I have often wondered what it actually means to hunger and thirst for righteousness. First, having grown up in a working class home in the US I have no real point of reference for what it means to be really hungry or thirsty. I have always had food and clean water readily available to me. Second, what does “righteousness” actually mean? Is it simply abstaining from evil? Does it mean reading you Bible and praying? Is it only a longing for justification?
For the truly hungry, the desire for food is all consuming. I remember walking through a slum in Brazil a few years ago and watched as a woman set her garbage on the curb to be picked up. As she walked quietly back to her home several children came running, seemingly from nowhere, to the place she had left the bag of trash. I watched as children eagerly tore through the plastic bag and pulled out scraps of food. They were kneeling on the sidewalk consuming garbage, because hunger consumed them.
In the Bible we see stories of people in famine. There are cases where they eat bird droppings and donkey heads. There are even times where mothers eat their own children to survive. In light of all of this, whatever “righteousness” is I know I can’t say that I hunger and thirst for it; at least not to the extent that a starving child searches for scraps of bread.
As a young Christian I understood hungering for righteousness to mean that I would avoid evil things like lust and adultery. I thought that it meant that I would progressively read my Bible more and spend more time in prayer. In essence if I avoided the big sins and practiced spiritual disciplines then I was hungering for righteousness. While these are good things and they are certainly an aspect of what is meant in Matt 5:6, this is a woefully inadequate understanding of the verse.
Without question we see here a reference to the righteousness of God found in Christ Jesus. Those who are poor in spirit realize their sinfulness and inability to rectify it. They mourn over their sin to the point of repentance and faith in the one whose blood cleanses them and they are justified. Christ takes their sin upon Himself and graciously gives them His righteousness. Certainly the God given brokenness for sin that leads to a longing to be reconciled to God is an aspect of what is meant in Matt 5:6.
Is justification all that is in view here? Does this verse have anything to say to the believer who is being conformed to the image of Christ? Absolutely! We see two additional aspects of this desire for righteousness. One is a hunger for personal holiness. It is clear that the one who is made righteous should desire to live out that righteousness in a practical way. Grace is not a license for sin and we are indeed called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15).
Second, is a hunger to see God’s righteousness spread throughout the world system. In The Institutes John Calvin said “Righteousness includes all the duties of justice, that every man may receive his just dues.” In addition, Tim Keller in Generous Justice, says “If you are a Christian, and you refrain from committing adultery or using profanity or missing church, but you don’t do the hard work of thinking through how to do justice in every area of life – you are failing to live justly and righteously”. As citizens of the Kingdom of God we must be actively seeking to spread the righteousness of our King through every aspect of our lives and society. This is the aspect of hungering for righteousness that is most often neglected or totally overlooked.
In closing, we see that hungering and thirsting for righteousness is a daunting task. It is not one that fallen men will ever desire on their own. However, when the Spirit of God changes our hearts and we are reconciled to God we are made righteous. This results in a desire to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As a result, we begin to long for personal holiness and for the world around us to be reconciled to God that He would rule and reign in all aspects of life.
Do you hunger for that type of righteousness like a starving child longs for a crust of bread? I know I don’t, but I want to! By God’s grace I pray that my life would be marked by this type of hunger and thirsting for righteousness. That I would not be content to just go to church, avoid a list of sins, occasionally read my Bible, and pray over my meals. That would be a tragedy and a life wasted.