The fourth Beatitude is Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6) Like the first Beatitude, a physical circumstance – one that few of us would want to be in – is used as a metaphor for our spiritual condition. Both hunger and thirst are gnawing, motivating needs. The characteristic emphasized by this Beatitude is an awareness of a lack inside of us – a lack of personal righteousness. This lack will only be satisfied by the righteousness of Christ.
Why righteousness? I have quoted Psalm 11:7 previously, the righteous Lord loves righteousness. Righteousness is an innate quality of God. On occasion, someone may speculate that good and evil are arbitrary; that God could just as easily have decided that, say, adultery is good. But what Psalm 11:7 teaches that God desires righteousness, because he is righteous and he loves righteousness. So, God created in righteousness and he creates again in righteousness.
One thing to observe is what it is not. This Beatitude is not “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for blessing”. The Beatitudes are not “pathways to blessings”. Rather, they are declarations concerning the state one is in. “A blessed state have those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”. The source of this hunger is God For it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). And the hunger for righteousness begins with the work of Christ on our behalf. For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good. (Titus 2:11-14) The eagerness is a product of the purification found at the cross.
In the Titus passage, the satisfaction is something which awaits the second coming of Jesus, as we wait. David expresses it like this: As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness. (Psalms 17:15) Like the other Beatitudes, the promised satisfaction is future and part of the Christian’s hope. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2) This is important to note. The hunger never leaves this side of eternity. The desire for personal righteousness does not abate with the years. No arrivals. The temptation is there to dull it, to mask it with a show or to compare yourself with others, carefully chosen. The temptation is also there to feel the emptiness and, looking at the smiley faces around you, think you are the only one who struggles, the only one who hungers. Instead, Jesus says that the hunger is a universally Christian characteristic. The biblical response is to embrace the ache and not allow for lesser things to deflect this hunger.
The World does not encourage hunger and thirst for righteousness, nor does our flesh. The attack has several prongs. First is apathy. “Don’t get all worked up over things. Why bang your head against the wall?” A Calvin and Hobbes cartoon shows Calvin standing, leaning against a tree, arms folded, eyes at half-staff:
Hobbes: What are you doing?
Calvin: I’m being cool.
Hobbes: You look bored.
Calvin: The world bores you when you are cool.
When I first became a believer, I had no shortage of friends who warned me “don’t take it too far. You’ll go nuts.” As if it’s better to “not be so wild about Jesus”.
Second is that the world does not see righteousness as a worthwhile goal, let alone something to be deeply desired. It’s okay to want things, even passionately, but it wants you to focus on a goal that is reasonable, workable, one of its choosing and not God’s. This substitution results in phony, artificial zeal calling itself “passion”.
Also, there is a false righteousness, where the world substitutes its righteousness or adapts God’s righteousness to its unrighteous ends. Later in the Sermon, Jesus says beware of practicing your righteousnesses before men (Matthew 6:1) People are doing good things but for the wrong reasons. They are looking for applause and self-glorification to dull the pain of unrighteousness. Also, 2 Timothy 3:5 speaks of people who hold to a form of godliness yet deny its power. What good there may be serves the denial of God. In the world, even the good one does is presented to sin as weapons of unrighteousness (Romans 6).
In the Church, it is quite easy to wrap oneself in a cloak of righteousness and anoint our desires “righteous”. By trying to establish ourselves as righteous, we do not submit to God’s righteousness (Romans 10:3) Hindrances to this hunger and thirst include pride (not meek), no desire to depart from sin (no mourning) and self satisfaction (not poor in spirit). Hence, we see the unity and interconnection of the Beatitudes. If the World teaches apathy, the Church fosters complacency.
Biblical examples of this aspect of righteousness include several psalms using the same metaphor. As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God! I thirst for God, for the living God. I say, “When will I be able to go and appear in God’s presence?” (Psalms 42:1-2) also O God, you are my God! I long for you! My soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. (Psalms 63:1) Isaiah also frequently uses this imagery for example, in 55:1, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
In the New Testament, Paul exhibits hunger and thirst while talking about his life in Philippians, But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, (Philippians 3:7-10) Paul rejects a cheap satisfaction of his desire for righteousness. Only the righteousness that comes from Christ by faith will satisfy. Only the righteousness that comes from Christ is a worthy goal.
One other aspect of this hunger and thirst is found in a Scripture I mentioned in a previous blog. Romans 8 says that we who have the Spirit “groan”. That is, we see the creation – subject to futility – and long for the day when righteousness reigns on the Earth. Not only are we unrighteous in ourselves, we live in an unrighteous world and so our hunger and thirst for righteousness extends to the world. Peter talks about Lot, a righteous man in anguish over the debauched lifestyle of lawless men, (2 Peter 2:7). Lot was a man in grief over what he witnessed. The next chapter, Peter talked about the hope which this hunger has, But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:13) Like with personal righteousness, it is easy to settle for cheap or even false satisfactions in this area, but hunger and thirst for righteousness is a deep longing and only the true righteousness which comes with the new creation will satisfy it.
Jesus pronounces blessing on the one who has a deep longing for righteousness. This longing has been given by God, who is working his new creation in righteousness to those who accept Christ’s work on the cross. The satisfaction of this longing is not found in dulling it, or settling for “close enough” righteousness. It is promised in living a life embracing the ache in hope and expectation of the time when God will complete his new creation.