1 - Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit
How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. (NEB)
The Ten Commandments form the framework for the Mosaic Law and our ethical codes. The Beatitudes, likewise, serve as an outline of Jesus' teachings. In one way or another, everything Jesus says fits their framework. Yet the Beatitudes do more than outline Jesus' theology. These "to be attitudes" remind us that salvation in Christ is a process that leads us from fearing frustration and failure to experiencing serenity and acceptance. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the Beatitudes is that they turn all of our perceptions upside down. They applaud the very attributes we grew up believing were signs of spiritual and moral weakness. This is especially true of the first beatitude. Jesus sets out on the path to abundant living by showing us how to love and accept ourselves. The first step involves coming to terms with our inherent neediness and spiritual poverty. Jesus not only gives us permission to have needs. Jesus blesses our neediness.
Accepting Our Limitations It's difficult to take on the challenges each day brings when we're afraid to make mistakes. Realizing it's all right to be spiritually and emotionally poor takes the shame out of being needy. It opens us to embrace life as it is, not as we want it to be. We can get emotionally mixed up when we equate selfishness with self-love. This is because selfishness is actually the opposite of self-love. Selfishness and self-hatred are what truly go hand in hand. Feeling inadequate and unlovable makes us become obsessed with meeting our own needs. We try to grab things for ourselves. Convinced no one cares about us, we demand attention and insist on having our own way. When, however, we accept and value ourselves, we open ourselves to trust others. Accepting the reality of a situation doesn't mean we quit trying to change. It means we stop trying to make things fit our wishes and expectations. Nothing changed in our family as long as we denied the reality of our children's drug addiction. When we accepted their addiction as real, we were no longer so frustrated. Acceptance freed us to focus on the things we could change. It helped us view things from a different view point. It gave us choices and options. Surrender goes a step beyond acceptance. Surrender lets us seek God's will. It frees us to give up our self-limiting beliefs and attitudes. Asking God to solve a specific problem is a specific way to pray, "My will be done." Few of us really know what we want, let alone what's best for us. So asking God to do things our way is risky. Surrender frees us to sincerely pray, "Thy will be done."
Accepting our spiritual poverty means giving God control. When we limit our prayers to requests for guidance and courage to use the guidance when God gives it, life has a way of unfolding like a flower. In the first beatitude, Jesus assures us we'll experience happiness when we accept our feelings of inadequacy without shame. This is because God never intended us to be self sufficient. God made us to need God and others. Being "poor in spirit" presents us with a paradox. Only complete surrender to our situation and our innate powerlessness empowers us. Only when we admit their absence do we find the hope and resources we seek. Allowing ourselves to be needy, to have problems, to hurt and suffer, opens the way to change. AA, Al-Anon, and other Twelve Step Programs restate the first beatitude in their first three steps. We - admitted that we were powerless over (name of the specific problem) and that our lives had become unmanageable. - came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. - made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
In his book, Becoming a New Person: Twelve Steps for Christians, Philip St. Romain rephrases the first step to read, “We admit that we cannot realize our fullest human potential by living a life of selfishness." That wording makes a lot of sense, since most problems stem from selfishness.
Sin as Addiction Sin is an addiction to selfishness. An addict is one who has so yielded to a habit, substance, or interest that it becomes all-consuming. Addicts are often described as being obsessive compulsive. A substance, interest, or practice (such as alcohol, smoking, drugs, a sport, work, selfishness, or religion) takes over. The individual loses control over choices and responses. The desire for the addictive substance or activity becomes total. It becomes what the apostle Paul calls "slavery." Recovery begins when we accept that this compulsion will never completely go away. For the rest of our lives we'll need to keep learning how to live without what we think we need to be happy. Diabetics dare never forget they're diabetic and need to take insulin and follow a diet. Like them, we dare never forget we're sinners. We're flawed, broken, needy persons, even when things go well. It's been helpful to see my spiritual salvation this way. Since I'll never be free of my sinful tendencies, I'll never outgrow my need for God's help. I'll always need the insights and support I gain by going to church and reading the Bible.
Learning from Life's Lessons
Because of our family experience with addictions, I no longer feel my role as a parent or pastor gives me the right to impose my faith or beliefs on others. Nor do I feel it's my job to provide solutions for others. When people come for help, I listen. When appropriate, I share my faith and offer them the hope I've found. I tell them that when life seemed most hopeless, God turned our pain and failure into an opportunity for growth. I give them permission to struggle. I trust them to find their own answers. Our battle with addiction has broken, humbled, and enriched me. It has taught me I'm not the person I thought I was. My life isn't blame-free, nor do I have answers for myself, let alone for others. Like everyone else, I'm selfish and sinful. My only hope lies in each day handing my life over to God's care and guidance, so I can grow in understanding and grace. "Blessed are the spiritually impoverished" speaks to me of an ongoing awareness that never changes. We remain spiritually poor even as we mature and grow, stop nagging, control our eating compulsions, quit smoking, reconcile with our spouse, learn to control our temper, recover from our divorce. Even accepting Christ as Lord and Savior doesn't rescue us from such poverty. Instead, we live abundantly precisely to the extent we stay in touch with our continuing neediness, doubts, fears, insecurities, and emptiness. Being "poor in spirit' means letting go and letting God. It means facing our self centeredness. It means facing the ways we insist that life and our loved ones conform to our needs, wants, and expectations. It means admitting that no matter how well things are going or how well we function, we never stop needing God.
Each Day a New Beginning The first beatitude reminds us that each day is a gift. Each new day is a reprieve. God doesn't give us a permanent fix when we go to God for help. God gives us what we need for that particular day or situation. Each day, as we turn to God for power and guidance, we allow God to respond to our needs in ways that are best for us. We'll always be powerless to change many things that happen. Try as we will, we can't control other people. I can accept such limitations now that I understand my happiness and worth aren't dependent on what others do or on my being problem-free. Our struggles with addiction have taught me God's ways and solutions are often not mine. Serenity flows from trusting God's ways. The first beatitude affirms that running the world is God's job, not ours. All God asks is that we admit and embrace our sinfulness without shame. Once we face our neediness and inner poverty, we can let go and let God give us what we need. Growing spiritually (and for me that's come to mean being grateful, happy, and functional in spite of pain) is like taking a trip. We can't get where we want to go until we acknowledge our starting point. When my husband and I finally started going to FA meetings, we acknowledged we were workaholics (seen as a good thing in the church). We admitted our children were into drugs and alcohol (seen as a bad thing in the church). Then we started feeling less hopeless. Once we could admit we were powerless over the diseases destroying our lives, we miraculously improved. But the minute we forget these compulsions will always be a part of our lives, we quickly fall back into the old patterns. The spiral starts again. Jesus told a parable about cleaning the demon out of the house only to have six more come to take its place. He knew what he was talking about. That's exactly what happens with addictions and other dependencies.
Denial: Taking Over from God If we're to live rich and abundant lives in spite of unsolved problems, we have to give God control. We have to acknowledge and respect the power and nature of selfishness and sin. In the creation story, God forbade Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The knowledge the fruit represents wasn't harmful in and of itself. The problem was that Adam and Eve weren't ready to discern and use such knowledge. Thus the tree's fruit made all people defensive, egocentric, and arrogant. It made us people who deny our needs and mortality. "Blessed are the poor in spirit" reminds us we can't be happy when we take on more than we can handle. We have emotional, spiritual, and physical limitations. God didn't create us to live apart from divine support. Things go haywire when we cut God out of our daily lives by putting God in a box marked "Sunday" and "spiritual matters." Most of us don't carry the "I am god" bit so far that we cheat, steal, kill, knock others around, and sexually use others for our own selfish pleasure. At least, I hope we don't. But we do play god every day of our lives. That's what being self-centered is all about -- placing ourselves at the center of the universe. I learned the hard way the destructive power of my selfish need to protect my children from pain, to be needed, to look good, to be a supermom, to prove my value by serving and pastoring. I learned this kept them and others in my church from assuming responsibility for their own choices and actions. Unfortunately, my self-centered need to look important contributed in many ways to our struggles with addiction. "Blessed are you when you can acknowledge your spiritual and emotional poverty" offers a wholesome starting point. With those wonderful affirming words, Jesus gives us permission to value ourselves just as we are ... even though we may be flawed, broken, uptight, vulnerable, scarred, scared, defensive. "You'll feel so much better when you stop denying what's really going on and accept your limitations," says Jesus. "Face your problems. Confront the demons that destroy you. Acknowledge your poverty. Allow me to walk with you." The problem, you see, isn't that we're overweight, work too much, or are addicted. It isn't that we have a violent temper, we get depressed, gamble. It isn't that we overprotect our children, nor that we cheat on our income tax, are homosexual, are perfectionists. The problem is that we lie to ourselves and others. We pretend we're different than we really are. Because we live a lie, we die inside a little every day. Our lives get crazier and crazier.
Our pain squeezes so tight we have a heart attack. We find ourselves struggling with cancer, diabetes, hypertension. We become asthmatic, depressed, sexually dysfunctional, abusive. We can't find happiness and meaning in our lives if we're afraid to admit we're unhappy. We can't have our needs met if we deny we have needs. As long as we pretend things are just fine, as long as we deny what's really going on, we can't -- and God won't -- do anything. In that sense, denial is the unforgivable sin. It places us outside the realm of God's redemption.
Finding the Power in Powerlessness Learning to laugh at ourselves helps us stay humble and centered. One way I've learned to stay honest without becoming a complainer is to use the Program definition of the word fine. FINE stands for Frustrated, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional, or -- poor in spirit! Now when I feel shaky and don't want to lie but am also reluctant to dump my dirty laundry in public, I laugh. I tell people "I'm just fine!" "To be congratulated are those who realize that they are absolutely destitute without God and they come to trust him completely" is the way Richard Milham translates the first beatitude in his book, Like It Is Today. I like that translation. Accepting our neediness and character defects empowers us. That's the miracle of grace. It plugs us into the divine energy source. It enables us to change in God-directed ways. The great insight of the first beatitude is this: every problem and need carries with it a gift. Every failure points us toward God, connecting us to the one who gives life meaning. The curse brings a blessing. God, you see, gives us exactly what we need -- be that the problem or the solution!
Oh God, thank you that I can be Christ-centered and peace-filled no matter what is going on around me. Thank you for every moment of every day. With you, each day is a new beginning. Each moment is a new opportunity to touch the fears and worries that tie me to the past, tempt me to blame others, and cut me off from you. With your help I'll see life's troubles as gifts, not curses. I'll work at accepting my limitations and brokenness. Remind me that difficulty opens me to your care and guidance, and my neediness is the very thing that draws me to you. Amen.
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