February 4, 2013

The Point of Choosing Poverty

Thus far in this book series I've shared briefly about who is intended to embrace evangelical poverty, as well as what Gospel poverty is not. Thomas Dubay's sixth chapter in Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom is titled "Emptiness and Radical Readiness" -- but I think it could be best summed up as "What is the point?"

 It's a valid question. Yes, the Scriptures are undeniably clear in their "hard sayings about the incompatibility of riches and the kingdom." Over and over again we read that,
"it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter God's kingdom (Mk 10:25 and parallels)... The rich man who does not share with the beggar Lazarus at his gate ends up in hell, for he had his comfort in this life (Lk 16:19-31). No one can serve two masters; he must take his pick: God or money; he cannot have both (Mt 6:24). The word of God is smothered, choked, and does not reach maturity in people who succumb to cares, pleasures, and wealth (Lk 8:14 and parallels). We are to avoid avarice in all its forms, for there is no security in finite things even when we have an abundance of them (Lk 12:15). "Woe to the wealthy" is Jesus' proclamation to the rich, for they have their consolation now (Lk 6:24). We are not to lay up treasures on earth where moths and rust corrode and thieves steal...(Mt 6:19-21)." [p. 55]
But while the proclamation to live a different way of life than human reason dictates is obvious, sometimes the understanding of why is not so clear to us. Dubay observes that, "Sensible people do not choose emptiness for the sake of emptiness. Of itself negation has no value... The value of negative things derives, must derive, from something positive, something they make possible."

Therefore we can reasonably conclude that embracing Gospel/evangelical/factual poverty, itself a mere negation or not having, actually is so highly commended in the Bible because of what it makes possible

The primary thing factual poverty makes possible is a readiness for the kingdom.
"Factual poverty embraced in faith does something to a person in the deep resources of his being. It matures him, develops him, makes him receptive to what the Lord Jesus is about... One who is poor in and for the Lord is concretely affected by the Gospel... It brings about a felt sensitivity to what the Lord Jesus is all about. It helps dissolve opaqueness, dullness, resistance to the word of God." [p. 56-57]
It goes without even saying (though I will say it anyway because I think it is that important) that the values of God and the values of the world are very much radically opposed. Everything the world esteems and persuades us to chase is 180 degrees removed from that which God cherishes and finds delightful. Most of us, somehow, have had our souls calloused by the bombardment of mainstream media and entertainment, worldly friends and coworkers, and at times even the influence of our own family.

As Dubay points out, one not even go further than an innocent reading of the morning newspaper in order to find the messages that are so alien to Christianity. We all know them (and perhaps have even fallen victim to them, assuming they are compatible with our love of God):
"Prestige is a primary value...bodily comfort and pleasure are indispensable...this life is all we have, so let's enjoy it to the full...impressing people with one's possessions and accomplishments and attractiveness is important...sexual excitement and satisfaction are crucial...success is "coming out on top" in relation to to others...money is a must, for without it one can have very little of anything else worth having in life." [p. 57]

Just take a moment to compare these premises to those found in the New Testament:
"Humility, being last, unknown, hidden in Christ, is a condition for getting into the kingdom...prestige is worthless and even an obstacle to greatness...the hard road and the narrow gate, carrying the cross every day is immensely important...dying to our selfishness and crucifying our illusory desires are indispensable...impressing people is of no importance at all, whereas being pleasing to the divine eyes is everything...virginity is a favored and privileged state, and chaste fidelity in marriage mirrors the very union of Christ and his Church...one may not try to best others; rather he is to serve them as though he were a slave...it is most difficult, indeed it is humanly impossible, for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven." [p. 57-58]
The difference is remarkable! And so it is not difficult to see, then, that the majority of us  -- weakened by our concupiscence and having to live within the world to obtain an education, conduct business, and/or raise our families -- are not always going to be readily disposed to the things of God. Some of us have more receptivity and readiness than others (see the Parable of the Sower), but the fact remains that there is still work to be done to till the soil in us that makes us inhospitable to God's seeds of truth. Gospel poverty does that for us.

I love when Dubay demonstrates the necessity of detachment from material possessions in order to be truly free to love God. He says that, "for us wounded human beings, possessing imperceptibly slips into being possessed. No sooner do I have a watch of some quality than I begin to be reluctant to part with it even if someone needs it more than I do." This is dangerously accurate, is it not? We purchase a brand new, top of the line TV, or that cute scarf we've had our eye on over at Etsy, and in a very real sense we begin morphing into Gollum from the Lord of the Rings. Our objects become our "precious" and we aren't even willing to entertain the possibility of giving them away and doing without -- much less with a cheerful, generous and peaceful attitude! It's not until the next eagerly desired possession comes along -- one that is no doubt newer and lovelier -- that we become willing to part with it.

Dubay continues, "This means that it, a mere thing, has taken a hold on my heart. Having wealth is damaging to the pursuit of the kingdom because the very having does something to one's inner life, one's very ability to love God for his own goodness and others in and for him."

The "very having" he talks about is a deceptive and insidious disease that can quickly and efficiently lead to our damnation. The reason Jesus made the point that it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven is that the person with wealth is literally "blinded by his clingings. He not only does not do what he ought to do with his wealth, he does not even see what he ought to do. To him it is obvious that his barns bursting with crops are to be used for his own pleasure: eat, drink, make merry, take things easy (Lk 12:16-21). It does not occur to him that this abundance should be shared with the downtrodden."

Jesus Christ has made clear that the only remedy for the blindness is a casting off our superfluous goods; we must embrace the evangelical notion of poverty described to us in the Bible and demonstrated to us via the lives of the Saints.

You will not find this message from mainstream sources. Even popular Christian-based financial gurus are not reliable sources of advice for biblical living. Take for instance the highly-acclaimed message of Dave Ramsey, whose plan to get out of debt has been immensely helpful to my husband and I. Many of his recommendations are excellent, particularly in helping people arrange their spending in a way that gets them out of debt and helps them stay out of debt. However, on the other hand, the totality of his message and his example is definitely not one of Gospel poverty.

We as Christians are nowhere advised to have the goal of accumulating wealth, living like "no one else" (aka: sacrificially) so that later we can "live like no one else" (aka: grandly). Neither is it ever indicated that we should have the goal of accumulating wealth in order to give to -- or, to use modern church speak -- "bless" others. You will not find one Saint in the record books that operated by this standard -- in fact, just the opposite is true. They did not work toward becoming wealthy; rather, they took whatever wealth they had and distributed it to others so that they themselves subsisted on very little.

This is true even of those devout men and women who lived in the world and were not professed religious who had taken a vow of poverty. They wisely provided for their family until a time came where they could renounce material goods fully, with provision indicating food, shelter, clothing, basic household goods and - if able - quality spiritual books and education. (In modern terms, provision does NOT mean giving children elaborately decorated rooms filled with expensive diversions while mom and dad work towards a fancier home, sportier cars, lovelier furniture, newer "toys," bigger wardrobes, elegant food, superfluous entertainments, or pampered vacations.)

The example of the Saints' piety is not for us to praise but then claim impossible for ourselves. We are ALL expected to make our entire life "the sacrifice" -- the time to "play" will come in the next life, where riches and possessions will be obsolete and we'll find our indescribable, glorious pleasure in one thing alone: the Lord our God.

If we don't have the sensitivity to see the exquisite treasure of this eternal destiny, we should examine ourselves: has our desire for pleasure in this life dulled, or, God forbid, replaced our desire for Jesus Christ?


  1. I had wondered how this idea of Gospel poverty fits in with the principles of Dave Ramsey's money methods. Thanks for touching on that.

  2. This sounds very much like Gnosticism. Did the author speak of the similarities between the two?

    1. Hollie - The author doesn't specifically get in false Gnostic asceticism and how it relates to the proper practice of Catholic asceticism. As opposed to a Gnostic view of self denial through poverty, which seeks it as a good in and of itself because matter is seen to be evil, the Catholic view understands that poverty is not something in and of itself a "good" thing. It is merely a means of assisting one's sanctification; it does not automatically imply one who practices Gospel poverty is virtuous and it doesn't claim that money or possessions are themselves corrupt.

      As St. Thomas Aquinas stated, "Poverty has no intrinsic goodness, but is good only because it is useful to remove the obstacles which stand in the way of the pursuit of spiritual perfection." In Catholic thought, voluntary poverty is only ennobled by the motive that inspires it and by what it produces. The motive is that we free ourselves to more fully devote ourselves to the service of God and others, and the fruit is that, as the author of this book touched on, we become more sensitive to God's truth and His will for us.

    2. Thanks for replying so kindly Erika. That makes a lot of sense. I really like the Aquinas quote.

    3. You're so welcome, Hollie!