“Give me neither poverty nor riches,” is the prayer of a very wise man. But, although our nature is so averse from poverty, yet when it pleases God to call any of us to that state, He assigns us a post of honour, and He takes it very well when we glorify Him in that state. Sanctified poverty is an honourable state. It was the lot of Elijah and of many of the Old Testament saints. It was likewise the lot of the Apostles and many of the primitive Christians. The great Head of the Church was so poor that “He had not where to lay His head.”
If poverty has its disadvantages, it has likewise, its great advantages to balance them. It is said to be an enemy to virtue. It is so, as it exposes us to temptations; but what state in life is without temptations? The wise man prayed against poverty because he saw this. That poverty, however, is a friend to virtue, is equally true, or God would not call many of His people to that kind of warfare;
and, when He does so, if we make a good use of it, poverty is a great friend to virtue. In fact, we find that some of the choicest spirits have been trysted with poverty. This is confirmed by the testimony of sacred and secular history. We need not mention the disadvantages of povertyÂ—everybody knows them. We shall therefore take a view of the bright side of poverty. Poverty is like the pillar of cloud and fire which the Children of Israel had in the wildernessÂ—to the Egyptians it was a cloud and darkness, but to the Israelites it gave light by night. In like manner, poverty is a dark state to the wicked. They murmur, they fret, they complain and they find fault, and they take forbidden by-paths to better their state. Whereas to the people of God, poverty is a blessed state. They feel it like men, else it would be no trial, but they bear it like Christians. Their passions rebel; they bring their rebel passions to a throne of graceÂ—there they get them hushed. In this unpromising soil of poverty they find spiritual treasures of riches. Poverty gives them a spirit of independence,* a spirit of humility and resignation and self-denial, and a spirit of heavenly-mindedness and contempt of the world.
1. Then, poverty gives them a spirit of independence. A dependent state, if we improve it properly, is calculated to give us an independent spirit. The spirit of the Gospel is an independent spirit. Ask who is the greater slaveÂ—the poor man or the rich man? Search, and you shall find it is the rich. What makes a person cringe and stoop to do mean actions? What makes him afraid to please himself or to displease the great? His wealth. When a poor man is a slave in this manner, he is a mere fool for his pains. His poverty, when he is a good man and has trust in God, often makes him independent. Why should he stoop to do a mean thing which his soul abhors? He reasons thus with himselfÂ—Why should I do such an action and offend my Maker? Be it so that I disoblige my master;
where is the great temptation, even in this world, to do what he desires? It is true he threatens to turn me out of house and hold.
What then? The world is wide, and I have little to lose. In this manner does the good man reason with himself, and his reasoning carries him through. We have often heard of the heroic spirit of a poor man procure him favour even from his oppressor. And when the contrary happens, the world is so just that they will pay the tribute of esteem to the man who does his duty, however poor his lot may be, and Providence raises him a friend; so that, instead of losing even in this world, he even gains by doing his duty. Such things have often happened. This, then, is one of the advantages of poverty.
2. Poverty gives them a spirit of humility, resignation and self-denial. Although the spirit of the Gospel is an independent spirit, it is not an ill-bred spirit. It is a spirit of humility and meekness. Contempt, or at least want of respect, is often the concomitant of poverty. There is no man but thinks something of himself. The poor man, however, who has an empty purse and a ragged coat, however high he may be in virtue, will not meet with outward respect. Though a poor man should save a city, his good action will be forgotten, his good sense is despised, and his good advice received with a sneer. It will sometimes provoke his resentment to find that the insipid nonsense of the rich fool is heard with applause, and what he advances received as an oracle. He finds, however, that this is the fate of poverty. He yields to his fate, and submits with silence. The poor man, however conscious of his own value, may meet with scorn and insult; and though he be a man of virtue and good sense, he may have a great alloy of spiritual pride. To separate the gold from the dross, he may meet with the fiery trial of poverty and contempt; this brings down his pride. It is his mercy that the world is blind to his virtues. His self-love is ready to magnify them; the world despises them, and this makes himself examine them. He weighs himself in the balance of the sanctuary, and finds himself wanting, and this makes him receive the contempt of others with patience. When his enemies laugh at his foibles, despise his virtues, and ridicule his best actions; and when his friends praise him perhaps too much, his heart tells him, perhaps, that they are both wrong, and he finds that he is as much indebted to the virulence of his enemies as he is to the goodwill of his friends, and perhaps more. In either case he finds how little worth praise is;
he does not eagerly pursue it, and he resigns himself to the Will of God, whether he meets with respect or reproach, as knowing that His dispensations are just and good.
3. Lastly, poverty gives them a spirit of heavenly mindedness and contempt for the world. God is infinitely wise and good. He knows what is best for us. Poverty weans our affections from the world. The Church was clothed with the sun, but she had the moon under her feet. At first, perhaps, they make a virtue of necessity, but when they examine things aright, they despise the world in earnest; they believe that it has nothing substantial in it. They believe, likewise, that if riches had been a more eligible lot, their Heavenly Father would have given them riches. He chooses their inheritance for His people; poverty sublimates their affections, and sets them upon
heaven. When they think of heaven, poverty and riches are the same to them. It is very likely that one of the holy angels would look upon a cottage and a palace with equal indifference; and during the half-hour when a good man gets a glimpse of glory, he sees as little solid satisfaction in riches as in poverty. When faith gives him a view of the land that is far off, he sees but little in this valley of tears. Poverty, then, is the blessed means which his Maker uses to raise his soul to the joys of Paradise. It is only, however, when poverty has this effect that it is a blessing. In itself it is far from being desirable. It is, however, a mercy even to the wicked themselves that they are poor. God is wise as well as good. If poverty does not do good, no other state will do it. To the wicked it becomes a curse; but to the Israel of God it is fraught with many and rich blessings.
*This word is used in the sense of “uprightness”.