Editor’s Comments – Voluntary Poverty in the Economy of the Spirit

Christ was born in poverty in the stable at Bethlehem, and He died in extreme poverty, nailed naked to the Cross.1
– Karl Barth

[1] Leslie Hoppe concludes his recent, comprehensive study of the texts dealing with the poor and poverty in Scripture and the Rabbinic tradition with advice on how Christians should respond today.2 Before offering his direction, two remarks summarize the book: 1) “that material, economic poverty is an outrage, that it should not exist, [and] that it is not in accord with the divine will”; and, 2) that “the experience of the poor [is] an apt metaphor for the universal need for salvation.”3 Hoppe views poverty in the Bible as the result of ideological, institutional, and individual factors; and sees God calling for justice and the end of oppression throughout. With respect to salvation, he considers the use of the language of destitution (e.g., our utter lack of faith, hope, and love — our poverty of righteousness) appropriate. So far, so good.

[2] The advice on how Christians should respond that follows, though, feels forced, and thus, not very compelling. Consider these assertions: “if the biblical tradition uses the language of the poor to speak about the human condition before God, then this metaphor calls for an authentic expression in the lives of believers. ‘Spiritual poverty’ becomes authentic by incarnating itself in material poverty. ‘Spiritual poverty’ calls for a modification of the way believers own and use economic goods. It involves more than simply acts of benevolence toward the poor; it requires a transformation of the believer’s lifestyle.”4 Finally, in even stronger terms: “The community of faith needs to make itself poor in order to use the language of poverty authentically.”5

[3] Simply put, what I do not understand is the connection. I get the analogy between spiritual and material poverty, but not how Hoppe relates them. How (or why) does “spiritual poverty” (being destitute of righteousness before God) lead to voluntary, material poverty? Why do those who are spiritually poor and not materially poor have to become materially poor to really be spiritually poor? How (or why) does spiritual poverty become “authentic” or real as we become materially impoverished? Does the Christian community really have to “make itself poor” in order to speak the language of salvation authentically? Answers to questions like these are crucial, I would think, to the direction Hoppe advocates. Unfortunately, they are not supplied.

[4] I would like to suggest a different way of approaching the particular phenomenon of Christian, voluntary poverty, one framed by a conception of the work (or economy) of the Spirit. It should be noted that the poverty I will be considering is better described as “social” poverty, a broader category than “material” poverty. The term social poverty seeks to attend to a more expansive understanding of what it means to be poor.

The poor are not just the cold and hungry; they are also frequently malnourished, illiterate, prone to sickness, unemployment, alcoholism, and depression; they are excluded from many markets and social groups, and are vulnerable to natural disasters and predation by organized crime and rapacious officials. Poverty limits awareness of their rights and their ability to access legal institutions to protect those rights. Worse still, they are often trapped in this situation for most of their lives, with little hope of release for themselves and their children…Poverty is a tragedy not only for the individuals concerned but also for the world at large, being intimately linked with some of the most pressing social and political problems of our time; crime, violence, broken families, loss of communities, public health crises, overpopulation, environmental degradation, corruption, poor governance, and ethnic conflict.6

After introductory comments on Vladimir Lossky’s pneumatology and a recent, William Gibson novel called Pattern Recognition, this article briefly explores Luther’s theology of the Spirit. It concludes by outlining a certain kind of Christian, voluntary poverty enacted in the economy of the Spirit.

[5] In The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Lossky sets out his view of a two-fold divine economy — the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit — foundational for the Christian community.7 What makes his perspective worth mentioning, especially to Western Christians, is the way he relates their respective works. If Western Christians tend to see the work of the Spirit as directed toward the work of Christ (e.g., the Spirit bears witness to Christ, applies the finished work of Christ), Lossky takes the opposite approach. “One can say that in a certain sense the work of Christ was a preparation for that of the Holy Spirit…Pentecost is thus the object, the final goal, of the divine economy upon earth.”8 I am not concerned at the moment with which direction better corresponds to the biblical accounts or whether an either-or choice has to be made. The suggestion I take from Lossky now is merely this: to understand God’s work in the world, recognizing the non-redundant work of the Spirit is just as important as recognizing the singular, non-redundant work of Christ.

[6] One more preliminary observation before moving on to Luther’s theology of the Spirit. In William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard is a successful “coolhunter” hired by big businesses to predict the hottest new trends. As Pollard hones in on the hip, large corporations await her final word as to what is cool and what is not. At one point, she describes her approach. “[T]he ‘cool’ part…isn’t an inherent quality…What I mean is, no customers, no cool. It’s about a group behavior pattern around a particular class of object. What I do is pattern recognition. I try to recognize a pattern before anyone else does. [And then?] I point a commodifier at it. [And?] It gets productized. Turned into units. Marketed.”9

[7] Similarly, tracing the work of the Spirit (Spirit-spotting) requires a form of pattern recognition. The Spirit too does not become an inherent quality of either the Christian community or individuals; the Spirit is personal. If the Spirit can be “possessed,” it is only as the Spirit continually gives himself, while remaining perfectly free. Though the Spirit is invisible, the Spirit becomes perceptible through, as Gibson puts it, “a group behavior pattern around a particular class of object” — namely, certain practices of the Christian community gathered around Christ the Word. With this in mind, I turn to Luther’s theology of the Spirit as presented in his 1539 treatise On the Councils and the Church.10

[8] Luther, like Lossky, speaks of God’s two-fold work of salvation: in the Christian community, “Christ lives, works, and rules…through grace and the remission of sin and the Holy Spirit…through daily purging of sin and renewal of life, so that we do not remain in sin but are enabled and obliged to lead a new life, abounding in all kinds of good works…”11 Here, by way of describing the mortifying and vivifying work of the Spirit, Luther recognizes the fundamental pattern of the Christian life: daily, Spirit-loaded, Christ-configured (baptismal), dying and rising — the way of being dead to sin and alive in Christ.

[9] In his lectures on Romans, Luther portrays such mortification in this way. Notice the paralleling and unity of the Spirit’s work and ours. “‘To be led by the Spirit of God’ is to put to death our flesh, that is, the old Adam, and to do it freely, promptly, and gladly, that is, to despise and renounce all that is not God, even ourselves, and thus ‘not to fear death or the friends of death, the fierce race of penalties,’ and likewise ‘to give up the empty pleasures of the world and its corrupt and sordid prizes,’ and freely to relinquish all good things and embrace evils in their place. This is not characteristic of our nature, but is a work of the Spirit of God in us.”12 My sense of the mortifying work of the Spirit involves the feelings (often repressed) of guilt, shame, depression, helplessness, frustration, and misery (in sum, the feelings of deadness) I occasionally experience in association with sin.

[10] Images of the Spirit’s vivifying work represent some of Luther’s most bracing writing. This life-giving activity is depicted primarily as effecting the three principle Christian virtues — faith, hope, and love — in our lives, and as inscribing the first and second table of the Ten Commandments on our hearts. One beautiful description of vivification justifies quotation at length.

[The Holy Spirit] imparts true knowledge of God, according to the first table, so that those whom he enlightens with true faith can resist all heresies, overcome all false ideas and errors, and thus remain pure in faith in opposition to the devil. He also bestows strength, and comforts timid, despondent, weak consciences against the accusation and turmoil of sin, so that the souls do not succumb or despair, and also do not become terrified of torment, pain, death, and the wrath and judgment of God, but rather, comforted and strengthened in hope, they cheerfully, boldly, and joyfully overcome the devil. He also imparts true fear and love of God, so that we do not despise God and become irritated and angry with his wondrous judgments, but love, praise, thank, and honor him for all that occurs, good or evil…In accordance with the second table, He also sanctifies the Christians in the body and induces them willingly to obey parents and rulers, to conduct themselves peacefully and humbly, to be not wrathful, vindictive, or malicious, but patient, friendly, obliging, brotherly, and loving, not unchaste, not adulterous or lewd, but chaste and pure with wife, child, and servants, or without wife and child. And on and on: they do not steal, and are not usurious, avaricious, do not defraud, etc., but work honorably, support themselves honestly, lend willingly, and give and help wherever they can. Thus they do not lie, deceive, and backbite, but are kind, truthful, faithful, and trustworthy, and do whatever else the commandments of God prescribe. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies and also awakens the body to such a new life until it is perfected in the life beyond.13

Luther is using, in a rhetorically powerful way, the Ten Commandments as a grid, filter, or template for the Spirit’s work. With reference to our earlier metaphor of pattern recognition, we might say that the Spirit is likely to be at work where the commandments are obeyed freely, joyfully, and with humble confidence. The great reformer was well aware, it is important to note, that this kind of pattern recognition is not infallible — for there is an ineradicable hiddenness to sanctification. Such Spirit-induced following comes “from the heart purely and simply, for the sake of God,” and not for “some other end.”14

[11] Luther further identifies seven social practices — another form of pattern recognition — in and through which the Spirit sanctifies (i.e., mortifies and vivifies) the Christian community. He again sees these practices as both the sanctifying work of the Spirit and our constant striving “to attain the goal [sanctification in Christ], under his redemption or remission of sin, until we too shall one day become perfectly holy…”15 These seven practices, “the true seven principle parts of the great holy possession,” according to Luther, are: 1) communication of the Word; 2) baptism; 3) eucharist; 4) forgiveness; 5) offices of ministry; 6) prayer, worship, and thanksgiving to God; and 7) Jesus-shaped suffering.

[12] First, “[t]he Holy Spirit himself administers [the Word] and anoints or sanctifies the Christian church with it…”16 Here Luther refers to the linguistic Word communicated, believed, lived, and further communicated in the world. “This is the thing that performs all miracles, effects, sustains, carries out, and does everything, exorcizes all devils….”17 Next, Luther mentions baptism — “the holy bath of regeneration through the Holy Spirit [Titus 3:5], in which we bathe and with which we are washed of sin and death by the Holy Spirit, as in the innocent holy blood of the Lamb.”18 The eucharist, wherever it is rightly administered, believed, and received, is likewise treated as a practice in and through which the Spirit sanctifies. As a sign of sharing in Christ’s peace and suffering, Christians are called, enabled, and reminded to share likewise in their neighbors’ joy and suffering.

[13] In the practices of forgiveness, Luther maintains that “Christ bequeathed them as a public sign and a holy possession, whereby the Holy Spirit again sanctifies the fallen sinners redeemed by Christ’s death, and whereby the Christians confess that they are a holy people in this world under Christ.”19 By offices of ministry, he observes that the Spirit leads the Christian community to set people apart as leaders to administer the previous four practices on behalf of or in the name of the church. The Spirit further evokes, sustains, and perfects the prayer, worship, and thanksgiving characteristic of the Christian community through which the latter is made holy.

[14] Lastly, Luther recognizes that the Spirit sanctifies and “blesses” the Christian community in and through what he calls the “sacred cross.” I refer to this as Jesus-shaped suffering. The sacred cross means that the Christian community “must endure misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ.”20 The practices of Jesus-shaped suffering are inevitable as Christians “steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word,” “because they want to have none but Christ, and no other God.”21

[15] A political aspect is also mentioned in relation to this sacred cross. The Christian community “must be pious, quiet, obedient, and prepared to serve the government and everybody with life and goods, doing no one any harm.”22 This does not, however, rule out forms of resistance, especially when the government itself is causing unjust harm. Naturally, Luther connects the practice of the sacred cross to the Spirit’s mortifying and vivifying work (this first pattern we considered). “But when you are condemned, cursed, reviled, slandered, and plagued because of Christ, you are sanctified. It mortifies the old Adam and teaches him patience, humility, gentleness, praise and thanks, and good cheer in suffering. That is what it means to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit and to be renewed to a new life in Christ; in that way we learn to believe in God, to trust him, to love him, and to place our hope in him, as Romans 5 [:1–5] says, ‘Suffering produces hope,’ etc.”23

[16] Finally, given this sweep of the works of the Spirit and practices of the Christian community, I suggest that we locate the phenomenon of Christian, voluntary poverty in this sphere of Jesus-shaped suffering.24 As the Spirit sanctifies and conforms Christians to Christ, mortifying and vivifying the flesh, the way of the sacred cross or Jesus-shaped suffering is unavoidable, inescapable. As one follows the Spirit’s lead toward the neighbor’s need, among a range of possibilities, one could easily be drawn into “outward poverty.” Gary Simpson observes: “Love seeking justice operates like a pluripotent stem cell becoming through Christian discernment whatever set of virtues neighbors, neighborhoods, and communities need for their welfare, thus setting out the breadth of Christian vocation in God’s world.”25

[17] Christian, voluntary poverty is what happens in the course of neighbor love — as Christians join with the poor in their work for just access to social goods and equal opportunities to develop their capabilities, and as Christians freely share what they have (including themselves) with those in need. Perhaps circumstantial poverty, rather than voluntary poverty (as a self-willed project), better conveys this Spirit-induced condition. As the fruit of the Spirit, neighbor love in the form of such voluntary poverty will invariably embody the marks of love: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.26 (Galatians 5:22f.) To this famous list of characteristics, I would just add freedom. In the economy of the Spirit, this Christian, voluntary poverty shares in the sufferings of Christ and conforms to his likeness.

Victor Thasiah is Associate Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics.


1. Karl Barth, “Poverty,” in Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings, 1946–1952 (London: SCM Press, 1954) 246. I would like to thank Gary Simpson, Derek Nelson, and Kaari Reierson for helpful conversations about this article; and Brian Durance for trusting me with his signed copy of William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition.

2. Leslie J. Hoppe, O.F.M., There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.)

3. Ibid., 171.

4. Ibid., 172.

5. Ibid., 174. Emphasis mine.

6. Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, Roland Bénabou, Dilip Mookherjee, “Introduction and Overview,” in idem, Understanding Poverty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) xiii.

7. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998) esp. chap 8.

8. Ibid., 159.

9. William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (New York: Berkley Books, 2003) 86.

10. Martin Luther, “On the Councils and the Church,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).

11. Ibid., 541.

12. Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, Luther’s Works, vol. 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972) 356.

13. “On the Councils and the Church,” 542f.

14. Ibid., 564.

15. Ibid., 562f.

16. Ibid., 546.

17. Ibid., 547.

18. Ibid., 548.

19. Ibid., 550.

20. Ibid., 561.

21. Ibid., 562.

22. Ibid., 562.

23. Ibid., 562.

24. To explore setting the phenomenon of Christian, voluntary poverty within the sphere of the eucharist, see Martin Luther, The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) 242-266.

25. Gary Simpson, “Fruit of the Spirit,” forthcoming in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, eds. Joel Green, Jacqueline Lapsley, Rebekah Miles, and Allen Verhey (Baker Academic).

26. Cf. Ibid.

Victor Thasiah

Vic Thasiah

Vic Thasiah is a California Naturalist and trail runner.  He is the founder and executive director of Runners for Public Lands, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit environmental organization, and an associate professor and the chair of the religion department at California Lutheran University.