top of page
Prier en famille
The happiness of being "poor in spirit"


The introduction to Christ's first public discourse begins with the word happy. Previously, we explained how the discourse of Christ differs from other discourses on the notion of happiness [1] . Long before analyzing the expression “poor in spirit” which is the objective of this text, it would be important to make some preliminary remarks. First, it is important to point out that happiness, from Christ's perspective, actually comes as the result of an attitude displayed by an individual in a relational setting with his creator God. It is the character of someone who is regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Which, second, leads to stress that the characteristic elements presented in the beatitudes are only applicable to those who have already been born again (John 3: 3,5). This is explained, first, by the fact that the promise made in the first beatitude is heaven (Matt. 5: 3). Next, Christ encourages those who are persecuted because of

his name to be in joy because their reward will be great in heaven (Matt.5: 12). Having said that, one must be a servant of Christ to be willing to suffer for him. Indeed, Jesus clearly shows that the world clearly expresses antipathy towards him and towards all those who follow him. If the world hates you, know that it hated me before you. “If you were of the world, the world would love what is its; but because you are not of the world, and I have chosen you from the midst of the world, therefore the world hates you ”(John 15: 18-19). Finally, those who claim that the beatitudes constitute a code of ethics to guide society today are wrong. Therefore, the Beatitudes can in no way be understood as a code of ethics. Preferably, they should be explained as the building blocks of the character of the Christian.

As we will see shortly, in developing our thinking on the first beatitude, Christ's teaching on happiness describes the inner attitude of the Christian in a deep relationship with his God. Certainly, such an attitude might manifest itself in the eyes of the world as moral behavior shaped by religious principles, but Christ is primarily discussing the attitude of the Christian in his relationship with his God.

In fact, Christ teaches that it is the poor who will inherit heaven. That is why they must be happy. Furthermore, it should be noted that Luke, in his story, simply mentioned the word “poor”; thus we read: “then Jesus, lifting up his eyes to his disciples, said: Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours!” (Luke 6:20). In Luke's account, the speech is more direct, so to speak more affirmative. However, the account of the gospel of Matthew gives more details by specifying what type of poor person it is [2] . It should be borne in mind, at the very moment of Jesus' speech, that his audience also held poor people, knowing that the Israelite territory was under siege by the Roman Empire at the time. The country was occupied. And, it is clear that, when a country is subjected, it is always in the insufficiency and is confronted with all kinds of precariousness. So to speak, we could imagine a little the reaction of this crowd which was experiencing poverty in the truest sense at the time of this speech. Probably, the word resonated very badly in the ears of this audience, being under the Roman occupation.

In fact, poverty is an inconvenient word. Commonly, this word describes the reality of human conditions living in insufficiency and calls for deep reflection on human dignity. This is why we frequently hear in the speeches of political actors, both nationally and internationally, the ardent desire to fight against poverty. International organizations are defining and redefining intervention strategies to eradicate, or at least reduce, the rate of poverty in the world. Poverty is what characterizes the majority of countries in the world. This word, every time it is spoken in the media and in international meetings, evokes a feeling of aversion and unacceptability. We are outraged by the daily experience of poverty. No one wants to be in this state. However, despite the fact that people are talking about the unacceptability of poverty, it must be admitted that the rate of poverty is constantly increasing in the world. “The UN is worried about growing inequalities while the 85 wealthiest humans concentrate as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion [3] . Unfortunately, this is the harsh reality of our planet. It disturbs the mind. It causes a feeling of hatred. People often say they hate poverty. It evokes a painful experience and sometimes causes suicide. And, we believe that the reaction observed among people in our contemporary societies to the material poverty of the world was no different from that witnessed by people at the time Jesus was speaking. In other words, she had probably caused the same feeling of aversion and outrage. However, Christ included this word in his first public discourse: happy are the poor in spirit. This first sentence combined two words with opposite meanings that linguists in such a case would call an oxymoron. How can a poor person be happy? In the lines that follow we will analyze this first beatitude in order to detect its true meaning. To do so, we will first address what the poor in spirit is not. Second, it will be a question of discussing the true meaning of the use of the concept of poverty by Jesus Christ, to finally deal with the reward promised to the poor in spirit.


All speech is subject to various interpretations. Indeed, people tend to appropriate an understanding of it, according to their inclination, instead of taking it for what it is. Unfortunately, most of the time, such a process gives rise to misinterpretation, distortion or even distancing from the contextual and semantic meaning of the text. When this happens, the authors of the speech sometimes defend themselves, rectify, reframe the meaning of their words. The discourses of Christ are not exempt from the twist of interpretation. Regarding this expression, we are going to present and criticize three conceptions considered false with regard to its true meaning. It is true that Christ is no longer physically present to rectify his words; however, the context of his speech makes it possible to detect its true significance.

It's not socioeconomic poverty

At first glance, Jesus' speech is not part of a materialistic perspective of poverty. This has nothing to do with the economic and social poverty of the people [4] . The Lord Jesus does not emphasize the “material conditions of existence” of the human being, to use a Marxist expression, in this beatitude. However, some interpret this discourse from a socio-economic perspective. They believe that Christ is talking about material poverty. Moreover, to defend their point of view, they refer to the dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man, citing the commentary of Christ, after the Rich went away sad because he did not want to give. his money to the poor, saying “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). This perspective seems to fit the story of Luke, who himself did not add “in spirit” after the word “poor”. However, when we continue to read this same account of Luke on the beatitudes, we realize that the context does not support such a position either.
Moreover, the reference to the dialogue of Christ with the Rich Young Man in the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes the illusion of the latter who believed to be respecting all the law of God (Matt. 19: 20). Christ, telling him to give his money to the poor and then follow him (Matt. 19:21), revealed to him the state of his heart: he loved his money so much that he was unable to give it up to follow God. So to speak, Christ's commentary, especially at the end, touches upon an essential truth of law: it is God who must have the first place in our life, not our money. Christ had already underlined this when he said that “no one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other; or he will cling to the one, and despise the other; you cannot serve God and Mammon ”(Matt.6: 24). So then, in light of Christ's teaching, the rich young man had violated the very first commandment of the Decalogue because he was greedy. The real problem was not the money per se, but his attitude to money. So to speak, when Christ pronounced the first beatitude, he made no reference to material poverty. It is in this sense that Matthew's account is revealing because it brings more precision and at the same time deconstructs this perspective.

It's not illiteracy

Another conception tends to consider the poor in spirit as one who is not intellectual [5] . Some think that Christianity is the religion of the ignorant. In all reality, Christ is not referring to the intellectual capacity of the human being either. Christ does not see the poor in spirit as an illiterate or someone who can barely read. Far from there ! Since the gospel of Jesus Christ tends to transform the soul of all human beings. The common point between the scholar and the illiterate, the rich and the poor, is that they are all sinners and condemned according to the holy justice of God. Scripture repeatedly asserts that there is no righteous on the earth. The Holy Spirit, through the mouth of David, clarifies: “The Lord has looked from heaven on the children of men, to see if there is any who understand [and] who seek God. They have all gone astray, they have all together made themselves hateful, there is no one who does good, not even one ”(Psalm 14: 2-3). And from the pen of the apostle Paul, he goes on to say that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

It should be noted that in the aforementioned passages, there are no exceptions. We all inherit the fallen or sinful nature from Adam. It was through this that sin entered the world (Romans 5:12). So, when God looks at us from his throne, he does not see the human being in relation to his race, his social position, his wealth, and his intellectual capacity. He sees us all as condemned sinners who deserve to be punished eternally, but who in his love decides to give grace by sending Jesus Christ, the second person of the trinity, to die for the redemption of all who accept his sacrifice. Jesus himself said unambiguously in his dialogue with Nicodemus: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16); this, to mean that there is no favoritism with God (Deut. 10:17; Job 34:19; Rom.2: 11).
Whoever receives the Sacrifice of Christ and agrees to follow him as his Lord has eternal life. The word anyone here is the perfect demonstration that God wants to save all who believe. If it is only the poor who believe, only the poor will have eternal life. Likewise, if it is only the rich who truly believe in the Lord Jesus, then only they will have eternal life. So to speak, the inheritance of eternal life does not depend on our intellectual capacity, but on our ability to recognize that we are lost and that we want to be saved by Jesus Christ.

It is neither laziness nor being without motivation

In his commentary on the expression poor in spirit, James Montgomery Boice uses a compound word "poor-spirited" (1972: 20) which conveys the idea of laziness and not being enthusiastic in life. According to him, and we agree, Christ does not refer to this kind of attitude either. And if a Christian behaves like that, that attitude goes against what God teaches in his word. From Genesis to the last book of the New Testament, we observe that God's servants are hard workers. The Christian is an actor who takes the initiative. Note that people called by God were hard workers. We can cite examples from the Old Testament like Moses, Saul, David, Gideon, etc. Jesus Christ himself presented himself as a hard worker. Not only was he a carpenter, but he emphasized for his Pharisee opponents that: "my father works until now, and I also work" (John 5:17, Martin version). In this statement from Christ, it must be emphasized that the father is always in action. However, he still works. In addition, the Lord Jesus called upon twelve men to be his disciples on the field of work. God never chose lazy people for his work.

In this same line of reflection, we can cite, finally, the apostle Paul. The latter, although chosen by God to be the apostle of the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles, continued to work. Thus we read, in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, about him: "After this Paul left Athens, and went to Corinth. There was found a Jew named Aquila, from Pontus, recently arrived from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. He made friends with them; and since he had the same profession, he stayed with them and worked there: he was a tent maker "(Acts 18: 1-3). And in the Epistle to the Corinthians, we read from this same Paul the following: "we weary ourselves to work with our own hands" (1 Cor. 4:12). Not only was Paul a hard worker, he also taught churches not to tolerate brothers who refuse to work.

We recommend that you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, keep away from any brother who leads a disorderly life and does not follow the instructions received from us. You yourself know how to imitate us, for we have not indulged in disorder among you. We did not eat anyone's bread for free; on the contrary, night and day, in fatigue and pain, we have worked so as not to be a burden on any of you. Not that we don't have the right, but we wanted to give you a model to imitate. In fact, when we were with you, we recommended this to you: if someone does not want to work, let him not eat either (2 Thess. 3: 6-10).

This portion of Scripture which we have just quoted unequivocally states that the Christian must work. Otherwise, he should not benefit from the fruits of the labor of others who sacrificed themselves to earn their bread. So to speak, the poor in spirit of whom the Lord Jesus speaks in no way refers to this category of people.

We have just dispelled certain semantic confusions that we tend to apply to the “poor in spirit” in the beatitudes. So done, now it is up to present the true meaning of the expression according to the context of Christ's discourse and according to the method of interpretation used by Jesus himself: that of referring to Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Being in spiritual poverty

As we have already underlined, the beatitudes are part of a spiritual process. They are neither cultural, nor psychological, nor economic; nor is it a code of ethics. In that the beatitudes are essentially spiritual, so therefore, this poverty that Christ teaches is spiritual. In other words, we could say happy those who confess their spiritual poverty, the kingdom of heaven is theirs. In reality, the Second 21 version translates this verse in the same way: “Happy are those who recognize their spiritual poverty, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs (Matt.5: 3).
This spiritual poverty is revealed in reality in the relationship of the human being with the holy God. In such a situation, the human being becomes aware of his sin or of his total dispossession. In reality, he has nothing to offer that can please God. In fact, when Christ speaks of the poor in spirit, he is speaking of one who recognizes that he is a sinner who can do nothing to deserve the salvation of God. James M. Boice explains the poor in spirit as follows:

You could say that to be poor in spirit is to be spiritually bankrupt before God. It is the mental condition of a person who has recognized something concerning the righteousness and holiness of God, who is aware of the state of sin and corruption of his heart and has confessed his inability to please God (Boice , Op.Cit: .20).

The attitude of one who is poor in spirit is defined not in relation to his environment, or his fellow man, but in relation to the standard of God. In such a perspective, what we have as human pride which pushes us to exalt ourselves, to regard ourselves superior in relation to others, to contemplate the goodness in us, becomes futile because in reality we look at ourselves through the prism of divine holiness. God is holy, we are not. We are in a situation of total failure. The prophet Isaiah, who was probably one of the most righteous men of his day, having seen God in a vision, could declare to himself: “Woe to me! I am lost, for I am a man whose lips are unclean; I dwell among a people whose lips are unclean, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts ”(Isaiah 6: 5) . Note that Isaiah, being in the presence of God, became aware of his state of sin and of the sinful situation of his people and he cried out his own destruction because, in contemplating holiness, he observed at the same time his own bankruptcy. , its own ugliness. We don't have anything good in the presence of God. When we come to be aware of our state of bankruptcy, of total dispossession and that we sincerely confess it to God by asking him to be gracious to us, it is from this moment that we are poor in spirit.
The Greek word used by the Lord Jesus Christ to refer to the poor in spirit is ptōchos. This describes a poor man who asks. John Macarthur tells us that "Classical Greek use of this word refers to a person who is destined to be utterly destitute and who has crouched down in a corner begging. Reaching out one hand for alms, the other hand often covers his face because he is ashamed to be recognized. ”(1985: 145) In fact, this type of poor that Jesus referred to is the one who has no resources, he has absolutely nothing.

It should be noted that the intention of Jesus Christ is clear in this teaching on Happiness, knowing that he could use another Greek word penichros which refers to a poor person who at least has something. The penichros is not totally dispossessed. It is true that he is insufficient, and that what he has is insignificant; however, at least he has something. While it is true that both are in the poor category, but the penichros is better than the ptōchos. When we give to the penichros, we add to what it already has, while for the ptōchos, it only has the alms given to it. So to speak, where the penichros can at the limit boast of having possessed at least something, the Ptōchos absolutely cannot.

Indeed, Christ used words of the socio-economic reality of men to teach a fundamental spiritual lesson to his immediate audience of Pharisees and scribes. The one who will inherit the kingdom of heaven is not the one who believes he has at least something worthy with which he can contribute in the process, but it is the one who realizes that he has absolutely nothing, he wanted to point out. to his audience. We can understand that such talk was disturbing to the legalistic Pharisees who believed that they could rely on their work force for salvation.

This approach to Christ is still shocking to religious men today who believe that man by himself can reach God. Impossible. There is nothing human being can do to reach God. The idea which is moreover expressed in the texts of Isaiah 64: 6-7b: "We are all as unclean, And all our righteousness is like a filthy garment; We are all withered like a leaf, And our crimes carry us away like the wind. There is no one who calls on your name, Who awakens to be attached to you "; and Ephesians 2 v 9: "It is not by works, that no one may boast". Man's personal effort is in vain.

The theory of positive thinking as well as the logic of inner energy collides with the idea of the poor in spirit. The real problem of the human being is never going to be solved by repeating a number of phrasal formulas like "I am capable", "I am strong", "I can", peddled by the doctrine of positive thinking. . Christ clearly tells us that the secret to happiness is not in these unnecessary statements; but it is by admitting our inability to please God, by recognizing our spiritual misery before the Creator God, that we can really be happy. Moreover, the idea that the human being is good also clashes with this teaching of Christ. Rousseau made it clear that man was born good, but society corrupts him. This simple first beatitude of Christ totally deconstructs this statement. Indeed, long before Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Psalmist David recognized that, as a human being, he was born in sin and conceived in iniquity (Ps. 50: 5). This is Bible truth valid for the entire human race. Quite simply, Christ made it known that whoever comes to realize this state, and who admits that he is totally empty, is poor in spirit before God. He is happy not because his primary goal is to find happiness, but because he wants to be in a good relationship with God knowing that there is nothing there can be done, So he only asks God to resolve his problem as the poor beggar.


By the fact that he who is poor in spirit confesses his total misery, his absolute bankruptcy before God, Jesus declares that he will inherit the heavens.  their spiritual poverty who are happy. They are so because God promises them the kingdom of heaven.  In fact, what must be seen beyond this teaching is that God gives to those who have no not, but not to those who think they have.  He who receives God's forgiveness is he who recognizes his sin and repents of it with a sincere heart._cc781905-5cde-3194 -bb3b-136bad5cf58d_ This is in a way the idea that Jesus Christ illustrated, elsewhere, in the presentation of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.  Thus we read:
He told this parable again, for certain people who were convinced that they were righteous and who despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing, was praying to himself: 'O God, I thank you that I am not like other men, who are thieves, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and tithe all my earnings.'   The tax collector, he stood at a distance and did not even dare to raise his eyes to heaven, but he beat his chest saying: 'O God, have mercy on me, who am a sinner.' I tell you, when he went down to his house, he was considered righteous, but not the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
Long before dwelling briefly on the content of this parable, we would like to point out that the first four beatitudes find their expression in the latter. That said, we see there the poor in spirit, possessing only his sin, who grieves over his state before God. What must be understood at this level, knowing that his only real plank of Salvation is God, he is distressed by looking at God's holiness because he wants to totally depend on God. This leads to a glimpse of the fourth beatitude which emphasizes anyone who is thirsty and hungry for the righteousness of God. In fact, as we can see, it was because the tax collector was thirsty and hungry for God's justification that he came before him in this way. Within the framework of this text, we especially want to put the emphasis on the attitude of the Pharisee and the publican. It is a question of illustrating the true attitude of the poor in spirit.

With regard to this parable, it should be noted that Luke gives us precisely the reason why the Lord Jesus mentions it. He told it in order to make known to those who believe that they are right before God, but who in reality are not. The Lord Jesus wanted  to make it clear that they are wrong. To express his ideas well, he had chosen his characters well: a Pharisee who is a legalist, a pious man of high consideration in the eyes of the Jewish people and a publican, the most hated among the people of Israel. It must be said that at the time, to tell someone that he was a publican was to insult him at the highest level. But Christ was constructing his parable with these characters.
Also, it should be noted that, in the scene, Christ had expressly constructed the parable with referential elements known to all his audience. So it goes without saying to examine the attitude as well as the walks of the characters as they approached before God.

When we analyze the prayer of the Pharisee, there are two elements that we emphasize. First, he believed he was good in the sight of God. He believed himself to be righteous before God from the works he accomplished. Then, he defined himself in relation to his fellow man before God. But it should be noted that the latter was in total illusion. Moreover, he was a proud man who believed himself to be superior to others, in the sense that he justified himself before God by comparing himself to the publican. This Pharisee did not understand that only God, knowing hearts, can justify men. Blinded by his ritualism, he had not understood that this God to whom he was addressing gives grace to the humble, but resists the proud (Job 22:29; Prov. 29:23; Jas. 4:6: 1 Pet. 5:5). Standing up in a loud voice, which may probably be a sign of disrespect, he counted his benefits before God, which he believed expressed the result of his righteousness.

As for the publican's prayer, on the other hand, he was in total dismay at his sinful situation before God. He recognized his faults. It should be noted that Christ relates that this publican did not even dare to raise his eyes before God. With a broken and contrite heart, he complained  about his own fate, he condemned himself beating his chest. The latter, possibly, during his existence, from a human perspective, had sown some good seeds for the benefit of others. But, he didn't even dare to bring them before the face of God, because he knew that they would be useless. He knew that his so-called good works were but wind. They weighed no weight in the scales of God's justice. What can a man or woman offer by himself to please God? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The publican was aware of this. While the other boasted, he wept over his sin and implored God's favor and forgiveness.

After telling this parable, Jesus concluded by saying that only the publican had gone away justified.  Probably, the crowd did not expect such a conclusion. Knowing, at the time, the great appreciation that the people expressed with regard to the Pharisees, the note of Christ was unexpected. Christ's final conclusion was against all expectation.

The justification of God is not for the one who believes he has deserved it, but for the one who recognizes that he is in great need of it. God's justification is not for him who boasts of his good works, but for him who is brokenhearted because of his sin.  same line of thought, could write: "The sacrifices that are pleasing to God are a broken and contrite spirit: O God! You do not despise a broken and contrite heart" (Ps. 51: 17). Only the broken-hearted, because of his state of depravity, can enjoy the favor of God.

The idea of the inheritance of heaven or eternal life as God's reward to the poor in spirit taught by Jesus, has already been expressed in some way by God the Father himself through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, stating: "For thus says the Most High, whose dwelling is eternal and whose name is Holy: I dwell in high places and in holiness; but I am with the contrite and humbled man, to revive the humbled spirits , to revive contrite hearts" (Isaiah 57:15).  The grace of God is not for the proud, but for the humble. Heaven is not for those who think they deserve it, but for those who think they don't deserve it. This is the very illusion of the religions of the world. They mislead people by teaching them that they can reach heaven through good works. We are not saying that you should not help your fellow human beings. You have to do good with people who are in need; it is a common responsibility of human beings. But, these works can in no way help us to win the righteousness of God. The Pharisee was flaunting his works before God, but he was leaving in total disappointment.

You have to be empty for you to be filled afterwards; this is what the first beatitude teaches us as well as this parable. The Pharisee comes with his heart filled with his religious works, but he left empty, that is, unjustified; while the publican, coming with an empty heart before God, departed with a heart filled with the righteousness of God. To conclude, it would be important to consider the reflection of Martin Lloyd Jones on this beatitude. According to him, this beatitude which begins the series proves to be indispensable, due to the fact that it is a necessary condition for understanding the other beatitudes. It is the first step that opens the way, because all the others depend on it. Read what Jones said precisely: “he is the fundamental characteristic of the Christian and of the citizen of the kingdom of God, and all other characteristics are in a sense the result of it” (1976: 33). Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt.5:3)



Vice President of Standing 4 Christ Ministry

Writer, researcher

Cited references

James Montgomery BOICE, The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, Grand Rapids: Bakerbooks, 1972.

John MACARTHUR, The MacArthur New Testament commentary, Matthew 1-7, Chicago: Moody Publishers: 1985.

Martyn LLYOD-JONES, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 2nd ed Grand Rapids/Cambrigde: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976. 
[1] See Mauley Colas, “particularity of the teaching of Jesus on “happiness”, available online at:   

[2]  There should be no contradiction in the accounts of Matthew and Luke. It is necessary, preferably, to see complementarity. Matthew gives more details than Luke especially on the beatitudes.

[3]  International available online at

[4]  It is important to point out when we say, in the context of the beatitudes, that Jesus Christ does not approach the notion of poverty in its socioeconomic sense, this does not mean that Christ is insensitive to economic suffering in general.  Christ was interested in this aspect of human life as well. Have we learned from the Gospels that he fed hungry people (John 6:1-12; Matthew 15:36)? Not only that, but the Lord teaches to share with those in need (Matthew 5:42).

[5]Those who think that the non-intellectuals will inherit eternal life are greatly mistaken. For if they take the time to write the history of the development of Christianity, they will clearly realize that the gospel of Jesus Christ transformed the lives of many intellectuals who later became defenders of faith in Christ. Moreover, by referring to the word of God, the Bible, we have the perfect example of God who used different categories of people of different intellectual capacity to reveal Himself to mankind. As for intellectuals of quality as writers of the Bible, we have for example: Solomon, Paul, Luke. For the great scholars who believed in the message of Salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, we could list as long a list as possible, but to save time we just want to mention the best known like the philosopher Aurelius Augustine , known as Saint Augustine (345-430), physicist Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), philosopher René Descartes, Philosopher C. S Lewis (1898-1963). In our contemporary times, we still have great thinkers in all areas of knowledge who are Christians like John Lennox who is Professor of Mathematics at Oxford; we have Francis Seller Collins, a great biologist to name those two names.

bottom of page