What Does Spiritual Poverty Look Like When Filing for Bankruptcy Won’t Help You Unless You’re Donald Trump?

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The Bread Line by George Segal, Photo Credit: F. Delventhal

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3; ESV). 

A Forbes 2011 article titled, “Fourth Time’s A Charm: How Donald Trump Made Bankruptcy Work For Him,” explains how Donald Trump was able to solve bankruptcy several times and still be a multi-billionaire. Two items the author notes are that Trump’s name brand helped him as well as that he insulated himself personally much of the time. Apart from his first experience with bankruptcy, his personal fortune was not at stake. Most of us are not so astute in navigating the system or have the name brand recognition and worth to keep financial stakeholders loaning and investing in us.

Just see what happens if you tell a banker that you are bankrupt. I spoke with a banker named Jennifer, whose financial institution has a credit rating of A, which means they rarely fail when it comes to debts because they are exceptionally conservative when loaning to customers. Jennifer told me that in her world, “bankruptcy is the equivalent of a financial scarlet letter.” Her bank will not touch someone who has claimed bankruptcy for seven years. While she cannot discourage someone for applying for credit, she and her colleagues hate to take an application from someone who has claimed bankruptcy. It is a waste of her time, since her bank will automatically decline lending to the person. In that case, the individual in question only has one option available to them: find an institution willing to take a risk, which will involve high interest rates and the probability of being taken advantage.

Financial bankruptcy entails not having anything to secure debt, not even a trustworthy promise to ensure that you will repay. In that case, who will invest in you? Jennifer goes out of her way to keep people with major debt from maxing out their opportunities to borrow and falling into bankruptcy. It is a tragic irony that her supervisors encourage her to keep loaning to someone even though they will plunge further and further into the abyss of debt until they reach bankrupt bottom. She has even taken a hit financially by refusing to loan to a customer who was on the near inevitable path to bankruptcy. Her boss simply transferred the application to another banker who processed the form and gave the man the loan, thereby benefiting the bank and the banker’s own quota.

Jennifer is keenly able to spot hypocrisy a mile away in the business codes of her financial institution as well as institutional religion. As a Christian leader and pastor’s wife, she sees inconsistencies as we quote God’s spiritual codes in the church but cover our bases and refuse to confess when we fail to live them out. All too often, we fail to come clean on making public our spiritual tax returns. What do we have to hide? Jennifer and her husband have faced difficulties in church based on their integrity and honesty. As a result of their integrity and honesty inside and outside church, they have struggled to keep their family in the black financially. Moreover, they are transparent in their struggle to take to heart the red-letter words of Jesus, including the need to be poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3) to gain credit with God.

Jennifer thinks I am overestimating her spiritual poverty or bankruptcy. This just goes to show that those who are truly poor in spirit do not realize it. Otherwise, they would boast in their extreme state of spiritual depth and not sense how truly desperately they are for God.

As John R. W. Stott claimed in his exposition on Matthew 5:3 (refer to my biblical meditation on spiritual poverty for the source), being poor in spirit means being spiritually bankrupt. These are the only people whom God will bless. God does not bless those who think they are spiritually rich in themselves, only those who sense they have nothing to secure God’s mercy and grace—not even a religious family’s name.

Jennifer and her family face many struggles when it comes to being salt and light in the world of banking and the church. Being salt and light comes with a spiritual price tag—including persecution in religious institutions, sometimes a financial one, too. Even so, I believe Jennifer and her husband have an open line of credit with God for the abundance of grace and mercy because they remain spiritually poor. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first beatitude is on spiritual poverty (Matthew 5:3) and the last beatitude is on persecution (Matthew 5:10). Suffering often serves as a fast track to getting back on one’s feet with spiritual solvency, as it can lead us to sense our need for God. As with bankruptcy, spiritual poverty comes with a price tag.

The reader should consider first the biblical meditation titled, “‘Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit’—Not Those with Spiritual Bravado.” It can be found here.

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