Are you poor in spirit?

John Wesley’s sermons on the Sermon on the Mount are at the core of his teaching. In them we find much of theology distilled down to its essence. His own view was the the Sermon on the Mount was the perfect summary of Christian life.

In his first sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, he speaks of the person of Christ — as the preacher of the sermon — and of the first two beattitudes. He argues that poverty of spirit is a state of utter awareness of our own guilt and unworthiness before a holy God, which opens the way to the joy of the kingdom of God revealed to us. He argues that the mourners who will be comforted are those who having once found Christ discover clouds and darkness and heaviness of spirit blocking their view of their Savior.

He ends the sermon by saying we also mourn for those who do not know Christ, and ends with an exhortation for Christians not to let the scoffing of non-believers stop them from sharing the gospel.

Ye, whose eyes are enlightened, be not troubled by those who walk on still in darkness. Ye do not walk on in a vain shadow: God and eternity are real things. Heaven and hell are in very deed open before you; and ye are on the edge of the great gulf. It has already swallowed up more than words can express, nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues; and still yawns to devour, whether they see it or no, the giddy, miserable children of men.

When I talk to people these days, I get the impression they have an overly rosy view of the Christianity of earlier centuries. In fact, the world has always been full of non-Christians. It just so happens that in some places and times lots of non-Christians went around claiming the name of Christ. In John Wesley’s day, nearly everyone in England was officially a Christian. But he saw the truth.

In our day, more and more, people no longer feel and social pressure to claim to be something they are not, but people are no different than they were in 1740 or 33.

The last line of the quote above has a turn of phrase I think is particularly apt for us. Wesley wrote of “the giddy, miserable children of men.” Giddy is not a word we use a lot, but ours is a giddy age. We whirl about and are made dizzy by the spinning. We value laughter and frivolity nearly above all else. Our culture seems built to increase our giddiness at every turn. Faster and faster we spin, till we fall down staggering and laughing like drunkards.

Wesley says we are misled if we think that is the path to happiness. What we need is not giddiness, but poverty of spirit. Only then will we be happy.

Who then are “the poor in spirit?” Without question, the humble; they who know themselves; who are convinced of sin; those to whom God hath given that first repentance, which is previous to faith in Christ.

5 thoughts on “Are you poor in spirit?

  1. Amen. I believe to know this is to walk in the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom. Can a person be poor in spirit without fearing God?

    1. You certainly could not have anything like the faith John Wesley preached and wrote about without a proper fear of God.

  2. Perhaps one could say that the “poor in spirit” are those who are spiritually teachable. I wonder whether this is a “stage” that precedes faith as Wesley seems to imply; or whether a mature Christian who has a great deal of experience in trusting Christ can be called “poor in spirit” as well.

    1. I don’t think we lose the poverty of spirit once we have come to faith, so I would not limit the use of the term only to those. I think Wesley says something to that effect in the sermon — it is both a stage and a description.

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