One day when John Townsend and I were meeting with a large Christian organization, the topic of small groups in the church came up. We strongly support and see much value in small groups. We were discussing the needs that groups meet, how they operate, and so on.
One of the executives in the organization asked, “What difference do you see between groups for people with problems and groups for normal people?”
John and I looked at each other and said, “There is just one kind of group.”
This story illustrates a lingering problem in the church’s view of spiritual growth. Just about everyone would agree that we all need to grow spiritually. We need to be close to God, love each other, read the Bible, and apply its truths. But many do not understand that a major reason to grow is that we are in a deep and severe state of neediness and incompleteness.
Whether or not we have problems or struggles in life, we still need God and we need to know we are in the process of finding him. The Bible teaches that all of us (not just some of us) are in this state. Every person needs God’s grace and mercy. By our very nature we are broken people with no hope except for God.
Not everyone is aware of his or her neediness. Jesus described those who are aware of their neediness as poor in spirit. He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) The Greek for “poor in spirit” indicates a cringing beggar, absolutely dependent on others for survival. It’s not a flattering picture of us. You don’t see people in church greeting each other with—”Wow, you’re such a cringing beggar, I’d like for you to mentor me.” Yet, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who experience their dependency.
Spiritual poverty is really about living in reality. A good way to understand this is to think of spiritual poverty as experiencing our state of incompleteness before God. This can be due to weaknesses, unfulfilled needs, emotional injuries and hurts at the hands of others, or our own immaturities and sins. It has to do with those parts of ourselves that are not what they should be and that we cannot repair in our own strength. When people experience at a deep level their neediness, incompleteness and dependency—the way they actually are—they are often overwhelmed. Spiritual poverty is really the cure for things like narcissism, self-righteousness, and a host of other problems. When our eyes are opened to our brokenness, we do not “feel better about ourselves”; rather, we feel that something is terribly wrong.
Yet Jesus called this a “blessed” condition because it helps us get closer to God. Our state of incompleteness drives us outside of ourselves to God as the source of healing and hope.
Brokenheartedness is related to spiritual poverty. It is the state of being wounded or crushed by some loss, person, hurt, injustice, or circumstance. When a person is downcast because of an emotional, relational, or career injury, he can be brokenhearted. God has special tenderness for this condition. Brokenheartedness often brings about a sense of our spiritual poverty as it shows us our need.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone with life problems is poor in spirit. Some are in denial. Others blame their problems on other people. Still others believe that, given enough time, they can solve their problems all by themselves. These people have not yet come to the end of themselves, to the humble acceptance of reality that causes them to grieve as a signal that they understand their position. What I am saying, however, is that those with life problems have more opportunities to recognize their need for God’s healing, because the evidence is right there in front of them.
I am also not saying that those who don’t experience problems are in denial. There are many believers who love God, have good marriages and relationships, and have reasonably good lives, without catastrophes. They aren’t hiding anything. They aren’t deceptive or mean people. But, they may lack poverty because they are not really in touch with their neediness.
The Richness that Spiritual Poverty Brings
Spiritual poverty helps us grow because it is literally spiritual poverty. The Greek word for “spirit” used in Matthew 5:3 is the word indicating the spiritual dimension of life. In other words, the experience of poverty is both practical and spiritual. Being aware of our incompleteness orients us toward God and his ways. It draws us to the spiritual where he awaits us with love, truth, support and all we need to grow and repair.
Spiritual poverty is a rich part of the growth process. The more broken we are the more God can grow us up.
Poverty of spirit requires more of us than cognitively admitting that we are incomplete and needy. It also affects our entire being, especially our heart. Realizing our condition before God is an overwhelmingly emotional experience involving feelings such as dependence, grief and remorse. Psychologists call this being integrated. That is, having the heart and head in alliance with each other. God reminds us time and time again that he likes neediness.
Our life experiences might tell us to avoid a needy position. If so, take a faith step and open your soul up to God and safe people because spiritual poverty is the only way to be filled with what he has for us.
Taken from How People Grow, © Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Zondervan 2001
This article is part 9 in a series of Feature Articles adapted from How People Grow.
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