Few passages of Scripture are more familiar in the Orthodox Church than the Beatitudes – Christ’s sayings from the Sermon on the Mount which begin, “Blessed are….” With familiarity comes the occasional lack of attention, in which we forget to ask, “What does that mean?” I think this is particularly the case with the saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
There is no particular help to be found by going back to its original language – for it is a pretty literal rendering (in English). “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is exactly the same statement in the Greek. Oddly, there is a more paraphrastic rendering in the New English Bible that I find helpful – “Blessed are they who know their need of God.” It is not literal – but, I believe, it captures the sense and meaning of the statement.
The poor in spirit are those who know their need of God. And this is a very profound thing.
Sometime in this past year I had a short exchange on one of the blog posts on the topic of “necessity” or “need.” The point was made (not by me) that to need anyone or anything was the utter destruction of freedom. A relationship that had “need” at its core was dysfunctional and “co-dependent.” I continue to maintain that Freud is not among the fathers – and thus do not give much concern for psychological treatments of theology. But there is a point that is valuable and worth noting in the sentiment expressed: need can be the destruction of freedom. I come back to this point.
But I want to think first about the question of need – our necessity. “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”
The truth is – we are born into necessity. We are contingent beings – creatures and not gods. We cannot live utterly independent lives. We are born helpless and totally dependent. Our species has among the weakness of all newborns. And though our dependency weakens and changes as we grow – it does not cease. Indeed, as we age, our necessity often comes back with a vengeance.
Necessity is a difficult thing. There is an aspect of our need that plays a part in what it means to love – but it can also be a part of what it means to be a slave. Those who have suffered the extremes of modern prison camps know what it is to be reduced to utter necessity. That reduction is an effort to destroy the humanity of a prisoner – to remove any sense of freedom whatsoever. That it sometimes fails is a remarkable testimony for the grace of God at work in us. Our necessity can be the weakest and most vulnerable aspect of our lives as creatures.
This “weakness” becomes an important theme in the writings of St. Paul.
Necessity is a difficult thing. It can be part of what it means to love – but it can also be part of what it means to be a slave. It is, perhaps, the “weakest” thing about being a creature. St. Paul, confronted with an affliction (unknown to us) described by him as a “messenger of Satan sent to buffet me in the flesh,” says that he “besought the Lord three times” that the affliction might be taken away. He was told in response: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” The apostle adds: “Therefore I will most gladly prefer to boast of my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
The revelation given to St. Paul is profound. Our weakness is precisely a point of necessity. We cannot handle our weaknesses by ourselves. Our weaknesses reveal the fact that we are not self-sufficient. They frequently leave us feeling vulnerable.
And this weakness, St. Paul says (quoting God), is the very place where God’s strength is made most perfect.
In truth, I need God because I cannot manage my life alone; I cannot solve my own problems; I am captive to sin and death – even my strengths often lead to alienation and estrangement; I cannot raise myself from the dead; I cannot see the world correctly (I am blind); I cannot rightly love even the most obvious things and people.
But, of course, the experience of necessity can also be the experience of slavery. It is not unusual for people to live in relationships of mutual slavery – with very little (if any) true freedom. Necessity, emotional or otherwise, drives them into such relationships and makes their existence into an image of hell.
How do we avoid this with God?
First off, God will not allow us to have a true relationship with Him that is destructive. People have imaginary relationships with God that become destructive. But the imaginary part of it is precisely the problem.
St. Paul writes in another place: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Our relationship with God is always a relationship of freedom. Without freedom the relationship would have no possibility of love. Thus we find that even if we curse God and deny His existence, we do not cease to exist. Though our very existence is dependent upon Him from moment to moment, He does not take it from us. Our “necessity” is not forced upon us within the context of our relationship with God. We may acknowledge it in freedom and take it up in an act of love, or ignore it precisely because God has given us such a frightful freedom.
Thus our necessity, our weakness, does not force us into relationship with God. I am free to deny Him, and to deny my weakness. But it remains true, that “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” For our sake, God himself, entered into the human world of necessity.
In becoming man, God freely became subject to necessity. His birth, His nurture, His education, His vulnerability within our world were freely taken on in His act of “self-emptying” (Philippians 2:5-11). The God Who lives beyond necessity hung lifeless on the cross without even a grave to call His own. He gave Himself to us in weakness – others had to remove the nails in order to free His most pure body from the cross.
The same way of the cross, freedom-in-necessity, is the invitation that is daily extended to us in our relationship with God – and one another. For those who love God, who will in return for His act of self-emptying, give themselves in weakness – he will not helpless. He will not use our weakness to crus us but will lovingly take us down from the cross on which we die daily, wrap us in fine linen, and place us in His own new tomb.
And there we will trample down death by death, and discover that in our weakness, God’s strength is made perfect.
-from a recent sermon