Heartbroken is the gentlest word to describe how I felt when I saw the images of Tacloban, Philippines, completely destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan. My haunted feelings of helplessness were my infinitely small way of emphasizing with the suffering and poverty the Filipino people were experiencing.
Tacloban is special to me because it is a place I used to visit as a child. Though I grew up in Canada, my parents would bring me back to visit the Philippines, the land of my birth. I was always startled by the intense poverty and struggled to make sense of what I saw.
As a foreigner, I find it easy to remove myself from the problem of poverty and treat the problem of physical poverty as an outsider. There are many ways I do this. It shows up in my attitude of living for myself or feeling secure in my safe and comfortable life. I naively reason that “I live far from natural disasters or calamity.” I know I am not exempt from suffering, but I often live in denial that it could happen to me.
I’ve noticed that whenever I separate myself from the problem of poverty and treat it as an issue “out there” facing “other people” I sear my spiritual and emotional sensitivity to the suffering of others. Slowly my heart becomes cold towards the issues in the world and even to the suffering faced by the people I know personally. When this desensitization happens I become less aware of my own poverty and am even blinded to it. What do I mean by “my own poverty?”
I’ve learned that poverty is not limited to one’s physical state of existence. We can also be impoverished relationally, emotionally, and even spiritually. I’ve seen more of this kind of poverty in our North American society. I call this “poverty of spirit.”
When I harden my heart to the suffering of others I begin to experience “poverty of spirit”. Because to truly experience compassion for the suffering of others I must also be aware of my own neediness and poverty. What does it really mean to be in poverty?
To be in poverty is to lack life’s basic necessities. To live and flourish we need to have these met. But is that it? Have you ever thought it just as important to have our inner needs met?
We experience poverty of spirit when we suffer from lack of community or deep relational connection with family and friends. We experience poverty of spirit when we suffer from depression, anxiety and many other emotional and psychological unrest. And we also experience poverty of spirit when we suffer from spiritual emptiness and weariness, lacking hope and vision for our lives. Poverty is not just a physical problem “out there,” it is also right here, inside of each of us. We can all be poor in spirit, no matter how rich or poor we are.
Poverty is central to the message of Christmas. The story of Jesus’ birth is set against a backdrop of great suffering and poverty. Jesus did not separate himself from the reality of the world’s suffering: he chose to be born into it.
Jesus was born into a poor family, to a woman who was nearly a single mother, in an oppressed and marginalized nation. Jesus was essentially born into poverty.
What’s amazing about Christianity’s account of Jesus’ interaction with the world is that the Creator, all-powerful God of the universe, would choose to experience human life amongst the marginalized and weak. Jesus knew he was going to be treated badly. And incredibly, that was all in the plan.
Going to the extreme to identify with the poor by becoming one of them, Jesus showed his absolute commitment to prove God’s love for humanity. In ancient times, it was unheard of and unthinkable for the gods to associate with humans in this way. It was the other way around: the ancient gods looked down on humans, especially the poor. Christianity’s God is drastically different because Jesus takes the side of the suffering and needy (Matthew 5:3)
Jesus’ love for the poor gives us insight into what God’s heart treasures. The Bible teaches, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). This teaching explains that you can find out what your heart loves most by seeing what you value or treasure. For Jesus, his treasure on earth are the people who acknowledge that they are poor in spirit and come to him to be made whole.
Why is God’s heart close to the poor and suffering? Because when we’re poor in spirit we are in a humble position to be open and sensitive to God. In this posture we are closer to grasping the spiritual reality of “true riches.” God’s definition of true riches is paradoxical to our world’s understanding. In God’s spiritual reality, true riches are found when we come to know and experience the deep love God has for us.
It is often the poor who understand this more readily because when we’re desperate and hope cannot be found in our present circumstances, we are more likely to turn to God and to our relationships with family and friends. Unfortunately, often the abundance of material wealth can blind us to these treasures right in front of us.
We are all poor, regardless of our present state of material provision. It is only when we recognize how poor we are and our need for God that we can discover true riches and experience the richness of God’s love and grace towards us.