The Poverty of Self-Sufficiency

Matthew 5:3

January 11, 2004 | Brian Bill

I’ve received some wonderful green and gold gifts recently.  This Packer headband keeps my ears warm, and this cap announces my allegiance for all to see.  This Packer Christmas stocking came filled with Snicker bars; and I even received some “Lambeau loafers” as slippers.  These socks keep my feet warm; and this touchdown tape measure reminds me that the Pack is back.  I even received a green and gold key, which I assume is to the Packer Hall of Fame, but I misplaced it somewhere.  From head to toe, I can be decked out in the colors of heaven.

After being here for more than four years, I’ve come to the conclusion that some of you don’t understand “cheddar-speak.”  And, since the Packers are doing well in the playoffs so far, I thought I would share with you some phrases from the “Cheesehead Dictionary” so that you will not only be able to comprehend this sermon, but also understand the post-game interviews this afternoon.

  • Brat – a Wisconsin tailgate special; has nothing to do with a spoiled kid.
  • Cheese curds – small pieces of fresh cheese that squeak when you bite into them.
  • Coupla-two-three – more than one; as in “Delmer and I ate a coupla-two-three brats.”
  • Hey – placed at the beginning or end of phrases for emphasis, as in, “Hey, how ‘bout them Bears?”
  • M’wakee – Wisconsin’s largest city, just down the lake from Mant’woc.
  • Stop-and-go-lights – What everyone else calls traffic signals.
  • Bubbler – What everyone else calls a drinking fountain.
  • Yah-hey – an affirmative response.
  • The Polka – How da angels dance in heaven.

As we look at the first Beatitude this morning, I wonder if those listening to Jesus wished they had a dictionary with them because it must have seemed like He was speaking a different language.  While the words themselves weren’t difficult to understand, the message from the mount was extremely radical.  Let me summarize what we learned last week.

  • Only believers can live out these Beatitudes.
  • They are a package deal – we can’t pick and choose the ones we like.
  • Belief must lead to behavior.
  • Jesus wants us to seek the applause of heaven.  To be “blessed” means to be congratulated by Christ and applauded by the Almighty.
  • God wants to do a new thing in this New Year.

We also established that if we’re serious about being a committed Christian, we will strive to follow the example of the disciples by loving Jesus, learning from Him, and living out what He teaches us.  I’d like to mention three additional points that will help us understand the language of the Savior’s sermon.

1. His message is positive. 

All eight characteristics that we should display in our lives are introduced with the word, “blessed.”  God wants to give His approval to those who put Him first.  I heard of a family that went to the state park for the day to enjoy the great outdoors.  When they arrived they saw a whole row of signs that said, “No hunting, no fishing, no camping, no picnicking, no trespassing, no hiking!”  At the bottom of another sign, in small print, they read, “This is your state park; enjoy it.”  In this sermon, Jesus is giving us not a list of “don’ts” but a list of “do’s.”  They are really “Be-attitudes” because this is how we should be in our attitudes and actions.  When we exhibit these expressions of discipleship, we’ll hear the applause of heaven.

2. His teaching is filled with paradoxes. 

He turns everything upside down when He says that little children can understand more than the wise and learned

A paradox is something that is contradictory to what we’d normally expect.  According to Jesus the way up is down in Luke 22:26: “The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”  In Luke 17:33, He says, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”  In Matthew 11:25, He turns everything upside down when He says that little children can understand more than the wise and learned.    

Nowhere is His preaching more filled with paradoxes than in the Beatitudes.  

  • Only those who acknowledge their spiritual poverty can go to heaven.
  • God comforts those who cry, not those who are tough.
  • The meek will inherit the earth.

The way in which Jesus taught is also filled with paradoxes as He used the most common realities to explain the most profound truths: a mustard seed, a lost coin, and the work of a sower.  Fernando Cascante writes: “Those who come to him for answers, He sends away with questions.  Those who just want to have theological discussions, He brings down to earth.”  He also points out that Jesus’ own life is one amazing paradox: “He is the king born in a manger; the righteous one who dies as a criminal; the Lord who came to serve; the sinless one who eats and drinks with sinners”  (

3. The Beatitudes are progressive. 

As the Master Teacher, Jesus did not just start anywhere in His explanation of God’s expectations.  They are like a ladder that must be climbed, one step at a time.  It’s not random that Jesus begins by saying that those who recognize their own spiritual bankruptcy will be blessed: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  We must first become humble in order to have any chance of living out the other seven.  The foundation of all other graces is laid in humility.  The door into the kingdom of Christ is low, and you can’t stand tall if you want to enter.  We must be humble in order to have God’s approval because when there is less of us, we can experience more of Him.  We will only be filled when we own our emptiness, we cannot be made worthy until we recognize our unworthiness, and as someone has said, “We can’t live until we admit we’re dead.”  Or, as another person put it: “Those who get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.”

In order to help us savor the flavor of this first Beatitude, here is Matthew 5:3 in several different translations and paraphrases.

The NIV, King James, New King James, and the New American Standard all render it this way: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

The New English Bible says, “How blest are those who know they are poor; the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

The Living Bible reads, “Humble men are very fortunate…for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them.”

The New Living Translation puts it this way: “God blesses those who realize their need for Him, for the kingdom of heaven is given to them.”

The Amplified Bible expands this to read: “Blessed – happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous – are the poor in spirit (the humble, rating themselves insignificant), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The Message captures the meaning well: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.  With less of you there is more of God and His rule.”

What It Means

In the minds of most of the listeners, verse 3 should read, “Blessed are the movers and the shakers, the successful, the famous, the powerful, and the self-confident.”  But God’s wisdom is much different from the conduct of our culture.  Last Sunday when the Packers and Seahawks went into overtime, there was a coin toss to see who would get the ball first.  The Seahawks won the toss and Matt Hasselback, the quarterback, responded with great confidence by saying, “We want the ball, and we’re going to score.”  Their first possession ended in a punt and the next time they had the ball, Hasselback threw an interception that was returned for the game-winning touchdown.  I think he probably felt poor in spirit after the game!  

One of the best ways to understand what it means to be “poor in spirit” is to look at what it doesn’t mean.  

  1. It does not refer to material poverty.  
  2. It does not mean false humility.
  3. It does not indicate that we should have an inferiority complex.

In the Old Testament, several words are translated “poor” and they all refer to those who recognize their neediness, and as a result, are desperate for God.  Psalm 40:17: “Yet I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me.  You are my help and my deliverer; O my God, do not delay.”  Psalm 69:32: “The poor will see and be glad–you who seek God, may your hearts live!  The LORD hears the needy…” 

There are two primary words for “poor” in the New Testament.  One refers to having just enough to get by, like the widow who put her last two coins in the offering plate.  The other word means having nothing at all and was used in Luke 16 when Jesus related the story of the beggar, named Lazarus, who sat at the gate of the rich man.  The Bible tells us that the dogs came and licked his sores and that he ate the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  He was absolutely, totally, completely impoverished.  

This is the word that Jesus uses in Matthew 5:3.  In the verb form it means, “to crouch” or “to beg.”  A person who is poor in spirit is someone who is undeniably destitute and dependent on someone else.  It’s the exact opposite of being rich in pride.  Goodspeed translates it this way: “Blessed are they who feel their spiritual need.”  Jesus is really saying, “Blessed are the beggars.”  

To be “poor in spirit” is to recognize our abject spiritual poverty before a holy God.  As someone has said, “We may be well educated, but we are spiritually ignorant; we may be financially secure but we are spiritually bankrupt.”  It’s the idea of coming before God with empty hands.  The second verse of that great hymn, “Rock of Ages,” says this, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”  Isaiah 66:2 describes the kind of person God favors: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” God honors the humble and as James 4:6 says, “He opposes the proud.”  Are you humble before God’s holiness?  Are you broken in spirit?  And do you tremble at His word?  If so, God is applauding you today.

The Bible is very clear about the indispensable element of humility and brokenness.

Psalm 18:27: “You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.”

Psalm 149:4: “For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation.” 

Proverbs 16:19: “Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.” 

Proverbs 22:4: Humility and the fear of the LORD bring wealth and honor and life.”

Proverbs 29:23: “A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor.”

Isaiah 57:15: “For this is what the high and lofty One says–he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” 

It’s convicting to read verses like this, isn’t it?  Since God opposes the proud, He often has to break individuals before He can use them.  Some people don’t come to God with a broken heart, but they can come to Him for a broken heart.  As I survey Scripture, some characters come to mind that embraced what it means to be poor in spirit.

  • MosesHe often admitted that in his own strength, he was unable to do what God was asking of him.  Numbers 12:3 states that “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.”
  • GideonWhile it seems like Gideon was making up excuses when God called him into service, he was also admitting his inadequacy in Judges 6:15: “But Lord, how can I save Israel?  My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” 
  • David.  After sinning in a big way, David confessed how he had messed up.  Through this soul-searching time, he recognized what it is that God really wants in Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  In 2 Samuel 7:18, we read that David went in and sat before the Lord.  Instead of asking God for something, he immediately owned up for his own inadequacy: “Who am I, O Sovereign LORD, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?”  
  • DanielOne reason Daniel was used greatly was because he was poor in spirit.  In fact, his prayers were answered in part because of his humility.  Daniel 10:12: “Do not be afraid, Daniel.  Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.”
  • JobAfter experiencing unbelievable tragedy and after asking questions, when Job saw God for who He really is, he viewed himself in a whole new light.  Job 42:5-6: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
  • IsaiahWhen this man of God encountered the absolute holiness of God, he was absolutely humbled in Isaiah 6:5: “Woe to me!  I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips!”
  • MicahThis prophet figured out what it is that God desires from us when he wrote in Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the LORD require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
  • Peter.  Prideful Peter learned things the hard way throughout his life as God continued to chip away at the spiritual chip on his shoulder.  I picture Peter walking with a swagger and feeling rather important, that is, until he came face to face with the majesty of the Messiah.  After witnessing the miracle of a large catch of fish, Luke 5:8 reads, “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’”

Some of us are missing out on God’s blessing and His applause because we have yet to be humbled.  I’d like to suggest that there are two arenas in which we need to become beggars that God can bless.

1. Admit our individual arrogance. 

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable “to some who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else…”  The Message paraphrase reads this way: “He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people.”  Jesus then explains how two men went into the temple to pray, one was a Pharisee, the other a despised tax collector.  The Pharisee, feeling good about all of his accomplishments, basically recited his religious resume to God.  In fact, verse 11 says that “he prayed about himself.”  His first statement was filled with pride: “I thank you that I’m not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector.”  In verse 12, he boasts about how much he has done for God: “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, demonstrates what it means to be “poor in spirit.”  He wouldn’t even look up and he beat his breast as he cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The Message puts it this way: “Meanwhile, the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God give mercy.  Forgive me, a sinner.’”  Both men prayed, but only one was heard.  Why?  Because one prayed out of his spiritual poverty, while the other bragged about his deeds.  The tax collector “went home justified before God.”  Eugene Peterson adds, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

One man gushed with pride, the other oozed poverty.  One felt religiously rich, the other knew he was spiritually bankrupt.  One man was impressed with his own accomplishments; the other was depressed by his failures.  One boasted, the other begged.   

I want you to know that I am more like the self-righteous Pharisee than I am the broken and tender tax collector.  I’ve confessed my pride to the Lord throughout this past week, and now I confess it before you.  Charles Spurgeon once said, “Our imaginary goodness is more hard to conquer than our actual sin.”  I fall into the thinking that I can do things on my own when I can’t do anything apart from Christ.  I trust my heart more than I should and discover pride and ugliness when I look inside.  Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”  What about you?  Can you admit your individual arrogance before the Almighty? 

2. Confess our collective conceit. 

While we must start by admitting our arrogance individually, as your pastor I want to confess some collective pride.  As much as we have witnessed God do some amazing things during the 40 Days of Purpose, I sense within my spirit, that our celebration at times bordered on some church conceit.  God has assembled some gifted people here, and we have experienced some extraordinary blessings, but we are, and will always be totally dependent on God for everything.  1 Corinthians 4:7 in the New Living Translation reminds us that everything we have is a gift: “What do you have that God hasn’t given you?  And if all you have is from God, why boast as though you have accomplished something on your own?”

Conceited Christians make Jesus want to barf

When Jesus addressed 7 churches in Revelation 2-3, he had some pretty strong words for an assembly that had become arrogant.  They had experienced many blessings, had wonderful resources, and felt like they could just keep rolling on like they had been.  But they had become lukewarm, neither hot nor cold.  They were no longer on fire but they weren’t iced over either.  They were just right in the middle.  Things were safe.  And yet, Jesus said, in some of the strongest words ever recorded, that He wanted to vomit them out of his mouth.  Conceited Christians make Jesus want to barf!  This image denotes deep disgust.  They had become halfhearted because they felt like they didn’t need anything anymore.  Revelation 3:17: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’”

Instead of being poor in spirit, they were full of themselves.  They boasted about what they had and no longer lived as beggars who know that they had nothing.  Jesus put it this way: “But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” This was the true state of their spiritual portfolio.

Verse 19 reveals how badly Jesus wants us to burn hot for Him.  As Max Lucado says, He loves us too much to let us stay the way we are: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest, and repent.”  His love is seen in verse 20, where we see Jesus, while indignant with our iniquities, wanting to have fellowship with us.  This verse is often used to help explain the necessity of a non-Christian opening their life to Christ but it is actually directed to a church that had become conceited: “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”  Jesus longs for us to love Him with everything we have and He is quick to forgive and give His grace.  He waits for us to admit the poverty of self-sufficiency.

I would like to lead us in a prayer of confession right now using the words of Daniel 9 as an outline: “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong.  We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws…Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame…you are merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against you…we do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.   O Lord, listen!  O Lord, forgive!  O Lord, hear and act!  For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because…your people bear your Name.”

2 Requirements

If we’re serious about living out this first Beatitude, we must admit individual arrogance and confess our collective conceit.  In an article in the recent issue of Discipleship Journal (Issue 138, 2003, Page 46), David Henderson suggests that accepting Jesus’ teaching requires at least two things of us

1. Acknowledge our impoverished condition. 

To be spiritually poor means that we come up short and we know it.  I’d put it this way: we must file for spiritual bankruptcy.  It’s only as we admit our desperation that we will see our need for God.  In order to inherit God’s kingdom, you must give up your kingdom.  Are you ready to admit that before God, you are a beggar?  Until we see ourselves as crouching in the corner, begging for God’s blessings, we will remain wrapped up in ourselves and deceived by our own proud accomplishments.

Ken Blanchard once said that EGO stands for “edging God out.”  Ezekiel 28:2 reveals that for some of us, our problem is that we think we are God: “In the pride of your heart you say, ‘I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god.’  But you are a man and not a god, though you think you are as wise as a god.”

2. Depend upon God’s plentiful provision.  

We must see our poverty against His plenty.  The quickest way to become poor in spirit is to look at God.  When we’re in the presence of the One who is perfect, how can we boast about how good we are?  God loves to bring us to the end of ourselves, to expose our deficiency so that we can see His sufficiency.  We must be empty before we can be filled; and unless God fills us, we will forever remain empty.  Henderson writes: “His grace is sufficient for our every frailty (2 Corinthians 12:9); His wisdom adequate for our every perplexity (James 1:5); His peace ample for our every anxiety (Philippians 4:6-7); His forgiveness equal to every iniquity (1 John 1:9).  God is enough.”

Two Promises

This Beatitude comes with two promises.  First, we will be blessed, or approved by God when we become poor in spirit.  God is waiting to applaud those that admit their emptiness.  I guess that means I have to confess my Packer pride.  Actually, it means that I must confess all my pride.  And so must you.

Second, the kingdom of heaven is ours.  I want you to notice that both the first and last Beatitude are in the present tense: “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  When we declare spiritual bankruptcy and depend on the provision of God’s Son, He gives heaven to us as a gift.  And we can experience a full and abundant life right now, with the assurance that we will spend eternity with Him when we die.

Are you ready to admit your sinfulness and accept Jesus as your substitute right now?  If so, please pray this prayer from your heart.

“Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life.  I admit that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself.  Please empty me of my arrogance.  I repent of my sins by changing my mind about the way I’ve been living.  By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation.  Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth.  With all my heart I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day.  Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life.  I believe your words are true.  I accept you into my heart.   Be my Savior and Lord.  I surrender to your leadership in my life.  Make me into the person you want me to be.  Amen.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?