The Joy of Poverty
But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position. (James 1:9)
Are you poor? By this I do not necessarily mean financial poverty. Nor do I mean being poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3), a good thing. James is contrasting the brother of humble circumstances with the rich man (James 1:9-11). So this means that James has something in mind far greater than financial need. He refers to poverty of any form – position, pedigree, or profession. You may be sick physically. You may seldom see your children or grandchildren. You may be in a job of low pay or little prestige. You may be of an ethnicity which is demeaned in your community. Poverty can take many forms. The believer, if he is lacking in anything, is to boast about his poverty, what James calls a high position. There are good reasons for boasting (1 Cor. 1:31, Gal. 6:14, 1 Pet. 1:6). What is this ‘high position’ about which you are to boast? We find in James 1:1 that the half-brother of Jesus refers to himself as the slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. James no longer mocks his brother’s claim as Messiah (John 7:4-5). He no longer believes him to be emotionally unstable (Mark 3:21). He has seen the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7), and this changes everything. So the high position to which James is referring is the fullness of our eternal salvation – our regeneration, justification, sanctification, adoption, reconciliation, and glorification. No wonder Paul says that he boasts in nothing else but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!
So, regardless of your lot in life, regardless of your poverty, whatever it may be, you are called to boast or glory in your high position as the blood-bought people of the Lord Jesus! But why? Four reasons come immediately to mind.
First, in your poverty, due to your high position, you ought to know that your life does not consist of your possessions (Luke 12:15). I know what the world says, but it is a lie. You are not who you are because of your money, status, or lack thereof.
Second, if you buy into James’ exhortation then you know that your limitations, whether money, position, prestige, or profession, are meant by God to diminish worldly distractions so you can serve God without restriction. Let’s face it – our stuff mitigates heartfelt, earnest, hot pursuit of Jesus. Jesus said that the seed sown among thorns chokes off life, equating the thorns with the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things (Mark 4:19).
Third, your high position is declared in many ways in Scripture. Among them God says that he loves you (Rom. 8:38-39), rejoices over you (Zeph. 3:17), and cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7).
And fourth, as a warning, the failure to glory in your high position means that you are moving toward the end result of such disobedience – lusting, quarrelling, fighting, and murdering (James 4:1-5).
So here’s what James is after for us – to know that the trial of abject poverty is a means for unparalleled joy. Are you there? In what ways are you poor? Are you boasting in your high position of poverty? Contrary to what our world believes, in your poverty God is actually doing you a huge favour. How so? Paul says that the sentence of death was on him so that he would not trust in himself, but God who raises the dead (2 Cor. 1:9). He later says that he is unknown, but known . . . poor but making others rich . . . having nothing, but possessing all things (2 Cor. 6:9-10). He said that when he was weak he was strong (2 Cor. 12:10). Things are upside down in Christ’s kingdom. God knows that instead of his kindness leading us to repentance it tends to make us self-absorbed, idolatrous, moving us to forget the One who has blessed us (Deut. 8:11-14).
For four years I was a full time evangelist, having resigned from the pastoral role in a local congregation. This was very difficult on my wife. She suffered numerous losses. She lost her position as a pastor’s wife. She lost many of her close friends because we changed churches. She lost much of my companionship because I travelled extensively. On many occasions, upon my return home, she wept, asking me how much longer I would do this. She was sick for six weeks with a bronchial infection, during which she hardly slept for eight straight nights. But God did a great work in her. She found herself repeatedly going to our bedroom walk-in closet and prostrating herself on the floor, face buried in the carpet, crying out, ‘Jesus, help me!’ Jesus was very, very sweet to her during this time of affliction. When I later received a call to pastor another church she was fearful of me taking the call. She wondered, due to easier circumstances, if she would lose her intimacy with and hunger for God!
In what ways are you currently poor? Can you see God in your circumstances? Are you boasting in your high position? Are you using the trial of your abject poverty as a means of unparalleled joy? You may be somebody in the world due to your prestige, pedigree, position, money, education, or accomplishments. But the moment you walk into your church you are on equal footing with everyone else (Gal. 3:28). And you may be a nobody in the world, due to your lack in the things our world considers impressive, but your entrance into the community of believers means you are somebody. If the church of Christ would ‘get this’, sooner than later, it could make a profound and lasting impact on our world. The world is always clamouring for an artificially contrived egalitarianism through racial quotas and affirmative action. Here is true egalitarianism, wrought by Christ through his death on the cross! If the ‘poor’ believer would get it, then he would be able to live with a godly swagger – a confidence and boldness, enabling him to overcome the fear of man, moving him to spend and be spent for the sake of the gospel.
How do we get there? Paul tells us that Jesus, though he was rich, became poor for our sakes, that we may become rich in him (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, very God of very God, from all eternity was in perfect, loving communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He was rich in the perfection of Trinitarian love, yet he willingly took on human flesh, exposing himself to the harsh realities of a world gone mad in sin, rebellion, and degradation. He was mocked, accused of demonic possession and emotional and psychological instability. He was betrayed, abandoned, and rejected by those he came to save. He took the wrath of his Father upon himself, experiencing the untold misery of hell. He died as a condemned and wicked criminal. He became poor that we might become rich. If you are in Christ, then you are truly and eternally rich. Don’t look at your poverty of pedigree, position, or position. Glory in the fact God is showing you that your poverty is a means of unparalleled joy.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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