Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.—Psalm 69:1
But as for me, I am poor and needy;
may the Lord think of me.—Psalm 40:17
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”—Matthew 19:23,24
When I led a ministry to college students in Fort Collins, Colorado, we took a couple of weekend trips to work with a ministry that serves the poor on the streets of inner-city Denver. We went out in the evenings and handed out hot McDonald’s cheeseburgers and clean socks to the people who were trying to stay warm on the cold concrete. We struck up conversations with them about their lives and asked if we could pray for them, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Almost everyone was grateful for the food and clothing. Almost everyone was willing to talk openly about their struggles. Almost everyone was happy to be prayed for. It was surprisingly easy to engage people in spiritual conversations, and the longer we served, the more of our stereotypes and fears melted away.
Then someone in our group had the brilliant idea that we could take what we had learned on these trips and apply them right in our backyard. Now that we were comfortable doing it, why drive an hour down to Denver when we could just go out and share God’s love with the people of our own community? So we set up a time to meet on a Friday night in Old Town Fort Collins and go out to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
It was a colossal failure. Whereas inner-city Denver was a place of crime, homelessness, drugs, and despair, Old Town Fort Collins is a fun neighborhood of trendy restaurants and cool clothing shops. On a Friday night, it’s alive with people who are out having a good time. And that was the problem. People were so busy enjoying themselves that there was no room for God-talk. When we gathered at the end of the night to check in with each other, not one of us had had a single spiritual conversation with anyone. And it seemed clear that the reason for this was that they had no apparent needs. They already had good food and warm clothes and a place to sleep that night. They had money and friends and free time, they were out on the town for the evening, and they didn’t want to be bothered.
The Bible and our own experience teach us that there is a connection between spiritual openness and awareness of need. When life is hard, we cry out to God. When life is good, we can’t be bothered with spiritual things. This is the pattern we see in the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, and it’s the pattern we see in our own lives. It’s hard to make God a priority when it feels like we’re doing just fine without Him.
So what’s the solution? A couple of thoughts:
First, I have to repent of my tendency to use God. The truth is, if I’m only interested in God so He can make my life better, then I’m not really interested in God at all; I’m just interested in making my life better. If I abandon God when my marriage stabilizes and I get sober and get a good-paying job, then I’ve revealed that God was just a means to my end. I must come to understand that God is worthy of worship not just because He saves me, but because He’s God. God is not the means to an end, He is the end; knowing Him and serving Him is the goal of this life He has given me.
Next, I have to remember that God is not just my Savior, but my Sustainer. If I have been cruising along for years with good health and stable finances, my next breath is still just as much a gift from God as it is for the soldier in the foxhole. Everything I have comes from Him; He didn’t owe me any of it and He hasn’t guaranteed that I’ll have it tomorrow. I am always a dependent creature, regardless of how my life looks on the outside.
But finally, and most importantly, I have to remember that no matter my circumstances, the reality is that I am deeply, desperately poor. Not necessarily when it comes to material things, but in the far more important realm of spiritual things. I have to learn that material prosperity and spiritual health are not as connected as I think.
This is hard for us. The person living on the streets knows they are spiritually poor because they have no material comforts to hide behind or be distracted by. But the truth is that the carefree party crowd, with their cool clothes and trendy restaurants, are just as much spiritual beggars as the addict in the gutter; they just have a harder time seeing and admitting their poverty.
The Bible is clear that the people who know they are greatly in need of God’s mercy, and don’t pretend otherwise, are the ones who receive the grace they need. The proud, who tell themselves they are doing just fine, miss out. This is what Jesus meant when He said “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). The thief on the cross who confessed his guilt and cried out to Jesus for salvation was welcomed into paradise (Luke 23). Humility is the key. If I know and admit that I need God to save me, He is happy to do so. If I pretend I’m fine, I deny God access to my heart. As it says in 1 John:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.—1 John 1:8,9
This week, will you admit that you are poor? Will you tell Jesus that you have nothing to offer Him, but that you need Him to rescue you? There is no shame in our poverty. It’s what brought Jesus to earth, and to the cross. If you need help learning to pray with humility, Luke 18:13 is a good place to start: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” May that be the cry of your heart today, and may God pour out His grace abundantly in your life.
This poor man called, and the Lord heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles.—Psalm 34:6