Meals Ready to Eat or MRE are pre-packaged meals given to service members when cooking or preparing food is not an option. You should know a few things about them if you’ve never eaten one. First, they taste horrible. Secondly, they have a 10-15-year shelf life. Third, they have 2500 calories designed to be a service member’s only meal for a day. As someone who served nearly eight years in the United States Army, I have had to endure many of these “meals.” These meals would give me the bare minimum of what I needed, but as I got longer into my contract, they became less satisfying. It became clear that, for sustainability, there was more I needed than the bare minimum.
I recently realized that many of us have a view of righteousness that is somewhat like MRE. It’s natural to see righteousness as a matter of avoiding the “really bad sins.” Or maybe righteousness is a matter of being a “basically good person,” as in a friendly neighbor or a regular churchgoer. But could it be that our typical view of righteousness is the bare minimum—something which needs to grow for our long-term sustainability?
The “Sermon on the Mount” is found in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and paralleled in the “Sermon on the Plains” in the 6th chapter of Luke’s. Both sermons highlight character traits of a person who is genuinely following Jesus. After each virtuous trait (or life situation) is highlighted, there is a result or blessing of living that life. These virtues range from meekness, peacemaking, and being poor in spirit, to—yes, you guessed it—righteousness.
“Many of us have a view of righteousness that is somewhat like MRE.”
Over the past month at the church that God has blessed me to pastor, we have been preaching a series that walks through these various character traits and blessings. One discovery that really opened my mind was when I came to Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied” (ESV). This is such a profound statement in such few words (something we all wish we could hear our local pastor do). As with virtually every statement in the Sermon on the Mount, what it lacks in length is made up for in depth. Think of the implication many of us miss in our reductionistic views of righteousness: true righteousness leaves us satisfied. Not uneasy, not complacent. Satisfied. Does that describe your relationship with righteousness?
If you were to go into your church lobby after service and take a survey of folks exiting the building and ask them the definition of righteousness, what answers would you get? A standard we can attain on our own, as basically good people? Or an impossible standard we can never hope to reach? Would they mention Jesus or the Holy Spirit and their role in making us holy?
As a bit of context, the Greek word used for the word “righteousness” is dikaiosyne (dik-ah-yos-oo’-nay) and is used 347 times in Scripture (86x in the New Testament and 257x in the Greek version of the Old Testament). When a preacher mentions something three or four times in a sermon, we get the cue that we should remember and focus on it. Shouldn’t we as disciples of Jesus be all the more focused on something that God deems important enough to talk about 300+ in the Bible?
“True righteousness leaves us satisfied.”
Surveying passages on righteousness, I found four character traits of a righteous person that go above and beyond what we currently may use to define a righteous person within the context of the gospel.
Righteous Trait #1: Knowing God
The first of these traits is simply this: a righteous person knows God. This is admittedly the easiest of all the discoveries made when preparing to write this article. However, the apostle Paul found it an important enough truth to highlight in his letter to the church in Rome. In Romans 3:21-26, Paul builds a case that God’s righteousness is available to all who place their faith in Jesus:
“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:21-26, NIV)
If you want to be a righteous person, it starts with knowing God through faith in Jesus. All the Trinity is involved in this process. We know God the Father through Jesus Christ clearing our sins out of the way and through the Holy Spirit making us more like Jesus. In this way, righteousness is something that is “given to you and grown within you.”
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? “If you want to be a righteous person, it starts with knowing God through faith in Jesus.”
Knowing God is an education we’ll never exhaust, a relationship of which we’ll never find the outer limits. That’s one reason true righteousness is satisfying.
Righteous Trait #2: Surpassing Pharisees
A second trait I became aware of is that true righteousness comes from a place of sincerity. Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount to Jews who would have viewed righteousness as something attainable by the religious elite—the scribes and the Pharisees who were the religious leaders of the day. Training for these groups was rigorous, involving memorization of Scripture and oral tradition and observing hundreds of laws. The folks in the audience getting ready to hear Jesus’ sermon likely would have assumed that their nation’s religious elites were the pinnacle of human righteousness.
That’s why Jesus would have shocked his audience when he said that, to enter the kingdom of heaven, their righteousness would need to surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (see Matt. 5:20). How can our righteousness pass that of these professional holy people?
I think answering this question is simpler than we may have figured.
“How can our righteousness pass that of these professional holy people?”
These religious leaders’ righteousness deficiency did not arise because of their lack of knowledge of God’s Word. When it came to Bible knowledge, they were experts. I often joke with folks at my church that the Pharisees knew the Old Testament better than any of us ever will. Digging deeper, however, we see that their “righteousness” came more from an outward appearance rather than an inward transformation. They were seen as righteous because of their knowledge and image but not for their transformed lives. As Jesus put it,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matt. 23:27-28, NIV)
Throughout Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he continually points us to the importance of righteousness at our deepest core. Some examples: It’s not enough not to murder; we genuinely seek to reconcile with those that have something against us. It’s not enough not to commit adultery; we reject lust. It’s not enough not to break oaths; we aim to be honest through and through. It’s not enough to practice our acts of righteousness to be seen by people; we practice them for our Father in heaven.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? “Throughout Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he continually points us to the importance of righteousness at our deepest core.”
So, if we want to be righteous, we should be aiming for God’s “renovation of the heart” (using Dallas Willard’s language) and not for showcasing our Bible knowledge or signaling our virtue. We ought to aim daily to deepen our relationship with him and allow his Spirit to grow his fruit in our lives, and not just expand our knowledge of his Word. True heart renovation is how a person’s righteousness surpasses that of the image-conscious, knowledge-obsessed Pharisees.
Pharisaism is unsatisfying because it puts the focus on our ability to manufacture the right outward posture. True righteousness, with its core transformation, is truly satisfying.
Righteous Trait #3: Finding Satisfaction
Thirdly, a person who is living in righteousness becomes satisfied with God. Again, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). Why are righteous people satisfied? It’s not because they’ve checked all the boxes or jumped through all the hoops. It’s because they have come to know God as their Father through Jesus. They find their satisfaction in relationship with God. Jesus is described as the one who “fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23b).
Amazon and online shopping in general have taken the world by storm. This never affected me much until I became pastor of a church in Cheyenne Wells, Colorado. Our closest Walmart is over 60 miles away, and our closest mall is well over 120 miles away. If you want something, you either drive for hours or order it online. I’ve made enough online purchases that the UPS driver and I are on a first-name basis. I have also become accustomed to rating numerous products, which is important as these reviews help potential buyers know if the product is any good or not.
As I type this article, I wonder what level of satisfaction we are displaying to others around us about our God? Do we convey a satisfaction in God based on the transformation we are allowing him to work in our lives? If not, we need to be reminded of the centrality of knowing God in unhurried, transformative, grace-filled relationship. People don’t need to see more Pharisees with their manicured image and impressive knowledge of Scripture. That’s not righteousness anyway. What they do need to see is people being transformed by God and finding satisfaction in him.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: “Do we convey a satisfaction in God based on the transformation we are allowing him to work in our lives?”
Righteous Trait #4: Living Example
A fourth trait I found in my study of righteousness is that a righteous person is a living example of Jesus to other people. Righteousness starts internally but doesn’t stay there. Righteousness moves us outward in embodied acts of love.
Being a living example of Jesus can mean a lot of things, but I would like to highlight what this looks like in terms of service to one another. On the one hand, I think Christians often excel at serving others, especially when they are experiencing pain and loss. I have seen throughout my time in ministry that, as families suffer a loss, we bring food to those that are suffering. We build ministries that are dedicated to bringing a voice to the voiceless. We serve the homeless and the addicted because we are all in need of the goodness and redemptive power of our God. Yet, what I discovered is that this only halfway gets at the fuller concept of righteousness we are trying to pursue.
Sometimes it’s easy to want to serve the down-and-outers. What can be hard is to want to serve people who are doing well in life. A tough question I had to face as I wrote this article was whether I bring the same energy for service when someone has success as I do when they struggle? If our definition of righteousness is being an example of Jesus, then we need to celebrate those in their successes just as surely as we lift people up in their failure or loss. As Paul put it, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15, NIV). Dark feelings of jealousy and greed roam freely in our culture, and they can turn us against serving a lot of people whom we find ourselves envying.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: “Righteousness starts internally but doesn’t stay there. Righteousness moves us outward in embodied acts of love.”
This was something that has become very real for me over the past few years as a single pastor who graduated from a Bible college. There is the saying “ring before spring” which means that a couple will start dating in the spring semester and be engaged by the following spring semester. I managed to stay single during my time in college and yet attended tons of weddings all while my desire was to find someone to marry. For a while, seeing everyone else getting what they desired led to a hardened heart full of disappointment.
But leaning on Jesus’ teachings about righteousness has helped me to truly celebrate my friends in these moments. Since I know God as my heavenly Father, I am able to give my disappointments over to him and his will. I found myself able to attend and truly celebrate folks at their weddings. Part of knowing God and letting him grow you in righteousness means you begin to see people in his image and of his likeness (see Gen. 1), and that’s what begins to matter. It isn’t the money they have that you don’t. It isn’t the family, or the cars, or even the bigger church or congregation. True righteousness of the heart means setting all this aside to love people for who they are.
So, what do you think: spiritual stagnancy or living example? Lean into knowing God through his grace and letting him transform you into a living example of Jesus. The result will be a righteousness that satisfies.