J. Marshall Jenkins

Author, Therapist, Spiritual Director

Humble Gratitude

Humble gratitude eventually lifts you up.

Humble gratitude eventually lifts you up.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3)

Jesus blesses the poor in spirit first, but we have difficulty knowing who they are and whether we are among them. “Poor in spirit” is not a common phrase even in scripture. One could translate the Greek, “beggars in spirit,” and few of us aspire to be beggars.

But no one knows their utter need and puts their ego aside to express it like beggars. That’s what the poor in spirit do. They come before God fully aware of their utter need for God’s generosity for all good things, from the oxygen they breathe to the car they drive to the love of their beloved. Poverty of spirit begins with the recognition that one receives all things as gifts, and the poor in spirit live accordingly.

In other words, the poor in spirit are radically grateful.

But not all gratitude reflects poverty of spirit. For example, Jesus told a parable of a two men praying in the temple. The first, a Pharisee, offered this prayer of thanks: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:11b-12). This man thanked God for the results but took a lot of credit for achieving them.  He did not consider whether his presumed moral inferiors got dealt a decent hand.

This presents a thorny problem with gratitude. God does not distribute blessings equally, and as biblical writers often point out, God does not appear to distribute them according to merit.  When I get a raise, a good report on my annual health check up, or even a kind word, I know that someone else no less deserving or even more so is going without.  When others get cancer or lose their jobs while I go on with my life, I see no reason I am not among them.

So for most of my life, I lacked poverty of spirit because I thought it more noble to forego gratitude for things others lack. Then I became one of “those people.” When marital estrangement and employment threats happened simultaneously, when I found myself up to my chest in the quicksand of depression, healing began with the grateful acknowledgement of little things.  The kind words of a grocery store checkout clerk.  The taste of an apple.  A place to stay.

And yes, some people were going without even those things. I don’t know why God allows that.  But amid failure and loneliness, I started to understand why humble folks who have the least often seem most grateful.  When one’s stuff is gone and one’s status forgotten, the choice remains to open the heart and receive what comes.  God’s love shines through then more warmly and brightly than ever.

The poor in spirit are grateful, yes, but with humility, not pride. The tax collector whom the Pharisee disparaged prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13b).  Whether he recognized that all he had came from God, he recognized that all that mattered came from God. He begged for it.  Poor in spirit, he came to God as a humble beggar.  And Jesus held him before us as a justified man (Luke 18:14), presumed to inherit the kingdom of heaven.

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J. Marshall Jenkins

About J. Marshall Jenkins

J. Marshall Jenkins is an author, psychotherapist, teacher, and spiritual director. For several years he has been writing on the Beatitudes for people in emotional pain, publishing biweekly here on his Beatitudes Blog at http://www.jmarshalljenkins.com. His newest book, Blessed at the Broken Places: Reclaiming Faith and Hope with the Beatitudes, is now available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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6 Replies

  1. Patty

    During the lowest point in my life so far, I did notice that I had a heightened awareness of and gratefulness for small acts of kindness. It is funny that you should have used as an example the “kindness of a grocery store checkout clerk”….because I was brought to tears on a terrible day by the kind words of a Wal-mart checkout girl. I still remember. Thanks for this post.

    1. jmarshalljenkins.com

      Thank you so much for sharing that, Patty. I have a feeling that the check out girl had the strength of meekness…more on that in a later post.

  2. Thank YOU for sharing this!😊

  3. Michael Parnell

    Gratitude has been tricky for me. When someone tells me that I did a good job with something or that my sermon meant a lot to them, I have tended to just let it run off my back like water on a duck.

    But now that I have gotten older, I see how that unwillingness to receive from others damages my relationship with God. For I had that wrong headed notion that what I did for God would make God like me more.

    I can do nothing to make God like me more. I am loved as I am. That has been a hard lesson for me to learn.

    1. J. Marshall Jenkins

      Wonderful observation. Perhaps it would be a good spiritual practice for all who desire a close relationship with God to observe how we relate to our neighbors. How do we receive the grace that comes through them? Do we respond to God’s grace similarly? Is there a challenge for change in our answers?

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