• The poor in spirit

    Posted by Micah

    6 September, 2011


    I've always thought it's a cop-out for Christian development workers working in poor communities to say, "Well, even if these people still can't feed themselves, at least now they've prayed the sinner's prayer." But lately I've been thinking it's more than a cop-out-it's just wrong.

    Many Christian aid and development agencies, including those involved with the Micah Challenge coalition seek to address the needs of a child living in poverty across many different areas of his or her life. We call this approach holistic child development: programs that strive to meet not only a child's physical needs but their spiritual, economic, social and emotional needs as well.

    The solutions to some of those needs are clear, even though achieving them might not be simple. An economic need requires money, employment and skills. Physical needs are met through food, water and healthcare. I get a bit stuck on meeting spiritual needs though, I admit. Isn't that a pastor's job, or the Sunday school teacher? Or better yet-the parents of the child? Better still, what if we wait until the child can choose for themselves and meet their own spiritual needs?

    That might seem like a reasonable solution, until you consider what spiritual poverty actually is. And that's the tricky part. What is it to be spiritually poor?

    A survey in the 1990s asked citizens of Niger living in economic poverty to describe this circumstance. 'Dependence', 'marginalisation', 'scarcity', 'restrictions' and 'incapacity' were the words they used; they described poverty mostly in terms of suffering relationships and lack of belonging, dignity and freedom.

    It reminds me of how Jesus talks about being "poor in spirit" (note the small 's') in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). He speaks about how recognising your spiritual poverty is a pre-condition for receiving His Kingdom. But is it just economically poor people, like those in Niger, who are "poor in spirit"? Not at all-spiritual poverty crosses economic divides, but many of us suffering from it are unaware.

    One form of spiritual poverty, in fact, is a result of material abundance-our economic wealth creates a sense of self-sufficiency that blinds us to our fundamental human need for faith, hope and love. Arrogance and selfishness represent forms of brokenness-and spiritual poverty-as much as hopelessness and despair.

    The bottom line is this: if spiritual poverty is the presence of broken relationships, WE ARE ALL POOR and this is our spiritual condition, even identity. We would not say "poor child" but also say "poor me", understanding that we all need the work of Christ. Our shared condition and shared point of need, regardless of where we were born or the value of our nation's currency, gives us an opportunity to have our broken relationships with each other restored.

    Spiritual poverty, then, can't just be an afterthought in child development; another 'needs' box to tick alongside problems like food insecurity and substandard housing. Restoring the broken relationships that cause spiritual poverty couldn't be more important, because this kind of poverty limits our true human potential: our capacity to become more like Christ (Colossians 3:10).

    If spiritual poverty is not just about 'Christian' or 'not a Christian', but about broken relationships that affect a person's life on all sorts of levels, then just as it's not enough to address material poverty without addressing spiritual poverty, neither is it enough for a child to learn about the joy of a relationship with God through Jesus, and remain hungry, uneducated, ill. It is imperative to address both spiritual and physical needs together. Is this your conviction, or do you disagree?

    "And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 2:6-7, NIV).
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    Emily Roy is a long-term supporter of Micah Challenge who recently finished her role with Compassion Australia (an endorsing agency of Micah Challenge). With thanks to DJ Konz and Elissa Webster who assisted with this blog.