While I studied the Beatitudes to see how Jesus’ sermon applies to our work life (and life in general for that matter), I noticed that in my consulting with businesses the most common problems seemed to be related to the first Beatitude — “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” I also noted that the sequence of problems I encountered seem to follow the sequence of the Beatitudes; thus it is fitting that the Beatitude “Poor in Spirit” is the first in sequence for us.
What is “poor in spirit”?
The Greek from which we translate “spirit” is pneuma, which more richly translates as “human spirit” or “rational soul.” The Greek word ptoco that we translate as “poor” has among its meanings “destitute of wealth of learning and intellectual culture.” Being “destitute” of something is a relative term.
I watched my 3 year old grandson explain to his grandmother why he wanted to watch cartoons on television and it was clear to me that my grandson felt he had command of the world by his effort and mannerism and seemed to be pretty much full of pneuma, or rational soul. I suspect, though, that when he is 35 years old he may realize how little he really knew when he was 3.
There’s nothing wrong with being destitute and, in fact, it is the beginning of humility. The truly humble know how little they have or can do relative to what exists or what could be done.
I recall a conversation with a friend of mine who recounted when he played high school football as an offensive lineman. He told the story of the quarterback that kept bragging about how great he was and how he could do everything. The coach, during a practice game, asked the entire team to just lay down when the ball was snapped. Needless to say the quarterback was thrown for a loss and came up sputtering and yelling.
The coach came out on the field and asked all the players to sit and listen. The coach then asked the quarterback if he still felt like he was the only player that the team needed. The quarterback, now destitute, took on a position of humility and apologized to the team for his arrogance and pride. The coach went on to laud the quarterback for all that the quarterback could do but pointed out that even a great player was useless without the rest of the team.
This is true in the organizations where we work, the families where we live, and the churches where we worship. In Romans, Paul talks about the value of each part of the body and warns of the error of one part thinking that it is more important. The recognition of one being destitute is the beginning of giving respect and consideration to others.
Are you poor in spirit?
Are you poor in spirit? It is sometimes hard to judge ourselves, but here are some self-checks for you.
When someone offers an alternative to your decision, do you stop and listen so that you can learn? If so, you may be poor in spirit. Do you seek out the opinions of others because you value their opinions? If so, you may be poor in spirit. Do you willingly limit what you attempt to do because you know your weaknesses? If so, you may be poor in spirit.
On the opposite side, do you discount the opinions of others? Do you isolate yourself because you “know best”? Do you believe that you are the “best” in the area at something?
As I have studied the Beatitudes I have found some interesting paradoxes. One might think that acknowledging that you don’t know much (relative to all that there is) might make you feel bad, however, as I began to live out this Beatitude I found myself feeling quite relieved and free. I neither held myself nor believed that others held me to the standard of knowing everything. I was free to say that “I don’t know” and to ask others what they think. What a relief. My stress level reduced as a result of not expecting too much.
Benefits of being poor in spirit
As I worked with consulting clients to help them embrace this Beatitude, I noticed how the clients moved from the self-imposed “pedestal” of perfection to the point of asking employees for help in solving problems in the business. The person who is poor in spirit gives credit to others for their help. As a result, employees feel valued and appreciated when their ideas are sought, and then used, and then credit is given to them.
Motivational studies have shown that as long as people make enough money to live on, that money is no longer a significant motivator; instead, consideration and respect become primary motivators to stay with the organization and to perform.
My consulting clients commented that they learned more about the business from the employees than they thought they would, and as a result felt better to lead and run the organization. Employees commented to me that as the boss became poor in spirit the employees were willing to offer recommendations and suggestions about how the business could do better.
I recall a time when I was learning to be poor in spirit that one of our staff workers was planning to leave due to her husband’s military transfer. I posed the problem to the staff that we needed to replace the employee and the staff got together and figured out how to get the work done without hiring a replacement. The result was that we increased productivity and kept the employee-position available for a later hire when workload increased. I was able to focus my time on other issues and I gained a greater appreciation for the people that worked with me.
David Oxberg is credited with the quote: “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” True listening can only occur when you really care about what the other person has to say. Most of us know when the other person is really listening to us or just going through the motions.
One of the reasons that our Regent University doctoral students leave the doctoral program before they graduate is that they are not teachable. A few students each year begin their studies with the attitude that they know it all and that the professors will be amazed at their brilliance. (So far in 11 years and nearly 900 students we have been amazed at perhaps one or two students.) When the prideful students come face-to-face with low grades that affront their own opinion of themselves they quit rather than see their level of destitution of rational self and seek to learn.
When the doctoral student approaches the studies like a child approaches learning a new topic, great learning occurs. But where no destitution exists, no room for learning exists.
Being prideful focuses on “ful” — while only the empty can be filled. I was just this kind of student when I began my doctoral program. It was not until I final realized my level of “destitution” that I really began to learn and grow. Today, I am quite comfortable with my limited level of knowledge and my understanding of how much more there is to know. I am now willing to ask questions and to seek new knowledge.
The blessing from Scripture for this Beatitude is that the “poor” get the kingdom of heaven. I wonder if it is so simple that, if we are to be able to see heaven, we must first be willing to discard what we think we know and seek what we have not yet learned.
The blessing for us in the workplace, home, church is that we begin to relax about the expectations of ourselves and become comfortable with what we can do. We gain knowledge and insight by listening to others, and we gain better solutions by involving others in the process. As a result we “see” others around us in a different light. The people who, before, seemed unintelligent, now are seen as “brilliant” and “insightful.”
Being poor in spirit does not mean that you live a life of poverty or rejection. Collins in his book Good to Great commented that great business leaders had two characteristics: humility and fierce resolve. (I will address fierce resolve in a later Beatitude). Their humility showed when Collins asked them to what they attributed their success. Answers included “good timing,” “good people,” “good support,” but never did they say “I did it my way.”
Great leaders may have great salaries and great achievements, but truly “poor in spirit” leaders know that they are destitute and understand the contributions of others. Being destitute of rational soul does not mean being without material resources.
Are you ready to start being poor in spirit?
Do you believe that others know more than you do? If not, start asking some questions and see what others around you know. Pose a problem and see what solutions emerge. You may need to first teach others the values and mission of the organization so that there is shared understanding among everyone.
Ask your friends, family, peers, and employees to help you become poor in spirit — ask them to point out your flaws. This may hurt in the beginning, but it will help you begin to see your level of destitution. But, be careful here that you really want to know and ask your friends to be gentle with you — one level of insight at a time!
Copyright 2008 Bruce E. Winston. All rights reserved.