Most people probably don’t read the Sermon on the Mount and think, “Hey, there’s the secret to happiness!” After all, it seems like a list of things you have to do. And not exciting things, either: Be meek. Be merciful. Be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

That doesn’t really sound like a list of ways to make my heart happy.

But Jesus says that the meek, the merciful, the persecuted … these people are blessed. That’s the same Greek word for “happy.” He must know something we don’t.

The key to understanding the beatitudes is found in the very first one: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3 ESV). In fact, once you get this one, all the others fall right into place.

It might be the key, but it is also probably one of the hardest to understand. What does “poverty of spirit” mean, anyway?

Poverty of spirit means we embrace daily dependence on God for all that we need. It means that we don’t feel that we have sufficient resources in ourselves to face life’s challenges. It has less to do with being monetarily rich or poor and is more about whether we embrace daily dependence on God for all that we need.

In Greek, you see, there are two terms for “poor.” The first refers to those who struggled financially, who had barely enough money to eat (what we call “college students” today). The second was ptóchos, which was an onomatopoeia — you know, where the word sounds like what it indicates (like “boom” or “hiss” … but not like “onomatopoeia” — go figure). Say ptóchos out loud. It sounds like “spit.” Ptóchos meant the outcast of society, the despised. People so low that you could spit on them.

These are the kinds of poor Jesus is talking about — those despised for how weak they are. These people end up being the ones who inherit the Kingdom itself.

To illustrate his point, think of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Two men went to the temple to pray, but their approach was pretty different. The Pharisee prayed to himself and exalted himself for meeting his religious quota, while the tax collector recognized himself as a sinner and beat his chest, begging God for mercy.

Jesus said that the Pharisee walked away with only his own righteousness, but the tax collector went home justified. He walked into the temple poor in spirit and left with the righteousness of God credited to his account.

God only fills empty hands. If you are convinced of your own righteousness, you will not receive the righteousness of God. But if you feel like you are poor in righteousness, you can receive God’s gift of righteousness.

You can apply this principle across the broad spectrum of the Christian life, also: Those who feel capable as parents will not experience the power of God in their parenting. Those who feel capable in their relationships will not experience the power of God in their relationships.

It is when we depend on God and not on ourselves for provision, wisdom, power, and guidance that we access his power. Belief unlocks the power of God.

Most of us have spent our whole lives trying to become anything but poor in spirit. We want to be rich in spirit — or at least middle class in spirit. We want to feel like we are sufficient for the task, like we have it under control and don’t need to be afraid going into the future.

But not only does this keep us cut off from God’s help; it also corrupts our spirit. Like the Pharisee, being rich in ourselves makes us proud and disdainful of others. This religious man despises others he sees as not as good or capable as he is. He can’t help it, because when you are proud, your life becomes an endless cycle of comparison and competition.

Furthermore, when we become rich in ourselves, we also become self-focused. The reason this guy in Jesus’ story prays to himself is that is all he thinks about.

Maybe the worst effect of being rich in yourself is that you become ungrateful, because you are always focused on what you think you are entitled to and how others aren’t giving it to you. You always feel like you deserve more, like you’re being wronged. And that makes you unhappy. Ungrateful people are always unhappy people.

But when you realize that every breath you take and every step you take is a gift of God, in grace, that makes you grateful, and you become happy. Grateful people are happy people.

We need to have the spirit of Gideon, who said, “I am the smallest man from the smallest tribe.” Of David, who said, “Who am I, God, that you should offer to build me a house and promise me all these things?”

Because then, not only will you have access to the power of God. You’ll also be insanely happy!

For more, be sure to listen to the entire message here.