The Astounding Power of Poverty
Recently in my New Testament class (“Jesus and the Gospels”) I characterized biblical leadership as “bottom-up” authority – an authority that acknowledges Jesus Christ as the sole Head of the church and that always emphasizes servanthood protection of that great truth through the equal priesthood of all believers. This pattern is set forth for us in the mystery of the Triune God, which provides the example of Christian unity – an ontological equality in the midst of great diversity. I hope to develop this theme further in my book Unleashing the Church, especially the way the first man Adam set the stage for the Great Human Tragedy by failing to submit himself to the Trinity and by “grasping” after that which was not rightfully his. (We may contrast Christ’s self-abnegating open-handed submission to the Father in Phil. 2:5-11.)
Of particular interest to me is the Adam-Christ contrast in Paul’s “Last Adam” Christology, a recurrent topic in my lectures. I hope my students do not get bored by the repetition of this theme, as it describes a fundamental truth of New Testament Christianity: believing men and women are to minister to each other within a system of flexible relationships with leaders serving, servants leading, and change and progress always coming from “below” and through the consent of the followers. This is why my New Testament course is nicknamed “Becoming New Covenant Christians,” since the New Testament announces the most radical political thought ever to strike the human mind: the astounding power of spiritual poverty.
As it turns out, we see this theme at the very beginning of the New Testament record, where Matthew offends the patriarchal concepts of his contemporaries by including four “irregular” women in the genealogy of Jesus. In my chapel message last semester on this text (Matt. 1:3-6) I was burdened to show how the idea of universal chosenness works – how Jesus chooses the inadequate, the weak, the poor, the sinner, the outsider – thus illuminating the power of poverty. For unless we become “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), our riches become our hell. Thus from the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel the author breathes impoverished air. To deny our poverty is to deny the Christian faith.
We see this fundamental theme operating also in Paul’s magnificent writings, where weakness becomes strength, down becomes up, and poverty becomes wealth. Look at the way he develops this concept into a major theologoumenon in his letters. For some reason, possibly because of the false accusations of his opponents, Paul elevates poverty of spirit into a badge of honor and the chief evidence of his apostolic authority. The concept of “high love” in Paul (= servant-leadership) is problematic unless we understand that the apostle accepted the hierarchical notions of his day but radically redefined them. There’s an implied contradiction, of course, in saying that leaders are servants, but the painful paradox is precisely what the New Testament teaches and the early church practiced. This mystery was well explained by the late Corrie ten Boom when she stated, “Look inside and be depressed, look outside and be distressed, and look to Him and be at rest.” This intimate assurance that Christ can be trusted is our security. It resolves the dilemma of our insignificance, our mortality, our futility. Gradually we become aware that God takes unimportant nobodies, fills them with His Presence, and empowers them to live lives of unhypocritical love (Rom. 12:9). Our growing awareness of, and confidence in, the adequacy of Christ constitutes the unshaken rock upon which our faith stands.
I certainly have been experiencing this reality more and more in my own life, partly because of the severe mercies God has allowed me to experience in recent years. I realized – and my first book Paul, Apostle of Weakness had prepared me for this realization – that my career had become idolatry, that my deepest inward attitudes belied my outward spiritual composure, and that I had to come to a complete end to myself before God could use me. If the talented Paul of old needed a stake in his flesh (not “thorn”!), how much more did I? I cannot resist a further speculation that had the Adam-life not been broken in my heart I would still be the same proud, self-sufficient “somebody” I once supposed myself to be.
This brings us back to where we started. I don’t know about you, but as for me, I never tire talking about the power of spiritual poverty, though I still have a long way to go in fleshing out this doctrine. However, the very zigzag process – three steps forward, two steps back – has the power to offer us purpose in our pain and even triumph over it.
October 25, 2007
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.