by Jeremiah Burroughs
Blessed are the poor in spirit, - Matthew 5:3
Several things have been said as a preface to this excellent Sermon of Christ. The main goal of the Sermon is to reveal where true blessedness lies, something that the world misunderstands greatly. The world believes that things opposite to true blessedness are what makes one happy. But, as Christ declares, blessedness is in the enjoyment of the ultimate end and chief good that the rational creature can possess. This is peculiar to the rational creature. And so, we have Christ’s proclamation: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
However, some people have poor and base spirits and are far from blessedness. For example, those whose aims and goals in life are only focused on money and base and unworthy things are poor-spirited. Such people do not strive for higher things like God, Christ, Heaven, Eternity, the Gospel, and the Word, for they see them as just notions. But give them money, food, and drink, and they are content. This kind of person has a poor and sordid spirit. In contrast, the spirits of the saints are high and elevated, and although they may view themselves as unworthy of a crumb of bread, they see Heaven and Earth as insufficient to be their portion.
Moreover, a poor-spirited person is one who, when he sets out to do an excellent work, is easily discouraged by even the smallest difficulty.
The first type of poor-spirited individuals are those who do not have any great or excellent goals in mind. They do not aim for anything of value, and are content with mere materialistic pleasures such as food, drink, and other indulgences. They have no interest in God, Christ, Heaven, Eternity, the Gospel, or the Word; these are mere notions to them. They only find happiness in money and base things, which shows how their spirits are low and sordid. True believers, on the other hand, have elevated spirits; they consider themselves unworthy of even a crumb of bread, but they view Heaven and Earth as insufficient to be their portion.
The second type of poor-spirited individuals are those who begin to work on something that has value or excellence, but they are easily discouraged as soon as they encounter any difficulty. Every little obstacle or setback causes them to lose heart and abandon their efforts. This kind of person is base and poor-spirited. They may be hindered by foreseen difficulties or be discouraged by any opposition, even if it is just a mere fanciful thought. Some people who begin to pursue religion may be discouraged by mockery or scorn, while others who take up public responsibilities for the church or the state may be dissuaded by obstacles or challenges.
Finally, there are those who are selfish and narrow-spirited, caring only for their own well-being and not paying any attention to the welfare of the public. They are not concerned with the greater good and only focus on themselves. Such people are also poor and base-spirited, falling short of the height and excellence of spirit that even many Heathens have attained.
And finally, there are those who are easily led astray by every temptation that comes their way. Every little temptation can lead them to their own destruction like fools. Even if they are convinced in their conscience that they should not do certain things, they cannot resist temptation. If their companions call them to an alehouse or tavern, they cannot resist it. This is a sign of a base and poor-spirited man who lacks natural excellence of spirit. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence among those who think highly of themselves. They are men of poor and mean spirits. The poverty of spirit that exists in many people is a curse of God upon them. When such men are in positions of power, they hinder good and do mischief. It is a terrible curse when those who lack excellence of spirit sit in positions of power, whether in kingdoms or countries. We should pray that those in power have spirits that are suitable to their positions, not men of sordid and low spirits. These are not the poor in spirit who are blessed.
So who are the poor in spirit who are blessed? In my previous sermon, I showed you three or four examples of poor-spirited men who are not blessed. But now let us move on to what is of greater concern and closer to the words. The poverty of the Saints, even godly men, is that they are spiritually poor. Even if they have grace within them, they are still aware of their spiritual poverty. This is what it means to be poor in spirit, to apprehend and be aware of one's spiritual poverty, along with the other things mentioned earlier. Even if God has given them grace, there is still a great deal of poverty in them.
In the first place, the grace you have received needs continual supply. No Christian can survive on the grace they have received without new supply. You cannot live off the stock of grace given to you, unlike Adam who could act by it. God will not trust you with the stock of grace, but instead it is in the hand of Christ. This is the state of even the strongest godly person in the world. They must go daily and continually to Christ for new supply, or they cannot exist.
The poor condition in which we find ourselves now compared to Adam's state can be described using the following analogy: Imagine a man who starts a business with a stock of money and is successful for a time, but then becomes an irresponsible manager and loses everything, even going into debt. His father takes pity on him and sets him up again, but no longer trusts him with the stock. Instead, he entrusts the money to a trustworthy friend who gives the son a daily allowance and makes him report back every day. This is our current condition. In Adam, we received a stock of grace, and God enabled us to live for him, but mankind fell and we lost that stock. Now, the Lord has chosen us to live a life of godliness, but he will not trust us with the stock of grace. Instead, the stock of God's grace is in Christ, and we must have a daily supply from him. This is the spiritual poverty even of the Saints.
Secondly, the poverty of the Saints lies in the fact that their graces are often small. Though God has bestowed grace upon them, it is often so small that they can barely discern whether they have any at all. It's a poor condition to be in, as you are a very poor creature when you cannot tell whether you have grace or not. You may examine your heart for a long time before you see even a small spark of grace. In fact, your grace is often like a tiny spark hidden in a pile of embers, which takes a long time to find.
Thirdly, even the godly are always in need and often complain. It's similar to someone who is always in want and always complaining. All godly people are always needy, and although they have reasons to be thankful, they still have cause to complain about themselves, making them poor.
Fourthly, the services they perform are also very poor. When they consider their duties and services, they often see how unworthy they are to be offered to the infinite and glorious God. They are ashamed of their best services, as they are so poor and unbefitting to offer to such a God. They are poor in their services and duties.
Fifthly, even at their best, the godly are very weak and poor. In fact, there is always such a mixture of good and evil in what they do that their services deserve to be rejected. The graces and duties they perform are so mingled with corruption and sin that, were it not for the covenant of grace, the righteousness of Christ, and his merits, the Lord would surely cast all their efforts back in their faces as filth and dung.
Sixthly, the saints are poor in spirit because they are easily overcome or unsettled by even the smallest of temptations. Although they do not have such poor spirits as those previously mentioned, who are easily led astray by every evil temptation, they are still poor in spirit. How often has it happened that after enjoying some comfortable communion with God, a little thing like an issue in the family immediately puts them out of frame again? What a poor spirit this is! Even the saints are very poor because they are quickly unsettled by small temptations and easily put out of frame.
Seventhly, Poore they are farther; For they have but little ability to helpe others; There are very few Godly people have ability to do any more but even to keepe life and soule together, (as we use to say) it’s even as much as ever they can do to live and to hold their own, to maintaine their peace with God; But to be able to be usefull to others among whom they live, that very few are. What a deale of doe have many Godly people to live themselves, to maintaine what once they have had, they are ever and anon afraid that they shall one day even perish: As poore people that have even but from hand to mouth, they thinke, why though I can get bread now, yet I know not where I shall have it to morrow, or next week: surely we shall come to beggery one day; Godly people live at such a poore rate for the most part, as they are little usefull unto others, and have much a doe to provide for themselves. Now here you see the poverty of Spirit,—First, what our spirituall poverty is naturally, that hath been opened the last time: And now even what the spirituall poverty of the Saints is.——
But you will say, This doth not make them blessed that they are thus poore; this is part of their misery.——
That’s true; It’s part of their misery that they are poore: But yet blessed are they that are throughly apprehensive and sencible of this spirituall poverty of theirs, that come to know this their poverty, and come to be throughly affected with this their poverty, they are blessed: There be few in the world who come to understand what their poverty is; where’s the man or woman that knows the poverty that we are In by nature? And then for poverty in respect of weaknesse of Grace or otherwise, this is taken little notice of: But now blessed are they that doe apprehend this, and are sencible of it: Therefore that you may understand who the blessed one is that Christ speakes of, we must now turne our thoughts to Consider of the behaviour of the soule; or the workings of the heart in the sight and in the sence of this spiritual poverty, which makes him to be thus blessed. Now for that there are many particulars which I shall goe over briefly.
As in the first place, a man that is poor in spirit truly, so as to be blessed, is such a one as looks upon himself as vile and mean. Whatever outward excellency he has, yet he is a vile and mean wretched creature in himself in respect of this poverty of his. God has given him indeed an estate above his brethren to live comfortably in the world, but what is he in respect of his spiritual state? He that is richer and has more comings-in than others: how many poor servants of God that live in a mean condition outwardly do honor God more in one day than he does in a month, or it may be in a year? God has more service from them in a month perhaps than he has from him in a year or seven years. He looks upon himself as mean and vile, notwithstanding any outward excellency. Whatever parts of nature he has, yet he looks upon himself as mean in comparison to others. This is an excellent thing indeed, for a man that has excellent parts and yet sees another to have more grace. Perhaps there's some poor man or woman that has more humility and more faith, more sweetness and more savoriness in their conversation, more holiness and more heavenly mindedness. He looks upon himself as meaner and lower than they. Here's a man poor in spirit that is pronounced blessed. Some men are proud of their vices, but the poor in spirit is humble at the sight of his graces. Carnal hearts are puffed up with that which should make them ashamed, but a gracious heart sees enough in his graces to make him humble, in his love, knowledge, faith. In that which is his best parts, he sees enough to make him humble, and blessed are such poor.
Secondly, the poverty of the saints consists in this: the graces that they have are but small. Godly men and women, though they have grace bestowed upon them, yet for the most part, it is so small as they can scarcely know whether they have grace or not. Now that's a poor condition. You are a very poor creature, for though you have grace, yet it is so little that you cannot tell whether you have any or not. Though God has given you grace, yet how often are you at a stand in your thoughts about your grace, whether there be any or none in your heart? Your grace is like a little spark wrapped up in a heap of embers, so that the maid is raking a good while before she can see it. Oh, how long are you raking many times in your heart, in the examination of your heart, before you can see one spark of grace, so as you can say, "This is a spark of true grace." Surely you are poor then.
Secondly, someone who is poor in spirit does not consider it a big deal if they do not receive the same respect and honour as others. Even if God's providence ordains that others receive respect, honour, and many encouragements in the world, they do not envy or become troubled by it. They have no reason to expect the same encouragements as others, for they are aware of their own poverty. Just as poor people, whose hearts are subdued by their poverty, accept that others may live lavishly while they cannot, those who are poor in spirit accept that they may not receive the same worldly recognition as others.
Thirdly, someone who is poor in spirit admires even the smallest good they receive and is grateful for it. They marvel at every affliction, thinking it could have been worse, and are thankful for every mercy, thinking it is great. They are the opposite of the world in this regard. The world is troubled by their afflictions being so great and their mercies being so few, but someone who is poor in spirit wonders that their mercies are so abundant and that their afflictions are so mild. They are thankful for every little blessing, and when afflictions come, they do not murmur or complain. Instead, they are amazed that God's hand is so gentle with them. In the same way that poor people, whose spirits are subdued by their poverty, are grateful for even a small amount of help, those who are poor in spirit are grateful for every mercy and do not complain about afflictions.
Fourthly, a person who is poor in spirit is often in a state of neediness and thus is someone who prays and begs for alms. Truly poor in spirit people are always great praying Christians, and God always hears from them. In Proverbs 18:23, it says "The poor useth Intreaties;" and in Proverbs 10:14. Those who can live without prayer, and can go day after day without seeking God in prayer, God hears little from them; they have grown rich and high. They are like the wantons of our age that scorn duty and think that they are so rich, and have so much comfort, assurance and grace, that they have no need as others do. However, when they are so flush and high, blessed are the poor, those that are needy, and see themselves as such, and who are begging at the Throne of Grace. Those who God hears much from at his Throne of Grace are the blessed ones.
Fifthly, the poor are the admirers of Free Grace and the great extollers of Free Grace. Whatever they have, they look upon it as Free Grace, and they overlook themselves and their duties when they have done them. They are just as diligent in their duties as anyone else, but when they have done them, they overlook them. They do not depend on anything but Free Grace, and it is only Free Grace that they admire. They are truly the honourers of Free Grace.
And in the sixth place, the one who is poor in spirit behaves in this manner: he is emptied of himself. Whatever he has in himself or whatever he does, he does not dare to rely on it for his spiritual and eternal good. Rather, he is delivered as it were from himself, looking upon himself as utterly undone in respect of what he is, what he possesses, or what he can do. He is one who is emptied of himself and of every creature and is in a state of preparation to trust only in the grace that is outside of himself, in the grace of God that is offered in the Gospel. He does not dare to lay the weight of his eternal destiny on anything that is in himself or comes from himself, but solely on the grace of God revealed in Christ in the Gospel. This is the one who is poor in spirit and blessed. He is one who commits himself to God and trusts in Him. The poor do this. As it is written in Psalm 10:14, "But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless." He is emptied of himself and commits himself to God. He commits his soul to Him and all his ways. He does not trust his own wisdom for the guidance of his affairs, especially in matters that concern his eternal well-being.
And in Zephaniah 3:12, the scripture says that the Lord would leave in the midst of them an afflicted and a poor people, and they should trust in the name of the Lord. It is the poor who commit themselves to God and trust in the name of the Lord. Now blessed are these poor, that is, such poor as from a sight of their own emptiness, vileness, wickedness, and inability to help themselves, shall give up themselves to the grace of God revealed in the Gospel, and commit themselves and all their ways to be guided by God, and are willing to live upon alms for their present and eternal estate. It is in the nature of man ever to be seeking to have some righteousness of his own, and that’s the reason that men can have no comfort. Those that have their consciences awakened can have no comfort till they are able to do this and that, and be able to perform duties after such a manner, and overcome corruptions thus and thus.
Thou wilt not come as it were a mere beggar to God, as one that has nothing, but thou wouldest fain bring something to God. But the Lord will have thee come as a mere beggar, as one that has nothing at all, and to lie down flat before him, stripped of all, even of thy rags. For you know many poor people, they are proud of their very rags. And so it is with the hearts of men, though they have nothing but their civil righteousness, yet that they will be proud of. Now the Lord will strip thee of all and make thee come naked before him and be willing to live upon alms for eternity. Now it’s hard for a man to live upon alms for a little time, but to live upon alms all the days of one’s life is harder. But now to live upon alms for eternity, and yet this poor spirit is such an one, as is so sensible of his own poverty, as can commit itself to God in such a way, as to be content to live upon alms, even for eternity; and blessed are these poor.
Seventhly, a person who is poor in spirit is willing to let God choose their condition. We often say that beggars cannot be choosers, but I am speaking here of someone whose spirit is in line with their spiritual poverty. If you are truly poor in spirit, do not think that you can be a chooser. You cannot choose what your comforts or abilities will be, what your worth will be, what wages you will receive, or when or how God will come to you. You must leave all of that to God. The only thing you must do is look to God for mercy. "Oh Lord, have mercy on me," you may say, but how, when, to what degree, and in what measure - that is all left to God. Many people reveal that they are not poor in spirit by their behavior when seeking mercy from God. If they do not receive the comfort they desire, their spirits become petulant even with God. But a person who is truly poor in spirit lies prostrate before the Lord, willing to let God do whatever He wants with them. "Here I am," they say, "let God do with me whatever He will. I am completely at His mercy, and I do not expect to have any say in what I desire."
Eighthly, those who are truly poor in spirit look upon others whom God has blessed with eminence of grace and bless them in their souls. They regard their condition as elevated, saying, "Oh, such and such people excel in grace; how happy is their condition," says a poor-spirited man or woman. Just as poor people, when they come across those who have great houses and income, consider them as happy people. Similarly, those who are poor in spirit, when they see others who have eminence of grace, regard them as those who have indeed attained excellence. They do not consider the rich and honorable in the world as the most excellent, but those who have the greatest eminence of grace, they look upon them and bless them. They think, "Oh, how happy it would be if I could walk with God as such people do, if I could overcome my corruptions as they do, if I could prize and profit by the Word as they do; how happy would I consider myself to be." This is truly good poverty of spirit.
Ninthly, further still, blessed are the poor: the poor in spirit are those who are willing to wait. Even if God does not come according to their desires, they are content to wait upon Him. God shall choose what they will be given, and they are willing to wait. This is illustrated in Zechariah 11:11: "So it was broken on that day, and thus the poor of the flock, who were watching me, knew that it was the word of the Lord." Men of means and rich men, when they come to a door for business, if they cannot have what they desire immediately, they will leave and not wait. Why? Because they are rich and, in a sense, proud in accordance with their wealth. But one who is poor and comes to ask for alms is content to wait, especially if there is no other door for them to go to at that time. If they think they might be able to receive alms at another door, they will not wait. However, if they come for an alms and must have it here or nowhere, they are content to wait. Similarly, those who are truly poor in spirit are content to wait at the gates of God, knowing that there is no other door at which they can receive their alms. If you have been seeking God for a month, or even longer, half a year or a year, and still cannot find Him, if you can receive mercy at last, your condition is happy. This is what a poor-spirited creature will say and be content to wait all the days of their life.
Tenthly, One who is poor in spirit has an awe-inspiring reverence for God and His word. This is expressed in Isaiah 66:2, which reads, "To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word." The contrite and the poor are mentioned together, and they both tremble at the word of God. When they hear it preached, they recognize the tremendous authority it holds and view it as something that is above them. They are afraid that they might not give it the respect it deserves, and when a promise is revealed, they tremble for fear that they might not belong to God. They see the divine radiance in the word, which causes their hearts to fear and tremble before the Lord. This is the mark of a poor-spirited person. It is the opposite of the boldness of spirit that is found in many people who think they have something to rely on. On the other hand, one who is poor in spirit recognizes that there is nothing in themselves that can withstand anything that is in the word of God. Therefore, it is the word that must prevail, regardless of their present or eternal estate. For this reason, they give an awe-inspiring reverence to the word when they hear it.
Eleventhly, One who is poor in spirit is also someone who has a heart that easily melts at the word of God. Even a small thing in God's word can strike him and cause his heart to melt. Just as you can see men and women who are truly poor indeed (not your typical vagrants and rogues who make themselves so through idleness), if you speak to them, you will find a melting spirit in them. Almost anything you say can make their hearts melt within them. Likewise, someone who is poor in spirit has a melting spirit at the word of God. A little thing from God works on him, and he does not resist the word as others do. He does not have a heart to give the word a rebound as others have, but when the word comes, there is a yielding of spirit to the word.
Now, all these qualities put together that have been named will plainly demonstrate who that man or woman is that is pronounced blessed here by our Saviour Christ. If you were to ask and demand why God has such respect and regard for those who are poor in spirit, just a word or two will suffice.
The main reason why the Lord has such regard for those who are poor in spirit is that this disposition serves God's ultimate purpose of glorifying himself in the world, particularly through the exaltation of his free grace. God desires to receive glory from humans, but not just any kind of glory. He wants the glory that comes from the magnification of his free grace in his Son, which is the kind of glory that pleases him the most. Though God also values the glory of his power, wisdom, bounty, and patience, this glory does not compare to the glory of his free grace. Out of all dispositions in the world, poverty of spirit best serves God's end and purpose, which is why God accepts and values it so greatly.
Secondly, such a disposition makes the soul conformable even to Jesus Christ. We know that Christ was willing to be poor, and the Scripture tells us that Christ emptied himself; he was willing to lay aside the glory that he had and come as a servant. Now, when Christ sees a spirit that has a conformity to his, he looks upon it and says, "Here's one that is conformable to my spirit. I was willing to be poor, and so is this person. I was willing to empty myself and be anything for the furtherance of the glory of my Father, and so is this poor creature that is willing to give up everything for the glory of my Father and me. Oh, blessed are these poor!" But how few of these people can we find in the world? Ordinarily, we find that people's spirits are jolly, high, proud, stately, surly, stiff, stubborn, rebellious, and bold in the ways of wickedness. This is the juice of people's spirits; they scorn this kind of poverty of spirit. Their hearts are up, and they stand upon themselves, stiff in their own way. It's true in Isaiah 66 that the Lord who dwells on high in heaven looks upon the poor and the contrite. He looks upon them, but where shall God have objects to behold? How few such objects are there in the world? Cursed are the proud, cursed are the haughty in spirit, the stubborn, and the stout-hearted:
The Scriptures speak most dreadful things against those with haughty and proud spirits, but we are not here to speak to them. Instead, I am eager to share the comfort Christ offers to those who are poor in spirit. Therefore, I want to focus on what Christ means when he says that they are blessed. There are many things that could be said about the opening of their blessedness, but for now, I will apply only one Scripture to those who are poor in spirit. Those who are in the presence of God today and can feel the workings of the Spirit within them, even in their weakness, I will give you one text to uplift your spirits until tomorrow when we will discuss what Christ said about you, that yours is the kingdom of Heaven. The text is from Luke 4:18, where Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then Jesus closed the book.
This passage means that God the Father has anointed Jesus Christ, His Son, to come into the world to preach the Gospel to the poor in spirit. As if God was saying to Jesus, "Son, I have many poor servants in the world who are poor in spirit and know their own wretchedness and poverty. Now I appoint and anoint you to go and preach the good news of salvation to them. Comfort them, speak peace to them, pour oil into their wounds, and refresh them. I see that they are discouraged, but you must encourage them. I appoint you to this." This one Scripture is worth more than a thousand worlds to someone who is truly poor in spirit. What does a person who is poor in spirit say? Does God regard me? Yes, God has such a regard for you that He has appointed His Son to take care of you, to comfort you, and to help you. Christ would be unfaithful in his work if he didn't preach comfort to you. This is the care God has for the poor, even though He appears to slight, neglect, contemn, and scorn the rich of the world. He sends the rich away empty, but for those who are poor in spirit, He has given Christ a charge over them. The promise that Christ must come into the world to preach good news to you is abundant mercy. In effect, the very purpose of the Gospel is to preach good news to the poor. We will show that this is a special thing meant by "theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Not only will they go to heaven when they die, but the kingdom of heaven also means the ministry of the Gospel. That is one special thing intended here: the riches of the Gospel, the state of the Gospel, the doctrine of the Gospel, all the good of the Gospel belongs to those who are poor in spirit.
Lectures on the Beatitudes by Jeremiah Burroughs