Ten Things I Wish Jesus Never Said
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by Victor Kuligin
Description: With honesty and humility, this book examines ten of Christ's difficult sayings and offers practical advice for following Christ. Blended into each chapter are personal anecdotes, a healthy quantity of biblical support, and reflections from historical figures.
eBook Publisher: Crossway Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [459 KB]
Reading time: 289-405 min.
1 THE ART OF
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. J E S U S C H R I S T, M A T T H E W 5 : 3
I bewail that my apprehensions are so dull, my thoughts so mean, my affections so stupid, and my expressions so low and unbecoming such a glory. R I C H A R D B A X T E R ( 1 6 1 5--1 6 9 1 ),
T H E S A I N T S' E V E R L A S T I N G R E S T
To comfort a sorrowful conscience is much better than to possess many kingdoms. M A R T I N L U T H E R ( 1 4 8 3--1 5 4 6 ), T A B L E T A L K
When I was growing up, one of my mother's favorite adages was, "Nobody likes a party pooper." She insisted that we always remain upbeat and positive, something I admire about her to this day.
She also taught us to be self-confident. I can recall her telling me many times that it is not the people who are talented who succeed as much as it is the self-confident. My mother endeavored to instill in her children a healthy self-image.
As I became an adult and began to study God's Word and particularly the teaching of Jesus, I began to question how right my mother was. There is next to nothing in all the Scriptures about having a healthy self-ego, or thinking highly of yourself, or striving for self confidence or self-esteem. In fact, whenever we find Scripture investigating the nature of man, it is almost always negative.
Thus I had these two contrary pictures to balance, the one of my mother's that taught me to grow in self-confidence and the biblical picture that taught me to think lowly of myself. Which one was correct?
If I were to consult the manuals on living produced by the world, clearly my mother had it right. A casual survey of the books sold in a typical bookstore will uncover all the selfbooks: self-esteem, self-help, self-actualization, self-confidence, self-awareness. Our culture is obsessed with self. We do more navel watching than a rear admiral. We are expected to be in love with ourselves, and if we are not, the world tells us something is drastically wrong with us.
Enter Jesus Christ. He opens his most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount, with these words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit," the first of the so-called Beatitudes. Does Jesus mean, "Blessed are the party poopers"? There is a paradox at play here if one understands blessedas happy.In other words, what Jesus is saying is, "happy are the unhappy." Jesus uses language that causes us to ponder his words. It was difficult to hear Jesus speak and not walk away scratching your head. People truly committed to following him were forced to think. Those not committed errantly thought his teachings at best mildly odd, at the worst offensive and heretical.
[Footnote 1: Blessedactually involves more than simple happiness. Biblical blessedness is normally indicative of how God views a person; in this sense it also has the connotation of God's approval.]
[Footnote 2: Jesus's teachings often relied on what Leland Ryken calls "delayed action insight" (The Word of God in English, Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2002). "Those who ponder Jesus' sayings will come to an understanding of them, whereas people who are unwilling to penetrate beneath the surface will not" (68; also 239, 285).]
I have to admit that I prefer the world's view to that of Christ. I do not like party poopers either. I prefer spending my time with lighthearted and jocular types, not depressing, sober, serious ones. It is the first thing I find unbearable about Jesus. Must his disciples really be poor in spirit? And what, precisely, does that mean?
JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE
The more you walk with Christ, the more you should become aware of your fallenness, with an ever-increasing awareness of your sins. This is the universal experience of the great saints of Christendom. They do not find themselves at the end of their lives touting their own sanctification, patting themselves on the back, and proclaiming how holy they are. Rather, they are broken, contrite people who have wept bitterly over their fallen state and continue to do so. Those who are poor in spirit mourn over their sinfulness.
The closer you are to the perfect Son of God, the more you come to realize how far short you fall of that perfection. The nearer you approach the Light, the more your imperfections are exposed. Consider a porcelain vase. From a distance it appears smooth and blemishless, but the closer you come to inspect it, the more the imperfections appear.
A good man always finds enough over which to mourn and weep ... the closer he examines himself the more he grieves.
Thomas ŗ Kempis (1380-1471), The Imitation of Christ.
King David asked God not only to keep him from willful sins, but also to expose his hidden faults (Ps. 19:12). Only the self-righteous believe themselves to be spiritually healthy. Show me a genuine believer who has walked with Christ for fifty years, and I'll show you a person deeply aware of his spiritual poverty and his need for constant grace.
A holy realization of our sinfulness is the prerequisite for a healthy relationship with God, but it does not simply exist at our moment of conversion and end there. This holy realization continually grows. The farther we walk down the path with Christ, the more aware we become of how short we fall. That process made Martin Luther consistently refer to himself as "a stinking sinner." This was his cry to his dying day, so much so that many people thought he was demon-possessed, because he mourned so often over his sinfulness.
BLESSED ARE THE CRYING?
Following the first Beatitude is the second, which echoes this sentiment: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matt. 5:4). The question rightly may be asked, "Does God want me to be happy?" Yes, but for the right reasons. If you believe you will find happiness in a bigger home and a fancier car, you are sorely mistaken. In fact, is this not the point Jesus intends to make later in the Sermon on the Mount when he commands his disciples to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matt. 6:33)? Is it not the pagans who make earthly matters their primary concern?
This second Beatitude is as shocking as the first. Normally when we see people mourn, we feel sorry for them and hope that their situation will change or improve. But Jesus tells us the state of mourning is actually the state of blessedness, and we can understand that those who do not mourn are those who are not blessed. The standards of the world are turned on their heads.
Thirteenth-century German theologian and scientist Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), whose most famous pupil was Thomas Aquinas, beautifully stated this picture of mourning in his work On Cleaving to God:
We should not desire any pleasure of this present, mortal and physical life but rather to mourn, bewail and lament our offences, faults and sins without ceasing, and to perfectly despise and annihilate ourselves, and from day to day to be considered more and more abject by others, while in all our insignificance we become worthless even in our own eyes, so that we can be pleasing to God alone, love him alone, and cleave to him alone.
Attempting to preach such a message today would be looked upon with great suspicion in many of our churches, but this is precisely what Jesus means when he claims that those who mourn are those who are blessed. There can be no true godly joy without mourning over our sinfulness. There can be no true godly contentment without a realization of our unworthiness. There can be no true godly prosperity without hardship. Unfortunately, many in our churches today want joy, contentment, and prosperity in every materialsense of those words.
IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME
Most Christians think studying the original Greek of the New Testament is only for eggheads and academics. That is an unfortunate impression, because looking into the Greek can be enlightening. Often looking at the original Greek can provide us with valuable insight into the reason the author or speaker chose a specific word to convey his meaning. This is particularly true with the command of Jesus to be poor in spirit.
The Greek word translated pooris ptÝchos. Literally, it means "one who crouches and cowers," but it can also have a metaphorical sense, which is the case in our present passage. Pictured is a poor beggar low to the ground looking for a handout--in this instance a spiritual handout.
[Footnote 3: Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), 56, 476.]
Paul uses the same Greek word when he is speaking of the theology of the Judaizers in his Epistle to the Galatians. There Paul is unhappy with Galatian believers who are falling for the lie of the Judaizers that converts must first conform to the Old Testament law before they can become genuine Christians. Paul refers to their teaching as "weak and miserable" (Gal. 4:9), the same Greek word ptÝchos.The teaching of the Judaizers is low and beggarly and cannot stand on its own.
The glorified Christ uses the word in a metaphorical sense when he speaks to the church in Laodicea. "You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked" (Rev. 3:17). The chastisement the Lord has for the Laodicean believers should sober this present generation, especially those who believe blessedness from God is embodied in material and physical comforts. Of course, any blessings may rightly be said to come from God, but it is when we believe that material blessing forms the heart of God's approval that we quickly fall from grace. Often we cite the approval of God as a guise under which we seek material blessing.
"Happy are those who are unhappy." That is the paradox embodied in the first two Beatitudes. Jesus proclaims a truth alien to our present world: Poverty is blessedness. We should not be surprised that such a proclamation is received with looks of doubt and suspicion. The world would prefer an adage like "blessed are the strong," or "blessed are the rich." This also has been the case throughout the church's history.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
This call to spiritual poverty was shocking to many in the Middle Ages, and seemingly only the very pious committed themselves to it. When Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1228) founded his monastic movement of poverty known as the Franciscans, many within Catholicism--particularly those in the higher echelons of church leadership--thought he was fanatical. The notion that spiritual and physical poverty must be combined was anathema to many elite Christians of his day.
Sixteenth-century Catholic humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (14691536) told the story of the apostle Peter trying to get into heaven. Unfortunately for him, the pope would not allow him in because Peter was too poor. Satirically, Erasmus noted how far the popes had traveled from the founding pope. According to them, true Christianity was to be found in wealth and privilege, false Christianity in meagerness and poverty. As Erasmus said in his famous treatise, In Praise of Folly, "You'll meet with some so preposterously religious that they will sooner endure the broadest scoffs even against Christ himself than hear the Pope or a prince be touched in the least, especially if it be anything that concerns their profit."
[Footnote 4: Erasmus of Rotterdam, In Praise of Folly,in Christian Classics Ethereal Library, compiled by Calvin College, www.ccel.org/. All references from this source are in the public domain.]
Today we face a similar ethos with the rise of health-and-wealth Christianity throughout the world. These adherents tell us God wants us to be happy. As it is self-evident that happiness is directly tied to our physical and material well-being, they claim God must desire for us health and financial security. They conclude that if our personal experience falls short of such ideals, we are to blame for our lack of faith and trust in God.
Often this view results in what I call "spiritual blackmail." Young Christians are told that if they do not bring money to the church, normally understood as a tithe but often referred to as "seed money," they will not be financially blessed by God. Conversely, if they do lay their tithe before the altar, God will give multifold blessings.
While working as a missionary in Namibia, southwestern Africa, I serve as a pastor of a small church in the capital city of Windhoek. After several years of meeting in a high school auditorium, we began to build a church on the outskirts of the city. For two years we raised enough money to complete the building up to the roof.
On an Easter Sunday we decided we would begin to worship in our new building even though the roof was not complete. We hoped that sitting in a church without a roof would spur our members to give enough to complete it quickly. Two Easters later, we still did not have a completed roof. Mercifully, God never allowed it to rain on a Sunday morning or during any other church meetings. A gift bequeathed to us by a faithful member who died provided us with enough funds to finish the roof shortly thereafter. It was over four years from the time we broke ground until the time we had a church building with a roof. Of course, there were still plastering, flooring, painting, and other matters to do, which we are still completing.
During this time, another church purchased a plot of prime real estate in downtown Windhoek, on the main street running through the capital. In less than a year they constructed a church building five times the size of our church, a magnificent structure that could seat nearly 1,000 people. This church came to Namibia roughly around the same time our church started.
Which church is blessed by God? If you were told nothing other than these details, which church would you say God favored?
Our small church believes the Bible to be God's inerrant Word and a sure authority for our lives. We preach the gospel in its fullness, the need for repentance and faith in the atoning work of Jesus, and the salvific work of Christ as the only Mediator and Savior. The other church teaches its members that God wants them to be happy and healthy, financially comfortable and physically whole. They believe a glass of water blessed each morning by their pastor and drunk by the parishioners will protect them throughout the day, and that God demands their faith be expressed in the bringing of their tithes each week. Much like a slot machine, the proper number of coins placed on the altar will ensure them a healthy return from God.
I hope the church I attend is honoring God, but I am fairly certain that the other church is not. However, someone outside the faith would conclude that our church was not blessed by God in comparison to the other, and I would venture to say a fair number of Christians would think similarly.
Many people did not think the apostle Paul to be blessed by God either. Listen to how he described what he had endured, and consider whether this is the experience of someone we normally consider to be blessed by God:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. (2 Cor. 11:23b-27)
I wonder how many Christians today would consider such an experience as God's blessing. We have a tendency to attribute all the bad, nasty things that happen to us to Satan, while all the good things come from God. The latter is not all wrong, of course, but the former is not all right either. Certainly, Satan's attacks are real, but so are the trials and tribulations sent our way by God. All we need do is consider the lives of Job and Jesus to recognize this.
The simple truth is, once we lose any idea of physical poverty in Christ, we begin to lose the concept of spiritual poverty as well. This truth was told in the straightforward teaching of Jesus concerning a rich man. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24). There is good reason why all three synoptic authors recorded this teaching, just as there is good reason why Jesus spoke so often about issues of money in general. The temptation toward material comfort is shockingly strong, and the presence of excess in this area can be a quick stumbling block for one's faith. As the apostle Paul wrote, "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10).
I think the monks had it right, at least to a certain extent. There is a bond between the body and the soul, the physical and the spiritual. Man is made of two primary components, the material and the immaterial. It is impossible to separate the two, and in attempting to do so, you are left not with a human being but a disembodied soul or a soulless body. It was the heresy of Gnosticism that treated the body as a commodity separate from the soul, and it is the common failing of similar belief systems today to mistreat the disease of sin, when they find it only in one component of man. The monks recognized a connection between body and soul, and considered discipline of one necessarily to affect the discipline of the other.
To be sure, we need not go to the extremes of rabid asceticism often found in the movement of the monks (with self-flagellations, forced fasting, and deprivations of comforts even as extreme as loss of sleep and water). I do not think spiritual poverty is necessarily hindered by a comfortable bed and nice-fitting clothes. The monks did what sinful man often does by taking a good thing and in their excesses making it evil.
However, just because the monks erred in their excesses does not mean they did not hit the mark in regard to original intent. I would like to consider the spiritual discipline of fasting as an example, and in so doing, we will begin to see how a person can become poor in spirit.
WHAT'S FOOD GOT TO DO WITH IT?
When was the last time you heard a sermon about fasting? Now compare that to how often you have heard lessons on prayer or received encouragements to read your Bible daily. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that is all but lost in churches today. Certainly, there are some people who practice it, but most Christians look at it as something strange and foreign.
In Jesus's day, the opposite was true. Fasting was so common that the Pharisee in the temple could speak of doing it twice a week (Luke 18:12). When Jesus gave commands about it in the Sermon on the Mount, he did not state "if you fast," but "whenyou fast" (Matt. 6:16). It was a familiar spiritual discipline during his day, and he expected his disciples to practice it.
Not so today in our society of satisfaction and plenty. The notion that we should give up something as basic as food is bizarre and strikes us as outlandish. There seems no good reason to do so.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus's commands concerning fasting come with instructions concerning two other spiritual disciplines, prayer and almsgiving. The latter two we are familiar with and admonish our churchgoers to do. So why have we avoided the other one?
A simple study of the Bible on this topic uncovers an amazing list of people who practiced fasting. In the Bible we have at least fifty references to fasting. Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel, Jesus, and the disciples fasted. From church history we have such notable leaders as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley regularly fasting. Just from the biblical and historical data alone, we would not be wise to ignore this topic, but unfortunately we do.
[Footnote 5: Some Christians do not believe anyof the Sermon on the Mount is applicable to us today. They believe it was a) only for the Jewish disciples of Jesus during his ministry years and up to his crucifixion, or b) only for those people living in the future millennial reign of Jesus on earth. In either case, it does not apply now to believers who live between the two advents of Christ. In this way several uncomfortable teachings of Jesus are eliminated, including "judge not or you too will be judged," "love your enemies," and "if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out." This dispensational view of the Sermon on the Mount is wholly unsatisfactory as it also eliminates the Lord's Prayer, the Beatitudes, the commands from Jesus concerning divorce and adultery, and a whole list of other important teachings for those who would choose to follow Christ. It also leaves one wondering what else in the teaching of Jesus does not apply to Christians today.]
One reason could be that some people are theologically unclear on the reason for fasting. One pastor I know preached a series to his church from the Sermon on the Mount and decided to skip the passage on fasting. His reason was that he was not certain himself whether or not we should fast; so he did not feel comfortable speaking to his congregation about it. But did this pastor not communicate to his church that fasting is unimportant by skipping the passage?
Another reason could be because through the centuries of church history, fasting moved from something voluntary to something obligatory. The Jews moved from one mandatory fast each year as prescribed in the Torah, during the Day of Atonement, to the time of Jesus when fasting several times a week was practiced. Similarly, the early church moved from fasting as a voluntary practice to one that was mandatory. Believers were forced to observe weekly fasts, and those who did not fast were viewed as immature, if not sinful.
[Footnote 6: I recognize that a main argument used by those who say we need not fast today is the fact that outside of the Gospels and Acts, we see little on fasting. Whereas prayer and charitable giving are commanded in the New Testament epistles, no such command is found concerning fasting. In fact, the only discussion loosely associated with fasting comes from Paul's condemnation of false teachers who taught that believers must abstain from certain foods (1 Tim. 4:3). This "argument from silence" is perhaps the most powerful argument for those who say fasting is no longer necessary. However, I find little comfort in the argument that because only Jesus expected his disciples to fast--with no clear repetition of this from the later New Testament authors--his disciples need not do it today. Interestingly, we find no command of baptism in the epistles either; yet it is the universal practice of the church to baptize based on the command of Jesus. In the Book of Acts, which is a record of the first thirty years of the history of the early church, we find both baptism and fasting regularly practiced. Jesus expected his disciples to fast, and this should be good enough for us today.]
The Protestant churches reacted against this religious coercion, and rightly so. But they may have reacted too negatively, to the point where today we rarely speak of fasting at all and have lost sight of the importance of this spiritual discipline.
My task now is not to provide a full exposition on the topic of fasting, but rather to use it as an example of how physical poverty can influence spiritual poverty. In addressing this issue, we should be mindful of the two common errors concerning fasting. One is to move to a rigid asceticism with forced times and dates to fast. This approach entirely loses the spirit of the discipline. The second error is to ignore fasting altogether.
[Footnote 7: My favorite book on fasting is God's Chosen Fastby Arthur Wallis (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1968). This book is not a thorough, theological treatment of the topic but a more practical one dealing with the do's and don'ts of fasting.]
Fasting is a spiritual discipline, much like Bible reading. We encourage people to read the Bible every day, but nowhere in the Bible is it actually commanded. Still, we recognize that daily Bible reading is a profitable spiritual exercise; so we encourage people to do so. Of course, if someone misses a day here or there, they lose out, but they have not particularly sinned.
However, if they decide neverto read the Bible, they are sinning. The same may be said about fasting. It is a wise spiritual tool that has been used by countless saints throughout biblical times and the history of the church to draw closer to God. If we do not avail ourselves of this spiritual tool, we are going to lose out on a spiritual blessing.
REASONS TO FAST
There are several reasons people fast, from its humbling, sacrificial nature to the desire to seek the will of God in a particular circumstance, but for our purposes we will look at only one reason: to learn self-discipline and self-control.
Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Christians consistently are commanded in Scripture to be self-disciplined and self-controlled. Paul, for example, wrote that he beat his body until it became his slave (1 Cor. 9:25-27). There is a distinct difference between an animal that can only mechanically act upon its bodily desires and a human being who has the ability to control them.
"Fasting has the power to detach one's mind from the world of sense and to sharpen one's sensibility to the world of spirit." If you can abstain from the strongest of human desires, the body's need for food, then you can control yourself completely. Often Christians fall into sin simply because they do not possess the self-control necessary to resist temptation. As we are told that no believer is tempted beyond what he can endure (1 Cor. 10:13), the simple conclusion is that all willful sin is the result of a lack of self-control and self-discipline on the part of the believer. This seems to be the point of James in his epistle when he speaks of people being "dragged away and enticed" by "[their] own evil desire" (1:13-14).
[Footnote 8: Ibid., 73.]
Fasting is a spiritual discipline that helps a believer learn self-control. If we can train ourselves to forego basic bodily needs such as food and water, will we not also then have the ability to resist other carnal things that tempt our bodies? Clearly, here the monks, ascetics, and mystics had it right. Denying ourselves certain physical or material pleasures can help us discipline ourselves in denying sinful pleasures as well. Of course, we must guard against the mistake of rigid or forced asceticism, but we also must not miss the usefulness of this spiritual discipline by ignoring it.
The comparison between the first Adam and second Adam is striking in this regard. The first Adam in the Garden of Eden could not resist the temptation to eat from the forbidden tree while in the midst of numerous trees from which he could eat. The second Adam, Jesus Christ, after fasting forty days in the wilderness, was able to resist the temptation of Satan to make bread out of stones with no other food available. Jesus had learned to control his physical cravings and desires, and from that discipline came the ability to resist spiritual temptation as well.
From lack of self-control and self-discipline flow all sorts of sins, but when a believer possesses self-control, he is able to withstand much temptation. Fasting helps a believer develop this self-control.
HOW DOES ONE BECOME POOR IN SPIRIT?
At this point the reader may be asking, "Why all this talk about physical poverty and fasting? I thought this chapter had to do with spiritual poverty?"
As we noted earlier, the Greek word translated "poor" is used metaphorically to refer to those people who are "low and beggarly" in spirit. This is not a demeanor that comes naturally for most people; nor is it an attitude that is easily adopted. Believers throughout history have recognized the need to inculcate this attitude into their mind-sets. One way to do this was to submit the body to "physical poverty." In this way, they began to train themselves to develop a poverty of spirit as well. Because a person is made both of material and immaterial components, it was rightly believed that one naturally affects the other. Just as surely as a lack of spiritual discipline can result in physical missteps, so too a presence of physical discipline can work to produce spiritual discipline.
The above discussion concerning fasting, then, addresses the question, "How do I become poor in spirit?" One way is to discipline one's physical appetites and desires.
Another way to develop a spirit of poverty is to make a radical change from the past. Because being poor in spirit recognizes that as sinners we bring nothing to God and that he must create a new creation from us, anything short of a complete break from our past will simply not do.
In his complaints concerning the church and its designs on "cheap grace," twentieth-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized the drastic nature of the call of Jesus on those who would deign to become his disciples. "Costly grace" involves a completely new work, a dramatic break with the past and a move into new life. Peter was not simply allowed to continue tending his nets; nor was Matthew able to maintain the tax-collecting table. Both had to leave the past straightaway. Anything short of this radical break is "cheap grace" according to Bonhoeffer.
[Footnote 9: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. Excerpts found in Spiritual Witness(Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1991), 115-130.]
The apostle Paul has a similar mind-set when he speaks about his life before his conversion to Christ as "rubbish" (Phil. 3:8). Literally, the Greek skubalonmeans "refuse" or "dung," denoting something to be entirely discarded and thrown away. Only someone with poverty of spirit can recognize that his pre-conversion life was worthless. This is why Paul can say, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Cor. 5:17). A "new creation" signifies a completely new work, not the reshaping or reworking of existing material.
[Footnote 10: Vine's Expository Dictionary, 187. The King James Version rightly translated this word with the stronger "dung."]
For Paul, the act of conversion is an act of creation. Earlier in the epistle he uses creation language to signify this change: "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). Just as God had created "in the beginning," so again does he re-create us. Just as in Genesis we see God taking an earth that was "formless and void," so too does he take our formless and void lives and remake us. Just as in the beginning he spoke, "Let there be light," so too he makes light shine in our hearts.
The term "new creation" echoes the words of Jesus when he said, "You must be born again" and, "Flesh produces flesh, but spirit produces spirit" (John 3:7, 6). It is not the taking of old material and just reshaping it. It is the re-creation of something entirely new. Rebirth. Renewal. New creation.
When God pardons, therefore, he does not say he understands our weakness or makes allowances for our errors; rather he disposes of, he finishes with, the whole of our dead life and raises us up with a new one.
[Footnote 11: Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace(Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 9.]
People who lack a spirit of poverty approach God with a certain arrogance about them: "God got someone pretty good when he got me." They do not recognize their complete spiritual destitution and rather think of themselves higher than they ought. Only genuine con versions are accompanied by genuine poverty of spirit. If we cling to this or that part of our past life in our confession of Christ, we are only fooling ourselves. Those are the kinds of disciples Jesus is not interested in.
ABANDONING THE WORLD'S STANDARDS
Another way to develop a spirit of poverty is to work consciously to abandon the world's standards. Nowhere does Scripture call believers to be "successful." Nowhere in the New Testament are the disciples of Jesus promised material blessing. In fact, the opposite is true. Believers are promised persecution, tribulation, and opposition.
What we arepromised is God's constant presence and love. He will never leave us nor forsake us. Nothing can separate us from his love. But in this world, that may very well mean persecution, imprisonment, loss of every material possession we have, and the gravest moments of discouragement and doubt.
I was recently given a book by a friend who asked me to read it and tell her what I thought. The book is written by the pastor of one of the largest churches in America. In virtually every way measurable, this church is a success story. Early in his book the pastor tells about a tour he and his wife took through a newly constructed home. He tells us the home was magnificent and much better than the old, little home they lived in at the time. After leaving the new home, his wife boldly proclaimed that one day they too would live in such a house. The pastor admits he did not have the faith to believe it, despite being a man of God. Later, though, he began to believe it as well, and in subsequent years it came to pass.
This we are told is an example of godly faith, the kind God expects from us. But instead of being godly faith, this attitude is simply worldly desire. "God wants me to have a magnificent home" is an arrogant, selfish statement, not a statement of faith. Unfortunately, this anecdote sets the tone for the book and its message, which serves as an example of the hedonism and narcissism that has quietly crept into evangelical Christianity. There is no sense of sacrifice in such an attitude.
Those who seek and expect material blessing from God have it wrong on two fronts. First, they believe material blessing is a sure sign of God's favor. Certainly, material blessing canbe a sign of God's favor, but it does not automatically signify it. There are many rich, ungodly people in the world today, just as there are many poor, godly people.
This was the mistake made by Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar, the friends of Job. They worked backward, determining that Job's loss of material blessing must point to some moral failing on his part. They were ultimately chastised by God for this unwise counsel. Of course, Jesus stands as the quintessential example of someone who had the complete favor of God upon him, but who gained little material blessing from it.
The second mistake made by those who expect material blessing from God is that eventually it makes material desires the sole aim. Sermons become great motivational endeavors meant to make the listeners feel good about themselves, all in the hope of creating a positive self-image. The argument follows that this "faith" will produce blessings from God. What is lost is any spiritual poverty, replaced by a secular understanding of self-esteem.
[Footnote 12: Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the prosperity gospel is that it is not even overtly Christian. "God loves you and wants you to succeed in life" could be said by any number of people, including a New Ager, pluralist, Scientologist, humanist, or Oprah Winfrey.]
However, this is a wrongheaded view of self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem is not comprised of feeling good about oneself. Rather, it is an honest recognition of one's fallenness and the constant need for mercy and grace. It is the fair, reasonable esteem of oneself that takes into account the understanding that we are spiritually bankrupt.
Prosperity preaching esteems man more highly than we ought, thereby yielding an unhealthy self-esteem. Again, this is where the world's standards and those of Christ come into conflict. The world cannot imagine a healthy self-esteem that is not comprised of feeling good about oneself; conversely, it cannot recognize a healthy self-awareness in one's recognition of fallenness and spiritual bankruptcy. Talk of sin appears self-defeating to the world, but it is precisely one's recognition of sin that sets a person free. Lying to oneself can never be healthy.
The world says, "Show me a person with high self-esteem, and I'll show you someone who will accomplish great things for the world." God says, "Show me a person who does not esteem himself at all, and I'll show you someone who will do great things for me."
Those who preach the gospel of prosperity have forgotten that this is not our home. Believers are "aliens and strangers in the world" (1 Pet. 2:11). Unfortunately, many Christians look to make this temporary life on earth their permanent residence. They have lost sight of the spiritual goal and have replaced it with material ones. Their desire for temporal satisfaction and success has choked out eternal vision. They will gladly trade a mansion in heaven for one in Beverly Hills or Malibu.
It is all too possible to want gifts from the Lord, but not the Lord himself--which seems to imply that the gift is preferable to the Giver.
[Footnote 13: As quoted in The Wisdom of Saint Augustine, comp. David Winter (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), 41.]
Saint Augustine (354-430), Confessions
I must admit, I am incredibly attracted by such things. I desire to be successful in every worldly sense of the word. I want fame. I want wealth. I want all the comforts this world can afford me. The notion that I may not attain such lofty heights depresses me, and I find myself resenting God for it.
When I became a missionary, my father told me it was a bad career move, and he was right. At the time I possessed a degree in engineering and an MBA and was working at a good-paying job with a company car and expense account. When I decided to go to the mission field, I took a 75-percent pay cut. I left the blandishments of a comfortable suburb of Chicago to go to the Dark Continent. Many people thought I was just stupid; and I must admit, that thought often crossed my mind as well. Today I am in my forties, and I do not own any property or home. From the world's point of view, I am a failure. And if material blessings and comforts are any measure of God's favor on my life, I am a failure in the eyes of many Christians as well.
The pull to measure my success based on material considerations is a powerful one. That gravity at times is overwhelming; it tests my faith to the core. But I can say without qualification that if I had five times as much money as I do now, owned a large home and brought in a hefty salary, such things would be immaterial to determining my spiritual success and the favor of God upon my life. The fact is, material blessing and the favor of God are often inversely proportional. Put another way, you simply cannot look at a person's wealth and possessions and automatically conclude that such a person is favored by God.
The great English evangelist John Wesley said that if he died with more than five pounds in his pocket, he would be ashamed to face God. I admit that the more money I have in my pocket, the more secure I feel. If I were living at the time of the Israelite wanderings in the desert, I wonder how long it would have taken me to learn not to collect more manna than one day's worth.
A subtle inference exists that so long as we have material blessings, we are successful in the eyes of God, but if we are plagued by difficulties and adversity, we are not blessed by him. This worldly point of view, however, is turned upside down by Jesus, and we would do well to recognize it. There are many ungodly, successful people in the world today, and many godly men and women who are complete failures according to the world's standards. We must be mindful to not discard God's standards and replace them with those of the world. That is what the serpent did in the Garden, and he continues to do it today.
Put another way, what normally characterizes a person who is notpoor in spirit? He is driven by worldly ideals. His heart is filled with ungodly desires. His thoughts are dominated by material concerns. Jesus tells us this is how pagans behave, not how his disciples will conduct themselves (Matt. 6:32).
Material blessing could never be our aim. As Jesus clearly tells us elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, we must store up treasures in heaven. Earthly treasures are subject to decay (Matt. 6:19). As wonderful as material blessings are, they do not last. Only heavenly treasures last for an eternity.
[Footnote 14: To avoid potential confusion, let me make it clear that I am notsaying that rich people are automatically outside of the favor of God, or cannot be poor in spirit because they are materially well-off. There are many godly, generous, wealthy individuals in the world who are proper stewards of the money God has given them. My concern is with those believers who make material success a necessary goal of the Christian life or a sure sign of the favor of God.]
BUT DOESN'T GOD WANT ME TO BE HAPPY?
"God's people should be the happiest people on earth." This is often said by the prosperity preachers, and there is some truth in it, but not for the reasons they usually give. Referring to the book mentioned earlier, nowhere does it speak about God's forgiveness. Nowhere do we see why believers should be joyous--because they have been reconciled to God. Rather, this happiness is thought to come from the fact that "God has big plans for your life" and the hope that you can own a big home and get a better job.
We are told to "envision your success" and to "program your mind for success." We must abandon the "weak worm-of-the-dust mentality" and the "poverty mentality" and replace them with a "prosperous mind-set." Our goal is "the best this life has to offer." Readers are advised to develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, and then nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from them.
The author is correct when he calls his readers to a change of thinking, and on the surface this reflects Paul's admonishment in Romans 12:2: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." But whereas Paul's command to renew our minds is coupled with the command not to conform to the standards of the world, this prosperity preacher's encouragements point us exactly in that direction.
Two opposing depictions of the relationship between man and God compete in our churches today. The one views God as holy and righteous, a Judge who will deal heavily with sin. He does so by sending his own Son to pay the penalty, fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law, and bear the punishment we rightly deserve for our sins. As believers, we are "reconciled enemies" of God.
Our duty, therefore, is to serve God completely and always to walk in the knowledge of the grace that has saved us. Certainly we are called his children, having been adopted into his family, but we are also called his servants, enlisted to a life of sacrifice and commitment. The disciple of Jesus does not find the world a comfortable home, but he looks forward to his eternal place of residence.
The other picture is that of God wanting to bless us if only we have enough faith. The emphasis is moved from spiritual matters of sin and salvation to material issues of blessing and prosperity. The problem is not sin but low self-esteem and negative thinking. The goal is not salvation but success. If only we can think more highly of ourselves and fill our minds with positive thoughts, we can shape a more prosperous future that will be blessed by God. The disciple of Jesus should feel comfortable in the world and expect material blessing from God. In fact, in some ways, he should demand it.
The prosperity gospel does not go so far as liberal Christianity with its rejection of the traditional tenets of the faith, but it still packs the same empty punch. God becomes a sort of cosmic Santa Claus who is there to bless us, if only we believe it to be so. Things of eternal significance are discarded for temporal considerations of happiness.
One of the great classics of Christian literature was penned by the German monk Thomas ŗ Kempis (1380-1471), The Imitation of Christ. Next to the Bible, this book is thought to be the most-read book throughout the Middle Ages. It reflects an attitude sorely needed in today's Christendom. Kempis recognized the need for a poverty of spirit that is often lost in the church. "Lighthearted and heedless of our defects, we do not feel the real sorrows of our souls, but often indulge in empty laughter when we have good reason to weep."
[Footnote 15: Thomas ŗ Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, "Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul," Book 1, chapter 21.]
DEVELOPING AN ETERNAL PERSPECTIVE WITH EARTHLY SIGNIFICANCE
Let me attempt an analogy to show the faultiness of those who concentrate on material blessings. Consider a beggar who sits on the side of the road begging for food. If I give him food for one day, I have certainly helped him, but come tomorrow, he will be hungry again. If I could give him food for the rest of his life, I have done him a much better service. Should I not help him for the one day? I certainly should, but help for the rest of his life would be preferable.
Similarly, when we focus our attention on temporal, material blessings to the exclusion of eternal, spiritual matters, we are only feeding the beggar for one day and not his whole lifetime. We have only addressed the temporary needs of the day, not the eternally significant ones.
I have always been amazed by those Christians who concentrate on healing, for example, to the exclusion of more spiritual matters. Certainly, it is great if a blind man is granted his sight, but there will come a day when that blind man will die. Then who cares if he could see during his lifetime if in his death he is separated from Christ? "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Matt. 16:26).
In the mission organization in which I work, we once had a similar dilemma. Fellow missionaries ran a soup kitchen that helped hundreds of street children with one nutritious meal each day. What a great blessing for those needy children. But as we continued to evaluate the ministry, we found that the gospel was not being presented to these children. We were told that the gospel was "silently" being shared, but the fact is, all that was shared was a hot meal. To be sure, helping these children was important, but if that is all that was shared, at the end of the day all we did was feed children and nothing more.
Conversely, James deals with believers in his time who made the exact opposite mistake. They would see a person in need and tell him, "God loves you," but they would never actually help the person. "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:1516). James goes on to tell us that such a faith is dead (vv. 17, 26).
Perhaps you have heard the saying, "He is so heavenly minded that he is of no earthly good." As disciples of Christ, we must treat both the physical and the spiritual needs of people. If we concentrate on the physical needs to the exclusion of the spiritual, we have only provided a temporary balm. If we concentrate on the spiritual to the exclusion of the physical, we have shown no earthly compassion. Both approaches are signs of dead faith.
The latter half of the aforementioned book has many wonderful teachings that appear to reflect some of the teachings of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount. There are biblical directives concerning compassion, giving, mercy, and integrity. Unfortunately, though, it seems that these are taught with a selfish intention. I would paraphrase the basic message as, Do these good things so you can receive God's blessing in your life.There is no inkling that we should be giving people, for example, and expect nothing in return because giving is simply our duty as believers. Rather, there is always some payoff for giving, some material return we can expect if all we do is give. As the old adage goes, "Nothing is free," and apparently, that includes charitable Christian giving and acts of compassion and mercy, according to this teaching.
The attitude, "What can I get out of this?" seems to permeate the gospel of prosperity. I think Jesus would be horrified to see such a mind-set. In the classic 1970s song by Keith Green, "Asleep in the Light," he chastised the church for its self-centeredness: "'Bless me, Lord, bless me, Lord,' You know, it's all I ever hear." Green then reprimands Christians who have received all the benefits of Christ and yet simply lie back and soak them in without ever working for his kingdom.
There is something appealing about the prosperity gospel being preached today. The desire for comfort and the drive for success is endemic to the human condition. I doubt there are many people who from their earliest years desire to be poor and destitute. It is human nature to desire success, to yearn for popularity and prestige, to seek comfortable surroundings. It is in this environment of the universal human desire for success that Jesus tells us, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
Jesus has taken the world's standard for blessedness and turned it on its head. We would expect the world to object to such a ridiculous turnaround of ideals; but unfortunately many in the church also object to it. A powerful delusion is currently taking place in churches throughout the world, one that has rejected this command of Jesus wholesale. Church members and attendees are being sold a rotten basket of fruit, replacing poverty of spirit with the richness of pride. Like malnourished children, their bellies appear full, but they are starving to death.
As surely as the serpent contradicted the command of God in the Garden by replacing "the day you eat of that fruit you will surely die" with "the day you eat that fruit you will be like God," preachers of prosperity and the power of positive thinking replace poverty of spirit with a giddy optimism. To happier life, knowledge of Good and Evil;
Of good, how just? of evil, if what is evil
Be real, why not known, since easier shunned?
God therefore cannot hurt ye, and be just;
Not just, not God; not feared then, nor obeyed:
Your fear itself of death removes the fear.
Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe,
Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,
His worshippers; he knows that in the day
Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Opened and cleared, and ye shall be as Gods,
Knowing both Good and Evil, as they know.
John Milton (1608-1674), Paradise Lost
In replacing God's will for our lives with our own will, we have bought the serpent's lie. Just as the serpent took a promise of God and twisted it into a lie, the health/wealth/prosperity preachers get it wrong. They take something that is true (God will care for Christians) and twist it into something that is expedient for them and others (God will give me everything I want here on earth to make me happy and comfortable).
If I were to say to myself, "God wants the best for my life," I would be right. But if I coupled that with, "Therefore, my wife will live as long as I do," then I have filled the promise with my own wishes and desires. God's best for my life may well be poverty, persecution, and pain. Was that not the case for our Master, Jesus Christ? "No servant is greater than his master" (John 15:20) has been forgotten by many Christians today.
Prosperity preachers rarely speak of sin. One televangelist who has a worldwide audience of millions of viewers each week proudly claims that he never speaks about sin in his church. The topic is too depressing and will drive people away, so he says. Talk of sin can ruin a person's self-esteem, and we never want to do that. Now compare that to how often Jesus spoke about sin, and you will see how far some Christians have fallen from the true gospel message. It is impossible to speak about salvation when you refuse to speak about that from which you have been saved. The simple fact is, the prosperity gospel is no gospel at all.
Our problem is not low self-esteem. Our problem is that we esteem ourselves too highly.
[Footnote 16: I recognize that this point is debatable, and often the counterpoint is to state that because humans are created in the image of God, they have intrinsic value. This is frequently coupled with Psalm 8:4b-5: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor." These verses are then used to support the notion that as humans, we should possess high self-esteem. Although thoroughly debating that point is not the intention of this book, I think it worth noting that another understanding of this passage is equally possible. Rather than an ode to man, these verses could be saying the exact opposite. The psalmist's astonishment makes better sense in the context of man's lowliness, not his exaltation. If man isof great value and worth, then the consternation the psalmist expresses would make little sense. David is shocked that God cares for man because, in comparison to God, man is not worth caring for. Reading these verses from the perspective of a "poverty of spirit" makes more sense.]
Whenever I hear someone say all God wants is for us to be happy and prosperous, I cannot help but think, Tell that to the martyrs. Consider the people throughout the history of the church who lost all they possessed because of their faith. They lost family. They put their health in jeopardy. The prosperity gospel is easier to sell in America than in places like Sudan, Iran, or China. As the author of Hebrews catalogues concerning the great saints of the Old Testament era:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated--the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Heb. 11:35b-38)
The reason we shun poverty of spirit is because we implicitly understand the consequences of such an attitude. "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered" (Rom. 8:36). Simply put, we are not willing to make that kind of sacrifice to please God because we do not possess a proper eternal perspective. The natural tendency of sinful man is to concentrate on the material or physical to the exclusion of the immaterial or spiritual. We are so tied to this world of sense and taste and smell that we often lose sight of the eternal goal.
WHAT POVERTY OF SPIRIT DOES NOT MEAN
We should briefly note what poverty of spirit is not. It does not mean all people who lack self-esteem and behave like lickspittles are necessarily poor in spirit. Nor does it mean that all Christians must be party poopers who do not know how to have fun. The opposite is true.
I have a missionary friend who always ends his correspondence by saying, "choose stubborn joy." Only a poverty of spirit can produce genuine, godly joy. When we seek the pleasures of the world, that is all we get. Those pleasures "last for but a season" (Heb. 11:25, KJV). Anyone who is honest knows such pleasures do not last and must be constantly replaced by more pleasure-seeking. This is the wisdom Solomon taught in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Christians should possess real joy and contentment because the eternal matters of life have been addressed in their faith. Nothing should rob us of that joy, not because we have optimism in the material blessings of God, but because we have eternal assurance of our salvation. Certainly, we wrestle with the difficulties of life like anyone else, and at times they can bring us despair and depression. But we should possess a security and peace that only come through God's Spirit, a peace the world cannot know.
I am not disagreeing with those who say Christians should be the happiest people on the planet. Christians who think a dour expression and an absence of a sense of humor is what Christ expects from us simply do not understand what poverty of spirit entails. But whereas some believe happiness should come from material comforts, I believe it comes from something much more eternal. If we walk around angry and short-tempered all the time, we should not mistake that for poverty of spirit. The Christian is called to a life of tension that balances a mourning over his sinfulness with a celebrative demeanor that recognizes his eternal state of redemption. "Happy are those who are unhappy."
THE ART OF SPIRITUAL POVERTY
My mother was right. If I want to be a success in the world, I need to exude confidence and self-esteem. Unfortunately, though, Jesus is not interested in whether I am a success according to the world's standards. He expects me to exude a poorness of spirit.
To be "poor in spirit" is such a foreign-sounding phrase to our ears today, but without it we cannot be pleasing to God. We have seen four ways to instill poverty of spirit in our lives.
+ By disciplining the physical cravings and desires we have.
+ By making a radical change with the past.
+ By abandoning the world's standards.
+ By developing an eternal perspective.
God intends to create in us a wonderful masterpiece of his grace, but a recognition and ongoing realization of our spiritual poverty is the prerequisite for such an activity. There is no forgiveness without repentance. There is no purging of all that is bad in us until we admit that it exists. The constant attitude that marks the genuine disciple of Christ is one of spiritual poverty and mourning.
Jesus tells us that only those who are poor in spirit will enter the kingdom of heaven. This should serve as a warning to all those who claim to be followers of Jesus and yet do not continually mourn over their sinful state. The true disciple of Christ "has a deep sense of the loathsome leprosy of sin which he brought with him from his mother's womb, which overspreads his whole soul, and totally corrupts every power and faculty thereof."
[Footnote 17: John Wesley, as quoted in R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount(Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2001), 19.]
If left to my own sinful inclinations, I must admit that I dislike this teaching of Jesus. I would much prefer a more upbeat, positive message. However, if that is truly what I desire, I need only turn to the world and its ideals. Jesus has spoken the truth, and instead of being distressed by it, I must embrace him. I am a "stinking sinner" in need of great, great mercy and grace. Nothing short of this admission on my part will allow me entrance into fellowship with God.
Jesus has always many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross. He has many who desire consolation, but few who care for trial. He finds many to share His table, but few to take part in His fasting. All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many follow Him to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the chalice of His passion. Many revere His miracles; few approach the shame of the Cross. Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him.
Thomas ŗ Kempis (1380-1471),
The Imitation of Christ