Hunger and thirst are frequent human urges. It’s immensely satisfying to eat a meal when starving or to drink of water when parched. Hunger is often used to convey a consuming desire, like a young and inexperienced sports team hungry for a win, or an individual who, after a string of failures, is hungry for success.
The Bible often uses hunger and thirst to exemplify powerful desires:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!…Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” (Isaiah 55:1-2)
Jesus used these references in the Sermon on the Mount to communicate a blessed appetite for a particular pursuit: righteousness.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)
More Than Morality?
Yet, the idea of righteousness being an intense desire raises questions. This is much different than how we usually think of it. The definition of righteous in modern times is,
- Characterized by uprightness or morality
- Morally right or justifiable
- Acting in an upright, moral way; virtuous
A life pursuing these qualities, without the proper motivation, sounds a little more Pharisaical than is comfortable. Upright, moral behavior is only righteous if it comes from a righteous heart, which is what Jesus regularly taught the Pharisees and anyone else who would listen.
But the biblical definition of righteous is more nuanced than the dictionary’s interpretation: Righteousness is more than observing the law and far deeper than checking commandments off your list of “right things to do.” So what exactly is righteousness?
Righteousness Is Imputed
Christians know that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and that when by faith we receive Jesus’s sacrificial death and resurrection nothing that we do or don’t do can change our status with God. This is the gospel, the very good news that Christians share with the world.
Furthermore, we’re told in Romans 1:17 that righteousness is achieved by faith alone: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”
That means that Jesus offers us his righteousness, like putting a beautiful coat over our sin. Through faith, God sees us in Jesus’ righteous coat and not in our old, ratty, sinful attire. It all happens by faith alone, which still amazes me. It is the gospel truth that Jesus’ perfect life is available to all those who realize they need it.
Colin Smith writes this of righteousness in Momentum:
People who come to Christ in penitent faith realize that they don’t have what it takes before God. That is why we come, and when we do, we receive the marvelous gift of Christ’s perfect righteousness, draped over us and counted by God as if it were our own…The righteousness of Christ is a gift to be treasured, not a virtue to be sought.
So why hunger and thirst for righteousness if we already have it by faith? How can we hunger for something we’ve already been given?
Righteousness Is Pursued
This is a major challenge of the Christian life. We are saved by faith alone, yet we are called to grow, to mature, to live a more upright, more righteous, life. We want to live a life that is attractive to those who don’t know they need the astounding truth of the gospel. We also live with the constant tension of the sinful world and our sinful desires dragging us away from true righteousness.
I can be starving for righteousness, follow Jesus’ lead, and feel immensely satisfied, but then a few hours later, say around dinner time, I might be earnestly desiring…dinner. My hunger for righteousness apparently comes and goes, and sometimes my hunger for worldly things takes over. It’s frustrating.
Colin Smith, again from Momentum, speaks to this:
The difference between the righteousness that Christ gives us and the righteousness to which He calls us is important to grasp…to all who are in Christ, God gives His Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts and creates within us a new and deep desire to live in a way that is pleasing to Him. Christ’s people hunger and thirst for righteousness, because while we know that we are forgiven and accepted before God on the basis of all that Christ is and all that He has done, we also know how far we are from all that Christ calls us to be. (Emphasis mine)
There is tension in the knowledge that we are righteous by faith in God’s eyes, but that we do not live a completely upright life. One day, when Jesus comes again, he will close the gap between his righteousness and our unrighteous lives. Until then, we exist in the guarantee that we are righteous in God’s eyes and that his Holy Spirit dwells in us, empowering us to pursue righteousness, by the strength he provides.