Own Your Poverty: Thomas Merton on Understanding God’s Love for You

by | Apr 13, 2021 | 1 Poor in Spirit

Own your poverty as a beggar before God, and you will know the love you already possess.

Own your poverty before God, and God will bless your empty hand as one that gives gold.

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

One of Mary Oliver’s most beloved poems, “Wild Geese,” begins:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a  hundred miles through the desert repenting….

Indeed. You do not have to be good, whatever that means to you, and you certainly do not need to grovel. You are God’s beloved as you are.

Nor do you need to deny your goodness! You are created in the image of God. Do not dismiss the gifts you offer, great or small, spectacular or ordinary. When you offer your best in love, you glorify the One who first gave them to you.

Let go of whatever unrealistic ideals you fail to meet. At the same time, humbly acknowledge the goodness of your gifts. Both steps will boost your well-being. But neither mental maneuver alone will carry you to the joy and wisdom of understanding God’s love for you. That requires that you own your poverty.

Own your poverty? Let Thomas Merton explain:

If we know how great is the love of Jesus for us we will never be afraid to go to Him in all our poverty, all our weakness, all our spiritual wretchedness and infirmity. Indeed, when we understand the true nature of His love for us, we will prefer to come to Him poor and helpless. We will never be ashamed of our distress. Distress is to our advantage when we have nothing to seek but mercy. We can be glad of our helplessness when we really believe that His power is made perfect in our infirmity.

The surest sign that we have received a spiritual understanding of God’s love for us is the appreciation of our poverty in the light of his infinite mercy (Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 25-26).

As a therapist, I help my clients deconstruct ideals that lead them to judge themselves as bad or not good. Also, I help them own their gifts and strengths. In most cases, doing so boosts energy, improves mood, and reduces stress. (Later, my wife helps me deconstruct my unrealistic ideals and own my gifts.)

But the poverty of which Merton speaks — and of which Jesus speaks when he blesses the poor in spirit — is foundational to the complex reality of who you are. You do not own your poverty by relentless self-criticism based on vain ideals. You own your poverty by grace, and while it instills a sadness and longing of its own, this “wound,” as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila called it, is strangely freeing.

Teresa said that the experience of God’s love brings both the highest joy and most painful awareness of the limits of our love, of our persistent distraction from and even rebellion against the love of God. Yet, far from repelling God, our response to this poverty reveals our beauty. Our willingness to face our utter need for God’s love and leading, our professed need for Christ’s sacrifice and companionship is the sacred gift God cherishes most.

Again, Merton:

We must love our own poverty as Jesus loves it. It is so valuable to Him that He died on the Cross to present our poverty to His Father, and endow us with the riches of His own infinite mercy.

We must love the poverty of others as Jesus loves it. We must see them with the eyes of His own compassion. But we cannot have true compassion on others unless we are willing to accept pity and receive forgiveness for our own sins (Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 26).

These are joyful words, like Mary Oliver’s, “You do not have to be good,” or the upbuilding praise of someone who loves you. It may take a life of prayer and perhaps old age to see the grace in God’s welcome when you own your poverty honestly. Prayer and time give you the kind of awareness of your limitations before God about which Teresa spoke. Christ’s love and sacrifice actually frees you to be honest to God not only safely, but as a prodigal returning again and again to an embrace, a ring, a feast with dancing.

Related Posts

Diamond at the Heart of Poverty
Julian’s Joyful Insight Into Sin
Hold Your Head Up and Practice Confession
Unassailable Security and the Way of the Cross


  1. Michael Parnell

    Sadly, being raised Southern, there was always the command to “Be good.” Grandmother used to say, “Be sweet, not ugly.”
    We get those words on a tape loop in our heads and they can mess with you over time. It takes the confrontation of our shadow self, the un-good, un-sweet self, to come to a better place.


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