Poor in Spirit in the Land of Plenty

 

In many ways, the past year and a half has felt like being an expat in a developing country. Friends and families’ lives move on at a regular pace—vacations, marriages, pregnancies, new jobs, new relationships—while yours seems to stand still by comparison. You’re being changed by the new and oftentimes uncomfortable realities of living in this new place with scarce resources and when you share your experiences with friends you know that they’re happy to listen but don’t know what it’s like to live where you do. You adjust yourself to your new home, establishing a set of new normals and watch from afar as life for you and those you know back home moves forward at two different speeds. You’re becoming stronger, more sure of who you are, you’re learning to empathize with and understand the lives of people who were foreign to you before, you’re discovering your dependence on things you didn’t realize held you so strongly until they were gone. You enjoy your adventure in your own way but struggle with homesickness.

Months into my time in Laos, I wrote about how challenging it was and wondered what of my learning would stick with me after returning home. Would I change? Or would I leave my growth behind because it was too hard to pack? Discomfort had opened wide my world but like pupils dilated responding to light, would comfort shrink it back down?

In this land I’ve journeyed through the past season, there were eye- and heart-opening discomforts, new people to empathize with and understand, and an awareness of my unhealthy dependences. But, one of the best things about it were the more immediate and deep ways I experienced God. A few weeks ago I wrote, “Having experienced both now I can say unequivocally that it is bitter beyond comparison to have all that you want but to grasp for the Lord and not feel his presence than to rebound from heartache to heartache experiencing him at your side.” Challenge after challenge, cry after cry, God showed up. I never once felt alone or forgotten.

About a month ago, I started praying that I would carry that spirit of dependence and faith into the land of plenty once this season was over. I recognized that in some ways trials provide more obvious or more frequent opportunities to cry out to the Lord and that our need of him is often masked by the comforts of life. A return to comfort could mean a loss of intimacy and the good kind of neediness that God delights in when we know we aren’t in control.  Fighting against this spiritual atrophy will be my daily work.

Having moved many times and wrestled with how places have changed me, I can’t help but wonder about the transition from the land of desperate struggle and felt need to the land of relative ease and stability. One of the verses that continually resurfaced during this season as I bristled at my neediness and bruised ego was Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They are first among the blessed. Can I maintain a poor spirit in the land of plenty or will I let security smother it? As I have feared I would leave behind the best of what I’ve learned before moving away from each place I’ve lived before, it is with some reluctance that I let this season go.

Not all poor are poor in spirit. Poverty simply provides better conditions for a poor spirit to grow just as it is easier to learn a foreign language in a country where that language is spoken. No, not every foreigner living there will learn it, but they have the advantage of their environment to speed and facilitate their learning. All else being equal, even the least diligent student is better situated over the person studying back home in a classroom even if they don’t take advantage of it.

Second, while not all poor are poor in spirit, poverty of spirit is a Herculean feat for the rich. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom.” Not impossible, just camel-shrinking hard. Comfort and money make easy masters.

Ultimately—and in this we can all take heart—whether our outward circumstances are poverty or wealth, the forming of a poor spirit is the singular work of grace. Yes, there are environments that lend themselves to accelerated and pronounced progress in this area, but no man, rich or poor, more closely resembles Christ in any way without the ever-deliberate work of grace (Phil 2:13). And, praise God that grace is new every morning of every season.

I am excited to start a new thing, but am wary of being seduced by the siren song of self-sufficiency and independence that it may bring. It won’t happen the first week, I’m sure (or not so sure, actually), but I think a good measure for me to look back on a year from now (or tomorrow even, really) is am I even more desperate for grace, do I recognize more clearly the hand of God at work in all things, has my awareness of my neediness increased, and whose strength is getting me through the day? Perhaps I will decorate my new work space with these questions.

While I know that a new job is “a vain hope for deliverance” (Psalm 33:17), it was surreal to leave my office on Friday knowing all I was leaving behind. I felt joy in the relief that stability would bring. Among the many new adventures that await me as I journey on, I am eager to see what fruit may come from continuing to cultivate a poor spirit in the land of plenty.

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