This article is part of an ongoing series titled “Books that Changed My Life.” Autobiographical reviews of books that changed our lives for the better and sometimes for the worse.
“Poverty of Spirit” by Johannes Baptist Metz is a beautiful, short, profound meditation on what it truly means to be human. It is about surrender, resignation, weakness and powerlessness – with all the beauty and brokenness that entails.
I was going through a fairly significant dark night of the soul a few years back. Church wasn’t appealing. My Bible wasn’t appealing. And most theological books and conversations were bland saying the exact same thing. I think they all lost their appeal because I had become numb. I felt so insufficient – nothing I ever did made a difference. God was so distant and it felt impossible to change that. I felt small. I felt insignificant. I felt powerless. Then a friend suggested I pick up this book.
Reading this book was like a breath of fresh air, a release of all the pressure I’d put on myself to have my act together, accomplish and succeed. Our humanity is not something we are; it is the potential of what we are continually becoming. It is when we embrace our poverty, weakness and powerlessness that the true power and wonder of God is released in our lives and we are set free to live into the fullness and creativity of our humanity, “we must learn to accept ourselves in the painful experiment of living. We must embrace the spiritual adventure of becoming human” (p. 5).
It would be impossible for me to truly summarize this book for you, as I honestly believe it is one of those texts you must come back to time and time again. Each time you will realize something new you missed, or a new perspective because of the new turns life has taken, the experiences you have gained or the maturity that allows you just one step closer to embracing your poverty.
Perhaps the easiest thing for me to do is to focus on just two page of the book that I currently find profoundly impactful:
Metz starts by calling us to awe at the humanity of Christ. We all too casually embrace the fact that God became human! And we look at that from a mere biological perspective. Sure – he had a body – but his humanness was so much more than that.
He focuses his attention on the example of Christ’s humanity on Matthew 4 when Christ when into the wilderness to be tempted. Satan tempted him with power. Three temptations, but they all boiled down to power.
Metz says to become human means “to become poor…to have no support and no power.” Jesus held back nothing in clinging to this poverty – as Philippians 2:6 says “he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” – he took on humanity in all its fullness in that moment of temptation. As counter intuitive as it may sound, Satan ultimately wanted to make Christ strong, because “what Satan really feared in Christ was the powerlessness of God in the humanity Christ assumed.” When we are powerless, God is powerful and amazing things begin to happen. Satan knew that and enticed Christ with strength, security and abundance – appealing to the divinity in Christ. And he does that with us – he attempts to appeal to the imago Dei in all of us. This goes back to the original temptation in the garden, “you can be like God” – Satan constantly urges us to reject our frailty and weakness and grasp strength, security and abundance.
And what I find comforting is that at the end of Jesus’ time in the wilderness it says “and angels came and attended to him” – even Jesus needed to be ministered to and taken care of. So it’s okay if we do too. We’re human. We’re weak, powerless and fragile. And that’s just how it should be.
In Christ, we find the fullest expression of human existence. Metz attempts to make you see that by letting go of all you think you should be and accepting your brokenness – that is when you truly become human. It is a process. And when you embrace it – your poverty becomes your greatest strength. Much of the time I’m still a mess. But somehow, when I sit for a while with Metz, I feel a little bit better about it.