Few parts of Scripture have been so violated in interpretation, from a psychological point of view, as Jesus’ statement “Happy are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.” Many Christians take that verse as a signal to cultivate a psychological “poorness.” The “such a worm as I” theology has become as useful to the masochistic Christian as the flagellation of the body with whips done in the Middle Ages.

Poorness of spirit is often wrongly identified with a self-effacement that amounts to a total lack of self-confidence. The result is an inability to function adequately. Feelings of inadequacy then become the excuse for refusing to take an active part in God’s work, except to pray and give a pittance. Such a person is unlikely to progress far in his vocation; an employer is not inspired to have confidence in a person who has no confidence in himself.

Where does this grim pattern begin? Perhaps childhood problems were associated with a wrong interpretation of the “poor in spirit” verse. Add to that other biblical teachings taken out of context, such as “turn the other cheek,” “never be angry,” “put your brother before you,” and one has biblically backed reasons for doing nothing—for being acted on instead of acting.

Once the pattern gets established, passages that seem to contradict it are ignored. No “love thy neighbor as thyself,” no “be angry and sin not,” no “faith without works is dead.” The “poor” person brushes away the need to see how these teachings too apply to his Christian life.

If “poor in spirit” doesn’t mean self-effacement, what does it mean? Or, to look at the other side, what would “rich in spirit” mean?

It seems to me that “rich in spirit” could describe the person who is convinced he has all the answers. ...

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