"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." — Matt. 5:3.
E are not come unto the mount that burned with fire, nor unto the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of 'awful' words." With such accompaniments the old law was promulgated, but here, in this Sermon on the Mount, as it is called, the laws of the Kingdom are proclaimed by the King Himself; and He does not lay them down with the sternness of those written on tables of stone. No rigid "thou shalt" compels, no iron "thou shalt not" forbids; but each precept is linked with a blessing, and every characteristic that is required is enforced by the thought that it contributes to our highest good. It fitted well Christ's character, and the lips "into which grace is poured," that He spake His laws under the guise of these beatitudes.
This, the first of them, is dead in the teeth of flesh and sense, a paradox to the men who judge good and evil by things external and visible, but deeply, everlastingly, unconditionally, and inwardly true. All that the world commends and pats on the back, Christ condemns, and all that the world shrinks from and dreads, Christ bids us make our own, and assures us that in it we shall find our true blessing. "The poor in spirit," they are the happy men.
The reason for the benediction is as foreign to law and earthly thoughts as is the benediction of which it is the reason — "for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." Poverty of spirit will not further earthly designs, nor be an instrument for what the world calls success and prosperity. But it will give us something better than earth, it will give us heaven. Do you think that that is better than earth, and should you be disposed to acquiesce in the benediction of those who may lose the world's gifts but are sure to have heaven's felicities?
Now, I think I shall best deal with these words by considering, most simply, the fundamental characteristic of a disciple of Jesus Christ, and the blessed issues of that character.
I. — First, then, the fundamental characteristic of Christ's disciples.
Now it is to be noticed that Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount, which is much briefer than Matthew's, omits the words "in spirit," and so seems at first sight to be an encomium and benediction upon the outward condition of earthly poverty. Matthew, on the other hand, says "poor in spirit." And the difference between the two evangelists has given occasion to some to maintain that one or the other of them misunderstood Christ's meaning, and modified His expression either by omission or enlargement. But if you will notice another difference between the two forms in the saying in the two Gospels, you will, I think, find an explanation of the one already referred to; for Matthew's Beatitudes are general statements, "Blessed are"; and Luke's are addresses to the circle of the disciples, "Blessed are ye." And if we duly consider that difference, we shall see that the general statement necessarily required the explanation which Matthew's version appends to it, in order to prevent the misunderstanding that our Lord was setting so much store by earthly conditions as to suppose that virtue and blessedness were uniformly attached to any of these. Jesus Christ was no vulgar demagogue flattering the poor and inveighing against the rich Luke's "ye poor" shows at once that Christ was not speaking about all the poor in outward condition, but about a certain class of such. No doubt the bulk of His disciples were poor men who had been drawn or driven by their sense of need to open their hearts to Him. Outward poverty is a blessing if it drives men to God; it is not a blessing if, as is often the case, it drives men from Him; or, as is still oftener the case, if it leaves men negligent of Him. So that Matthew's enlargement is identical in meaning with Luke's condensed form, regard being had to the difference in the structure of the two Beatitudes.
And so we come just to this question — What is this poverty of spirit? I do not need to waste your time in saying what it is not, To me it seems to be a lowly and just estimate of myself, my character, my achievements, based upon a clear recognition of my own necessities, weaknesses, and sins.
The "poor in spirit" — I wonder if it would be very reasonable for a moth that flits about the light, or a gnat that dances its hour in the sunbeam, to be proud because it had longer wings, or prettier markings on them, than some of its fellows. Is it much more reasonable for us to plume ourselves on, and set much store by, anything that we are, or have done? Two or three plain questions, to which the answers are quite as plain, ought to rip up this swollen bladder of self-esteem which we are all apt to blow. "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" Where did you get it? How came you by it? How long is it going to last? Is it such a very big thing after all? You have written a book; you are clever as an operator, an experimenter; you are a successful student. You have made a pile of money in Manchester; you have been prosperous in your earthly career, and can afford to look upon men that are failures and beneath you in social position with a smile of pity, or of contempt, as the case may be. Well! I suppose the distance to the nearest fixed star is pretty much the same from the top of one ant-hill in a wood as from the top of the next one, though the one may be a foot higher than the other. I suppose that we have all come out of nothing, and are anything, simply because God is everything. If He were to withhold His upholding and inbreathing power from any of us for one moment, we should shrivel into nothingness like a piece of paper calcined in the fire, and go back into that vacuity out of which His fiat, and His fiat alone, called us. And yet here we are, setting great store, some of us, by our qualities or belongings, and thinking ever so much of ourselves because we possess them, and all the while we are but great emptinesses; and the things of which we are so proud are what God has poured into us.
You think that is all commonplace. Bring it into your lives, brethren; apply it to your estimate of yourselves, and your expectations from other people, and you will be delivered from the bigger half of the annoyances and the miseries of your present.
But the deepest reason for a habitual and fixed lowly opinion of ourselves lies in a sadder fact. We are not only recipient nothingnesses; we have something that is our own, and that is our will, and we have lifted it up against God. And if a man's position as a dependent creature should take all lofty looks and high spirit out of him, his condition as a sinful man before God should lay him flat on his face in the presence of that Majesty; and should make him put his hand on his lips, and say, from behind the covering, "Unclean! unclean!" Oh, brethren, if we would only go down into the depths of our own hearts, every one of us would find there more than enough to make all self-complacency and self-conceit utterly impossible, as it ought to be, for us for ever. I have no wish, and God knows I have no need, to exaggerate about this matter; but we all know that if we were turned inside out, and every foul, creeping thing, and every blotch and spot upon these hearts of ours spread in the light, we could not face one another; we could scarcely face ourselves. If you or I were set, as they used to set criminals, up in a pillory with a board hanging round our necks, telling all the world what we were, and what we had done, there would be no need for rotten eggs to be flung at us; we should abhor ourselves. You know that is so. I know that it is so about myself, "and heart answereth to heart as in a glass." And are we the people to perk ourselves up amongst our fellows, and say, "I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing"? Do we not know that we are poor and miserable and blind and naked? Oh, brethren, the proud old saying of the Greeks, "Know thyself," if it were followed out unflinchingly and honestly by the purest saint this side heaven, would result in this profound abnegation of all claims, in this poverty of spirit.
So little has the world been influenced by Christ's teaching that it uses "poor-spirited creature" as a term of opprobrium and depreciation. It ought to be the very opposite; for only the man who has been down into the dungeons of his own character, and has cried unto God out of the depths, will be able to make the house of his soul a fabric which may be a temple of God, and with its shining apex may pierce the clouds and seem almost to touch the heavens. A great poet has told us that the things which lead life to sovereign power are self-knowledge, self-reverence, and self-control. And in a noble sense it is true, but the deepest self-knowledge will lead to self-abhorrence rather than to self-reverence; and self-control is only possible when, knowing our own inability to cope with our own evil, we cast ourselves on that Lamb of God that beareth away the sin of the world, and ask Him to guide and to keep us. The one attitude for us is, "He did not so much as lift up His eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner." And then, sweeter than angels' voices fluttering down amid the blue, there will come that gracious word, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."
II. Turn, now, to the blessed issues of this characteristic.
Christ does not say "joyful," "mirthful," "glad." These are poor, vulgar words by the side of the depth and calmness and permanence which are involved in that great word "blessed." It is far more than joy, which may be turbulent and is often impure. It is far deeper than any gladness which has its sources in the outer world, and it abides when joys have vanished, and all the song-birds of the spring are silent in the winter of the soul. "Blessed are the poor... for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."
The bulk of the remaining Beatitudes point onward to a future; this deals with the present; not "shall be" but "is the Kingdom." It is an all-comprehensive promise, holding the succeeding ones within itself, for they are but diverse aspects — modified according to the necessities which they supply — of that one encyclopaedia of blessings, the possession of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now the Kingdom of Heaven (or of God) is a state in which the will of God is absolutely and perfectly obeyed. It is capable of partial realisation here, and is sure of complete fulfilment hereafter. To the early hearers of these words the phrase would necessarily sufferest the idea which bulked so large in prophecy and in Judaism, of the Messianic Kingdom; and we may well lay hold of that thought to suggest the first of the elements of this blessedness. That poverty of spirit is blessed because it is an indispensable condition of becoming Christ's men and subjects. I believe, dear friends, for my part, that the main reason why so many of us are not out-and-out Christian men and women, having entered really into that kingdom which is obedience to God in Christ, is because we have a superficial knowledge, or no knowledge at all, of our own sinful condition, and of the gravity of that fact. Intellectually, I take it that an under estimate of the universality and of the awfulness of sin has a great deal to do in shaping all the maimed, imperfect, partial views of Christ, His character and nature, which afflict the world. It is the mother of most of our heresies. And, practically, if you do not feel any burden, you do not care to hear about One who will carry it. If you have no sense of need, the message that there is a supply will fall perfectly ineffectual upon your ears. If you have not realised the truth that whatever else you may be to be proud of — wise, clever, beautiful, accomplished, rich, prosperous — you have this to take all the self-conceit out of you, that you are a sinful man; if you have not realised that, it will be no gospel to you that Jesus Christ has died, the just for the unjust, and lives to cleanse us.
Brethren, there is only one way into the true and full possession of Christ's salvation, and that is poverty of spirit. It is the narrow door, like the mere low slits in the wall which in ancient times were the access to some wealth-adorned palace or stately structure — narrow openings that a man had to stoop his lofty crest in order to enter. If you have never been down on your knees before God, feeling what a wicked man or woman you are, I doubt hugely whether you will ever stand with radiant face before God, and praise Him through eternity for His mercy to you. If you want to have Christ for yours, you must begin, where He begins His Beatitudes, with that poverty of spirit.
It is blessed because it invites the riches of God to come and make us wealthy. It draws towards itself communication of God's infinite self, with all His quickening and cleansing and humbling powers. Grace is attracted by the sense of need, just as the lifted finger of the lightning rod brings down fire from heaven. The heights are barren. It is in the valleys that rivers run, and flowers bloom. "God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble." If we desire to have Him, who is the one source of all blessedness in our hearts, as a true possession, we must open the door for His entrance by poverty of spirit. Desire brings fulfilment; and they who know their wants, and only they, will truly long that they may be supplied.
This poverty of spirit is blessed because it is its own reward. All self-esteem and self-complacency are like a hedgehog, as someone has said, "rolled up the wrong way, tormenting itself with its prickles." And the man that is always, or often, thinking how much above A., B., or C. he is, and how much A., B., or C. ought to offer of incense to him, is sure to get more cuffs than compliments, more enmity than affection; and will be sore all over with wounded vanities of all sorts. But if we have learned ourselves, and have departed from these lofty thoughts, then to be humble in spirit is to be wise, cheerful, contented, simple, restful in all circumstances. You remember John Bunyan's shepherd boy, down in the valley of humiliation, Heart's-ease grew there, and his song was, "He that is low need fear no fall." If we have this true, deep-rooted poverty of spirit, we shall be below the tempest, which will go clean over our heads. The oaks catch the lightnings; the grass and the primroses are unsinged. "The day of the Lord shall be upon all high things, and the loftiness of men shall be brought low."
So, dear brethren, blessedness is not to be found outside us. We need not ask "who shall go up into the heavens, or who shall descend into the deep," to bring it. It is in thee, if at all. Christ teaches us that the sources of all true blessedness are within us; there or nowhere is Eden. If we have the tempers and dispositions of these great Beatitudes, condition matters but very little. If the source of all blessedness is within us, the first step to it all is poverty of spirit. "Be ye clothed with humility." The Master girt Himself with the servant's towel, and His disciples are to copy Him who said: "Take My yoke upon you.... I am meek and lowly in heart... and ye shall find rest" — and is not that blessedness? — "ye shall find rest unto your souls."
"Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted." — Matt. 5:4.
N ordinary superficial view of these so-called Beatitudes is that they are simply a collection of unrelated sayings. But they are a great deal more than that. There is a vital connection and progress in them. The jewels are not flung down in a heap; they are wreathed into a chain, which whosoever wears shall have "an ornament of grace about his neck." They are an outgrowth from a common root; stages in the evolution of Christian character.
Now, I tried to show in a former sermon how the root of them all is the poverty of spirit which is spoken of in the preceding verse; and how it really does lie at the foundation of the highest type of human character, and in its very self is sure of possessing the Kingdom of Heaven. And now I turn to the second of these Beatitudes. Like all the others, it is a paradox, for it starts from a wholly different conception from the common one of what is man's chief good. If the aims which usually engross us are really the true aims of life, then there is no meaning of this saying of our Lord, for then it had been better not to sorrow at all than to sorrow and be comforted. But if the true purpose for which we are all gifted with this solemn gift of life is that we may become "imitators of God as dear children," then there are few things for which men should be more thankful than the sacred sorrow, than which there are few instruments more powerful for creating the type of character which we are set here to make our own. All lofty, dignified, serious thinkers and poets (who for the most of men are the best teachers) had said this same thing before Christ. But He says it with a difference all His own, which deepens incalculably its solemnity, and sets the truth of the otherwise sentimental saying, which flies often in the face of human nature, upon immovable foundations.
Let me ask you, then, just to look for a moment with me, in the simplest possible way, at the two thoughts of our text, Who are the mourners that are "blessed"? and What is the consolation that they receive?
I. — The mourners who are blessed.
"Blessed are they that mourn." Ah! That is not a universal bliss. All mourners are not blessed. It would be good news, indeed, to a world so full of miseries that men sometimes think it were better not to be, and holding so many wrecked and broken hearts, if every sorrow had its benediction. But just as we saw in a former discourse that the poverty which Christ pronounced blessed is not mere straitness of circumstances, or lack of material wealth, so here the sorrow round the head of which he casts this halo of glory is not that which springs from the mere alteration of external circumstances, or from, any natural causes. The influence of the first saying runs through all the Beatitudes, and since it is "the poor in spirit" who are there pronounced happy, so here we must go far deeper than mere outward condition, in order to find the ground of the benediction pronounced. Let us be sure, to begin with, of this, that no condition, be it of wealth or woe, is absolutely and necessarily good, but that the seat of all true blessedness lies within, in the disposition which rightly meets the conditions which God sends.
So I would say, first, that the mourners whom Christ pronounces "blessed" are those who are "poor in spirit." The mourning is the emotion which follows upon that poverty. The one is the recognition of the true estimate of my own character and failings; the other is the feeling that follows upon that recognition. The one is the prophet's clear-sighted "I am a man of unclean lips"; the other is the same prophet's contemporaneous wail, "Woe is me, for I am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips."
And surely, brethren, if you and I have ever had anything like a glimpse of what we really are, and have brought ourselves into the light of God's face, and have pondered upon our characters and our doings in that — not "fierce" but — all-searching, "light" that flashes from Him, there can be no attitude, no disposition, more becoming the best, the purest, the noblest of us than that "Woe is me, for I am undone."
Oh, dear friends, if — not as a theological term, but as a clinging, personal fact — we realise what sin against God is, what must necessarily come from it, what aggravation His gentleness, His graciousness, His constant beneficence bring — how facilely we do the evil thing and then wipe our lips and say, "We have done no harm" — we should be more familiar than we are with the depths of this experience of mourning for sin.
I cannot too strongly urge upon you my own conviction — it may be worth little, but I am bound to speak it — that there are few things which the so-called Christianity of this day needs more than an intenser realisation of the fact, and the gravity of the fact, of personal sinfulness. There lies the root of the shallowness of so much that calls itself Christianity in the world to-day. It is the source of almost all the evils under which the Church is groaning. And sure I am that if millions of the people that complacently put themselves down in the census as Christians could but once see themselves as they are, and connect their conduct with God's thought about it, they would get a shock that would sober them. And sure I am that if they do not thus see themselves here and now, they will one day get a shock that will stupefy them. And so, dear friends, I urge upon you, as I would upon myself, as the foundation and first step towards all the sunny heights of God-likeness and blessedness — go down, down deep into the hidden corners, and see how, like the elders of Israel that the prophet beheld in the dark chamber, we worship creeping things, abominable things, lustful things, in the recesses within. And then we shall possess more of that poverty of spirit, and the conscious recognition of our own true character shall merge into the mourning which is altogether blessed.
Now, note, again, how such sorrow will refine and ennoble character. How different our claims upon other men would be if we possessed this sober, saddened estimate of what we really are! How our petulance, and arrogance, and insisting upon what is due to us of respect and homage and deference would all disappear! How much more rigid would be our guard upon ourselves, our own emotions, our own inclinations and tastes! How much more lenient would be our judgment of the openly and confessedly naughty ones, who have gone a little further in act, but not an inch further in essence, than we have done! How different our attitude to our fellows; and how lowly our attitude to God! Such sorrow would sober us, would deliver us from our lusting after the gauds of earth, would make us serious and reflective, would bring us to that "sad, wise valour" which is the conquering characteristic of humanity.
There is nothing more contemptible than the lives which, for want of this self-knowledge, foam away in idle mirth, and effervesce in what the world calls "high spirits."
"There is no music in a life
That sounds with idiot laughter solely,
There's not a string attuned to mirth
But has its chords in melancholy."
So said one whose reputation in English literature is mainly as a humourist. He had learned that the only noble humanity is that in which the fountains of laughter and of tears lie so close together that their waters intermingle. I beseech you not to confound the "laughter of fools," which is the "crackling of thorns under the pot," with the true, solemn, ennobling gladness which lives along with this sorrow of my text.
Further, such mourning infused into the sorrow that comes from external disasters will make it blessed too. As I have said, there is nothing in any condition of life which necessarily and universally makes it blessed. Though poets and moralists and Christian people have talked a great deal, and beautifully and truly, about the sanctifying and sweetening influences of calamity, do not let us forget that there are perhaps as many people made worse by their sorrows as are made — better by them. There is such a thing as being made sullen, hard, selfish, negligent of duty, resentful against God, hopeless, by the pressure of our calamities. Blessed be God, there is such a thing as being drawn to Him by them. Then they, too, come within the sweep of this benediction of the Master, and the outward distress melts into the sorrow which is blessed. A drop or two of this tincture, the mourning which comes from poverty of spirit, slipped into the cup of affliction, clears and sweetens the waters, and makes them a tonic bitter. Brethren, if our outward losses and disappointments and pains help us to apprehend, and are accepted by us in the remembrance of, our own unworthiness, then these, too, are God's sweet gifts to us.
One word more. This mourning is perfectly compatible with, and indeed is experienced in its purest form only along with, the highest and purest joy. I have been speaking about the indispensable necessity of such sadness for all noble life. But let us remember, on the other hand, that nobody has so much reason to be glad as he has who, in poverty of spirit, has clasped and possesses the wealth of the Kingdom. And if a man, side by side with this profound and saddened sense of his own sinfulness, has not a hold of the higher thing — Christ's righteousness given to penitence and faith — then his knowledge of his own unworthiness is still too shallow to inherit a benediction. There is no reason why, side by side in the Christian heart, there should not lie — there is every reason why there must lie — these two things, not mutually discrepant and contradictory, but capable of being blended together — the mourning which is blessed, and the joy which is unspeakable and full of glory.
II. — And now a word or two with regard to the consolation which such mourning is sure to receive.
It is not true, whatever sentimentalists may say, that all sorrow is comforted and therefore blessed. It may be forgotten. Pain may sting less; men may betake themselves to trivial, or false, unworthy, low alleviations, and fancy that they are comforted when they are only diverted. But the sorrow meant in my text necessarily ensures for every man who possesses it the consolation which follows. That consolation is both present and future.
As for the present, the mourning which is based, as our, text bases it, on poverty of spirit, will certainly bring after it the consolation of forgiveness and of cleansing. Christ's gentle hand laid upon us, to cause our guilt to pass away, and the inveterate habits of inclination towards evil to melt out of our nature, is His answer to His child's cry, "Woe is me, for I am undone." And anything is more probable than that Christ, hearing a man thus complain of himself before Him, should fail to send His swift answer.
Ah, brethren, you will never know how deep and ineffably precious are the consolations which Christ can give, unless you have learned despair of self, and have come empty, helpless, hopeless, and yet confident, to that great Lord. Make your hearts empty, and He will fill them; recognise your desperate condition, and He will lift you up. The deeper down we go into the depths the surer is the rebound, and the higher the soaring to the zenith. It is those who have poverty of spirit, and mourning based upon it, and only they, who pass into the sweetest, sacredest, secretest recesses of Christ's heart, and there find all-sufficient consolation.
In like manner, that consolation will come in its noblest and most sufficing form to those who take their outward sorrows, and link them with this sense of their own ill-desert. Oh, dear friends, if I am speaking to anybody who to-day has a burdened heart, be sure of this, that the way to consolation lies through submission; and that the way to submission lies through recognition of our own sin. If we will only "lie still, let Him strike home, and bless the rod," the rod will blossom and bear fruit. The water of the cataract would not flash into rainbow tints against the sunshine, unless it had been dashed into spray against black rocks. And if you and I will but say with good old Dr. Watts:
"When His strokes are felt,
His strokes are fewer than our crimes,
And lighter than our guilt,"
it will not be hard to bow down and say, "Thy will be done," and with submission consolation will be ours.
Is there anything to say about that future consolation? Very little, for we know very little. But "God Himself shall wipe away all tears from their eyes." The hope of that consolation is itself consolation, and the hope becomes all the more bright when we know and measure the depths of our own evil. Earth needs to be darkened in order that the magic, ethereal beauty of the glow in the western heavens may be truly seen. The sorrow of earth is the background on which the light of heaven is painted.
So, dear friends, be sure of this, the one thing which ought to move a man to sadness is his own character. For all other causes of grief are instruments for good. And be sure of this, too, that the one thing which can ensure consolation adequate to the grief is bringing the grief to the Lord Christ and asking Him to deal with it. His first word of ministry ran parallel with these two Beatitudes. When He spoke the latter He began with poverty of spirit, and passed to mourning and consolation. And when He opened His lips in the synagogue of Nazareth He began with, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach good tidings unto the poor, to give unto them that mourn in Zion a diadem for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness."