What exactly does it mean to be poor in spirit?

In the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). What exactly does it mean to be poor in spirit, and why does being poor in spirit result in the kingdom of heaven? Why is “poor in spirit” something God wants us to be? Why would God want us to be “poor” at anything?

Some propose that Jesus is speaking of financial poverty, that He is advocating being poor so that riches and possession don’t come between us and God. While it is true that Jesus elsewhere warned against seeking riches (Matthew 6:24), that does not seem to be Jesus’ point in Matthew 5:3. Jesus is speaking of being “poor in spirit”;that is, being “spiritually poor.” In the beatitudes, Jesus is concerned with spiritual realities, not material possessions. What, then, does it mean to be spiritually poor?

In the fallen world, poverty of spirit may seem to be a hindrance to success and advancement. Often this is an illusion. Who is likely to be more successful in the long run? A leader who says, “Fear not, I can handle anything, just do as I say,” or a leader who says, “Together, we can do it, but everyone will have to perform better than ever before.” If there was ever a time when an arrogant, self-promoting leader was considered greater than a humble, empowering leader, that time is passing, at least within the best organizations.

But Jesus also said that there is another kind of spiritual poverty—one we should seek. He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). What did He mean? Simply this: We must be humble in our spirits. If you put the word “humble” in place of the word “poor,” you will understand what He meant.

In other words, when we come to God, we must realize our own sin and our spiritual emptiness and poverty. We must not be self-satisfied or proud in our hearts, thinking we don’t really need God. If we are, God cannot bless us. The Bible says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

Pride can take all kinds of forms, but the worst is spiritual pride. Often the richer we are in things, the poorer we are in our hearts. Have you faced your own need of Christ? Do you realize that you are a sinner and need God’s forgiveness? Don’t let pride or anything else get in the way, but turn to Christ in humility and faith—and He will bless you and save you.