By Alison Smith

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

What if the key to the kingdom of God was the one thing you never expected?

For years as a campus minister, I’ve led students through the Sermon on the Mount. Beginning with the Beatitudes—prose that teaches us what it means to be blessed—the Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the best discipleship guide in all of the Bible. But it wasn’t until this year that I understood what the first line of the Beatitudes really means:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
      for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

According to most commentators, to be “poor in spirit” means recognizing your own spiritual poverty. A wealth of good deeds, power, prestige, monetary gain—none of these will win us the kingdom. It’s in recognizing our utter need for God that we are actually able to enter the kingdom.

This is an important truth—the heart of our gospel, even! Yet I had distilled it down to a bland, black-and-white formula: going through the bridge diagram + praying the sinner’s prayer = salvation. Done. The kingdom is yours.

Chicken or Pizza?

It wasn’t until I experienced a health crisis that being poor in spirit moved from a sterile diagram to a deep truth. In November, I was exhausted from sleeping poorly for several months. At the end of each day, I could do little more than collapse on the couch. Yet I found it impossible to fall asleep when I eventually stumbled to my bed. I also couldn’t concentrate on things that I normally loved, like reading, running, spending time with friends. They all felt overwhelming. I felt tapped out with no real explanation.

I was inexplicably anxious all of the time and I felt myself slipping into a sort of mental fog. Keeping up with my responsibilities seemed impossible. Emails felt tantamount to writing a PhD dissertation. Completing an expense report felt like summiting Mount Everest. I felt half-dead and emotionless, yet constantly on the edge of tears. I remember one evening when I went to the grocery store to pick something up for dinner. Aimlessly wandering, I couldn’t make a decision. Chicken or pizza? It was too much. I left the store overwhelmed without actually buying anything.

Eventually I shared my symptoms with my therapist, Darryl, whom I had been seeing for close to a year to help me manage mild anxiety. He gently asked me several questions:

Have you had trouble sleeping? Yes.

Is it hard for you to find pleasure in activities that you normally enjoy? Yes.

Have you experienced a loss of appetite? Yes.

And the nail in the coffin: Have you felt depressed, hopeless, or worthless most days in the last two weeks? Yes.

Alison, I think you’re in the middle of a depressive episode. Have you ever experienced something like this? No. Not like this. Not this overwhelming.

His explanation brought some relief but also felt like a crushing defeat.

Depression?

Really?

My body had betrayed me; my mind had given up on me.

I remember protesting to God, “I persevere. I survive! I don’t do depression!” But the reality was that I had never felt more defeated. I had never before been so humbled by my own vulnerability, my own humanity.

The Key to the Kingdom

Simply put, I had hit a wall. God had brought me low, to a place of utter dependency and utter awareness of my weakness. That’s what depression and anxiety do to a person. They teach you that you are powerless and helpless, and that you never really were in control of your life.  

Maybe the reality of our absolute lack of control is how God uses mental illness as a good gift. We, the mentally ill, get what it means to be poor in spirit; we get that we are impoverished. The clenching nausea in our stomach; the racing of our hearts that makes it impossible to concentrate; the thick fog that chokes us, pulling us down, holding us back, preventing us from moving forward. We know poverty of the spirit.

In that deep vulnerability and weakness I discovered I could either be consumed or I could say one of the most difficult and simple prayers we can pray: “God, help.” Those two words, as it turns out, are the keys to his kingdom, the place where renewal and freedom are found.

In response to my impoverished cry—help!—God began to reveal his kingdom of healing in my life. In Scripture, we read that the kingdom is where all things are made new and whole, where every tear is wiped from every eye (Revelation 21:1-5). God displayed his compassionate care through Darryl, and I gradually began to see improvements in both my depression and anxiety. He renewed my stamina. I started running again. And through trustworthy and compassionate friends, I experienced freedom, joy, love, and acceptance in sharing my story. Life is far from perfect, but the hope of the kingdom steadies my steps as I continue to walk with Jesus in dependence and humility.

I no longer look at my depression and anxiety with disgust. Oddly enough, I embrace my condition of poverty. Don’t misunderstand me—I desire full healing. But this condition reminds me that I am indeed poor, yet God is rich in mercy and love. It reminds me that I can’t heal myself—I can’t ever be perfect or enough—yet through Christ my weakness is made perfect (2 Corinthians 12:9). Depression and anxiety remind me that the kingdom is not for those who have it all together. The kingdom is for the poor—those who are needy, who recognize their dependence on the true Savior of the world.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Alison Smith is on staff with Greek InterVarsity at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a member of Pi Beta Phi for women. She loves reading, running, rocking out in her car to cheesy pop music and NPRand going on adventures with her husband. You can read more from Alison on her personal blog.

Images by Matt Kirk. Graphic by Laura Li-Barbour. Thanks to all the kids who volunteered for the images, and whose expressions helped us more deeply understand the Beatitudes.


This is the first in a series of posts exploring the Beatitudes, pronounced by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount and then recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Check back each week for a new post in the series.

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