their marriage well, I tell them: ‘There are three magic words: may I, thank you, sorry.‘ These are the words that come from the poverty of spirit.”
Put it into action: Find time in your day to recognize where you may have grown impatient with your spouse or a co-worker who helped you in a time of need. Then, offer one of those three phrases to them, recognizing your faults or expressing your gratitude.
3. Give alms to those in need
By recognizing our spiritual poverty, we acknowledge that both our material and immaterial gifts are not our own, and therefore we have an obligation to offer them back to God. This can be lived out by offering alms to those who suffer from poverty.
Divine Word Missionaries are stationed around the world in some of the most desolate places on the Earth. They serve those severely affected by material poverty and bring them material, physical and spiritual nourishment.
Put it into action: Prayerfully consider giving to Divine Word Missionaries as a means of living out your call to spiritual poverty. Your offering keeps families fed and children educated while sustaining our nearly 6,000 missionaries so that they may spread the Divine Word.
The Beatitudes are instructions given to us by Jesus that show us how to lead a holy and fulfilling life. I invite you to further explore what it means to be poor in spirit and the other pillars of the Beatitudes in our interactive resources: