The Poor in Spirit

Russian_PeasantFew passages of Scripture are more familiar in the Orthodox Church than the Beatitudes – Christ’s sayings from the Sermon on the Mount which begin, “Blessed are….” With familiarity comes the occasional lack of attention, in which we forget to ask, “What does that mean?” I think this is particularly the case with the saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

There is no particular help to be found by going back to its original language – for it is a pretty literal rendering (in English). “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is exactly the same statement in the Greek. Oddly, there is a more paraphrastic rendering in the New English Bible that I find helpful – “Blessed are they who know their need of God.” It is not literal – but, I believe, it captures the sense and meaning of the statement.

The poor in spirit are those who know their need of God. And this is a very profound thing.

Sometime in this past year I had a short exchange on one of the blog posts on the topic of “necessity” or “need.” The point was made (not by me) that to need anyone or anything was the utter destruction of freedom. A relationship that had “need” at its core was dysfunctional and “co-dependent.” I continue to maintain that Freud is not among the fathers – and thus do not give much concern for psychological treatments of theology. But there is a point that is valuable and worth noting in the sentiment expressed: need can be the destruction of freedom. I come back to this point.

But I want to think first about the question of need – our necessity. “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”

The truth is – we are born into necessity. We are contingent beings – creatures and not gods. We cannot live utterly independent lives. We are born helpless and totally dependent. Our species has among the weakness of all newborns. And though our dependency weakens and changes as we grow – it does not cease. Indeed, as we age, our necessity often comes back with a vengeance.

Necessity is a difficult thing. There is an aspect of our need that plays a part in what it means to love – but it can also be a part of what it means to be a slave. Those who have suffered the extremes of modern prison camps know what it is to be reduced to utter necessity. That reduction is an effort to destroy the humanity of a prisoner – to remove any sense of freedom whatsoever. That it sometimes fails is a remarkable testimony for the grace of God at work in us. Our necessity can be the weakest and most vulnerable aspect of our lives as creatures.

This “weakness” becomes an important theme in the writings of St. Paul.

Necessity is a difficult thing. It can be part of what it means to love – but it can also be part of what it means to be a slave. It is, perhaps, the “weakest” thing about being a creature. St. Paul, confronted with an affliction (unknown to us) described by him as a “messenger of Satan sent to buffet me in the flesh,” says that he “besought the Lord three times” that the affliction might be taken away. He was told in response: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” The apostle adds: “Therefore I will most gladly prefer to boast of my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The revelation given to St. Paul is profound. Our weakness is precisely a point of necessity. We cannot handle our weaknesses by ourselves. Our weaknesses reveal the fact that we are not self-sufficient. They frequently leave us feeling vulnerable.

And this weakness, St. Paul says (quoting God), is the very place where God’s strength is made most perfect.

In truth, I need God because I cannot manage my life alone; I cannot solve my own problems; I am captive to sin and death – even my strengths often lead to alienation and estrangement; I cannot raise myself from the dead; I cannot see the world correctly (I am blind); I cannot rightly love even the most obvious things and people.

But, of course, the experience of necessity can also be the experience of slavery. It is not unusual for people to live in relationships of mutual slavery – with very little (if any) true freedom. Necessity, emotional or otherwise, drives them into such relationships and makes their existence into an image of hell.

How do we avoid this with God?

First off, God will not allow us to have a true relationship with Him that is destructive. People have imaginary relationships with God that become destructive. But the imaginary part of it is precisely the problem.

St. Paul writes in another place: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Our relationship with God is always a relationship of freedom. Without freedom the relationship would have no possibility of love. Thus we find that even if we curse God and deny His existence, we do not cease to exist. Though our very existence is dependent upon Him from moment to moment, He does not take it from us. Our “necessity” is not forced upon us within the context of our relationship with God. We may acknowledge it in freedom and take it up in an act of love, or ignore it precisely because God has given us such a frightful freedom.

Thus our necessity, our weakness, does not force us into relationship with God. I am free to deny Him, and to deny my weakness. But it remains true, that “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” For our sake, God himself, entered into the human world of necessity.

In becoming man, God freely became subject to necessity. His birth, His nurture, His education, His vulnerability within our world were freely taken on in His act of “self-emptying” (Philippians 2:5-11). The God Who lives beyond necessity hung lifeless on the cross without even a grave to call His own. He gave Himself to us in weakness – others had to remove the nails in order to free His most pure body from the cross.

The same way of the cross, freedom-in-necessity, is the invitation that is daily extended to us in our relationship with God – and one another. For those who love God, who will in return for His act of self-emptying, give themselves in weakness – he will not helpless. He will not use our weakness to crus us but will lovingly take us down from the cross on which we die daily, wrap us in fine linen, and place us in His own new tomb.

And there we will trample down death by death, and discover that in our weakness, God’s strength is made perfect.

-from a recent sermon


  1. Bless Father,

    I was wondering if you had read any of the fathers of the Church that render the verse this way: “Blessed are the poor with spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.” The last few paragraphs of your sermon would fit in well with that translation. The fathers that render it that way are a bit more obscure, but their reasoning was this:

    1. There is no preposition in Christ’s statement. It is an assumed preposition in the dative case (and most readers assumed “in” rather than “with”), so there is no reason to exclude the possibility of “with”.

    2. Because “poor IN spirit” is nearly the same as “meek,” which comes two verses later, the correct interpretation is likely NOT “poor IN spirit.

    3. Because Christ told the young man to go and sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow, the Lord is likely once again extolling voluntary poverty in the first beatitude (i.e., this interpretation would not be in conflict with his other teachings).

    4. The voluntary poverty Christ is describing is deeper than simply being economically poor: it is done WITH spirit, so that in effect it is the confession of weakness—the emptying of self—to which you referred in your sermon.

    I read this stuff a long time ago, but as I recall, it was a few obscure Greek fathers that interpreted the verse this way. I can’t recall their names. I’ll try to look it up. I was hoping you might know.

  2. Sam,
    Though the dative without the article could be rendered “poor with Spirit,” it’s just not anything like a normal Greek expression – just a grammatical oddity – thus I’m not surprised that the fathers who treated it the way you described are obscure – it’s an obscure way to treat it. Repetition, or saying the same thing in another way, on the other hand is not at all odd in the Scriptures. But thanks for the heads up.

  3. Fr. bless,

    I’m struck by the point you mentioned made by someone else: that any need in any relationship is destructive.

    Having married into an Indian family, currently living in the Middle East and being a psychologist, I have to say that that view of “need” and “relationship” is a very individualistic, western view: it assumes the healthiest person is a self-sufficient individual able to function on his/her own.

    Most of the rest of the world (the East, that is) just does not have a worldview or culture that would understand or agree with that sentiment at all. The eastern cultures are very collectivist: need is assumed and embraced.

    Though, as you say, it can be destructive, it is not intrinsically so.

    Just my two bit!

  4. Erik,
    Your point is well made – it’s true that Western tradition is very individualistic and concerned for freedom – though these are not entirely without merit. The Orthodox reflection on these things is generally gathered under the heading of the doctrine of Personhood. By definition, personhood always carries with it relationship – to be a person is to be-in-relation. For example, the revealed names of the persons in the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are names that cannot be spoken “individualistically.” To be “Father” is to imply someone begotten. To be “son” is to be “begotten of”. To be “Spirit” (breath) is to be breathed. The proper Orthodox trinitarian understanding is quite clear about this. As well, we understand that to exist as a “person” as a human being, is pretty much what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. There is, however, also freedom as a component of personhood – which says that our existence as persons is grounded in love – which can only exist if there is freedom (love cannot be compelled).

  5. Father Bless

    I find it interesting that we talk about our independence when last time I checked the most fundamental aspects of what makes me alive in the material world is something upon which I am utterly dependent…my breath and heartbeat. The arrogance I when I believe I live without God’s grace is quite bizarre. When I can experience my breath and heartbeat as God’s unconditional, unceasing gifts of Love I am closer to the Truth of both my dependence and my freedom in Him. Most of what I know about God is tucked away in paradox and this freedom in dependence is no exception.

    Thank you and thank God for what He expresses through you and this blog.

  6. Marigold,
    Of course – that is the real question.

    A modest description on the level of belief is offered here.

    To live the way of the cross is to follow Christ in His humility (self-emptying). It is a struggle, always, in this life. A struggle to:

    love our enemies; love our friends; forgive everyone and everything and to judge ourselves as no better or different than another (in some measure to take the sins of the world on ourselves in union with Christ); to live in a manner that accepts that Christ is our true life (and we are not the source of our own existence); to give without fear; to hope always in Christ; to give thanks to God for all things.

    Doubtless I left out much. But these things (even in the smallest measure) are hallmarks of the Way of the Cross. To embrace them (even the the smallest measure) is to “take up our cross.”

  7. Father bless,

    Quick question, do you mind if I copy a post from your blog to mine if I cite you and the blog? I kinda feel if I just post what you say instead of just giving a link people will be more likely to read it.

    As always, a wonderful post

  8. Bruce, the idea you conveyed and the way you worded it (“The arrogance when I believe I live without God’s grace is quite bizarre. When I can experience my breath and heartbeat as God’s unconditional, unceasing gifts of Love I am closer to the Truth of both my dependence and my freedom in Him.”) was just beautiful.

  9. Father, bless,

    Yes, I didn’t mean to imply that individualism has no place, only that it must be in it’s proper context. As you said in the Trinity, in relationship.

    My wife and I strive in our marriage to blend the best of western individualism and the best of eastern collectivism…I never thought of the correct balance being in the Trinity. That will help us! Thank you.

    You mention that love cannot be compelled. On a personal note, I am struggling quite a bit to form a daily rule of prayer. Though I am struggling, I am thankful that I cannot be addicted to God, my coming to Him in prayer must be from freedom– but it is in this freedom that I’m struggling lately.

    You’re post of the story where the women is adviced to not read more hours in a day than she prays really hit me. I can read about God all day long (and love to do so, I’m an avid reader). But I’m not praying… this is not good.

    Please pray for me.

  10. I had to put this picture on my laptop screen. It was a reminder for me when I made my first visit to a church in Russia that I wept. The meeting of humble Russian grandmothers sitting or standing around in the church listening to the service. Reflecting what these old women have gone through in since the 30s, and their struggle to keep their faith. And me..sitting there in their midst…humbled by them in my so-called modern American sophicastion. I reflect on this from time to time because it was such a moving event in my life.

  11. “But, of course, the experience of necessity can also be the experience of slavery. It is not unusual for people to live in relationships of mutual slavery – with very little (if any) true freedom. Necessity, emotional or otherwise, drives them into such relationships and makes their existence into an image of hell. How do we avoid this with God?

    First off, God will not allow us to have a true relationship with Him that is destructive. People have imaginary relationships with God that become destructive. But the imaginary part of it is precisely the problem.”

    The whole post spoke to me very strongly, but particularly the passage quoted above, because of personal experience in my own immediate family of conditions and relationships that have produced very tragic results.

    My oldest son, a graduate of Holy Cross in Brookline (he wanted to be a priest and I think, still does, but doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to his goal) wrote an interesting analysis of the problem of freedom and slavery in relationships, which I posted on my blog, and which might be of interest to anyone who has read your post. He wrote:

    “There are people who believe love is only possible through enslavement. God operates against this and eventually it will fail… through death or isolation. It is entirely inevitable… we aren’t designed for it. We were made to be free.”

    Here’s a link:

    Thanks, Fr Stephen, for your excellent words.

  12. Bless Father,
    I heard,
    When someone does someting to us that is clearly unjust he owes us.
    If we repay evil with evil we are just getting what is owed to us,
    but if one follow Jesus’s instruction and repay evil with good we become poor in spirit. He doesn’t gain in the transaction.
    Such person has no ties that bind and hold him down and as promised, his is the Kingdom of Heaven.


  13. Sam,
    Actually I read it from a Simone Weil book. Either Gravity and Grace or
    Waiting for God.
    Like most people with tremendous insight she had a tortured life.

    I think this one might be my favorite and most useful. I realized that I could pray when I pay attention to my wife, kids, boss etc and not just at church.

    From ‘Waiting on God’,
    Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it.”

    “Absolute unmixed attention is prayer. “

  14. “How should being poor in spirit feel? I think an accurate sensitivity of being “blessed” is to feel incomplete — constantly. It is a feeling that no matter what method we use to try to fill this void, (food, drink, love, sex, work, fame, attention, collecting objects, couching oneself in luxury) it is not enough. Nothing found here in this state of being satisfies this longing.
    It is also a feeling of deep regret. It is a certainty that God thoroughly knows us, all our thoughts and everything we have done.
    Luke 12:2-3 (NIV) 
    There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

    Excerpt From: Mike Stair. “Be Attitudinal.” iBooks.

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