Monday, March 21, 2011

Renouncing Righteousness

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5.6)

The word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. (Psalm 33.4-5)

Right All the Time

Great-aunt Pearl was a loving, godly woman with one exasperating flaw. She believed she was right all the time—so much so she felt she’d never been wrong. One evening, the family listened as another great-aunt read letters written by her sisters when they were young women. She came on one Pearl sent soon after she married, before she and my great-uncle switched from the denomination they grew up in to a Pentecostal church. “Clyde has a good job and we’re tithing at First Methodist,” the letter said. Pearl stopped the reading. “I didn’t write that letter.” She agreed it was her hand and signature, but insisted she didn’t write it. We asked why. “Because we never tithed anywhere but The Church of God.” We did our best to persuade her tithing to any church is always correct. Yet she was so certain that her current denomination was the right one she preferred looking foolish rather than conceding she once held different beliefs. At first, we laughed. But when she wouldn’t drop the matter—as if someone forged the letter to discredit her faith—we called it a night. The whole thing got too silly to pursue. Now that I look back on it, however, I’m sad twice over. Once, because Pearl’s compulsion to be right all the time severely distorted her idea of what being right was. Second, it saddens me because her denial was flagrantly wrong. She knew like the rest of us that she wrote the letter. In rushing to tout her righteousness, she lied.

If you’ve never met a Pearl or two, live long enough and you will. There’s no shortage of people so convinced they’re always right they’d rather sin than admit they’re wrong. And while I pray none of us fits this bill, I’d venture to say we’ve all fallen into the syndrome a few times (at least). That’s the problem with banking on our own righteousness. Sooner or later, we mess up. We impulsively say or do something undeniably wrong that backs us into a corner. Either we admit our error, and thus confess we’re not as righteous as we let on—which, for the record, would be the right thing to do—or we maintain the righteous façade at all costs. Plan B gets us in a world of trouble, though, because at some point it incites patently wrong behavior, whether its protecting our pride, lying, alienating others, and so on. Believing we’re right all the time is a fool’s game, a gamble we’re unwise to take, given that everyone who plays it always loses. “There is no one righteous, not even one,” Romans 3.11 informs us, echoing dozens of Old Testament texts like Isaiah 64.6: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”

The Source of Righteousness

Equal doses of reality and humility help rid us of faith in our righteousness. Yet once we’re cured, where does that leave us? Aren’t we called to be righteous? Actually, we’re not. If we think about it for a moment, it makes no sense that God would ask us to do what we’re completely incapable of achieving. With very, very few exceptions, when Scripture mentions righteousness and us in the same breath, great care is taken to qualify the Source of righteousness, making it abundantly clear our righteousness isn’t the subject. “Righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ,” Paul explains in Romans 3.22. In chapter 6, he tells us, “Offer every part of yourself to God as an instrument of righteousness.” (v13) Speaking of Jesus, 2 Corinthians 5.21 says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In Philippians 1.11, Paul prays that his readers will be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” Peter likewise addresses his second letter “to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours.” (2 Peter 1.1)

So our righteousness isn’t important, after all—a good thing, since what of it exists has yet to prove worthy and durable. We’re called to seek God’s righteousness. Matthew 6.33: “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.” Second Timothy 2.22: “Pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” And finally, Beatitude No. 4: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5.6) That changes the dynamic, urging us to rethink this righteousness business in a different context, on a larger scale than being right, thinking right, and—everyone’s favorite—“living right.” We have to back up and ask, “What is God’s righteousness and how do we get it?”

Taste and Appetite

God’s righteousness permeates all God says and does. Psalm 33.4-5 does a splendid job of capturing the basics: “The word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” Look at the attributes orbiting God’s righteousness: truth, faithfulness, justice, and unfailing love. God loves these qualities—and they’re typically the ones that get sacrificed when we try to prove how righteous we are. Thus renouncing our righteousness is the first step to finding God’s righteousness. Faith in human righteousness is—or should be—taboo for all believers, right up there with idolatry and hatred. Since God Alone is righteous, righteousness is not a state of being, but one of becoming. Gradual acquisition of God’s nature is what we’re after: growing in truth, gaining strength to stay faithful, practicing justice, and loving all people and creation at all times.

As Christ’s disciples, our happiness is shaped by our hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness. Jesus’s choice of verbs amounts to more than pulpit poetry. He’s telling us to discipline our taste and appetite to crave righteous thoughts and behaviors. They should become obsessions driving us to seize every opportunity to savor them. But first we must cleanse our palate by renouncing righteousness. Being right all the time is like a steady junk-food diet. It makes us heavy, sick, and tiresome. Once we get its poisons out of our system, we’ll starve for God’s righteousness. If we seek that, Jesus says we’ll be happy and satisfied.

Our righteousness is like junk food; it makes us heavy, sick, and tiresome. That’s why Jesus instructs us to discipline our taste and appetite for God’s righteousness.


Sherry said...

What a perfect distinction you make Tim...You are so correct, we cannot be righteous, we are made righteous in Jesus, but only through him. We are to seek it as you say so perfectly by emulating God's ways. You speak of his love, and justice, and faithfulness. Perhaps we can work on each for a month at a time as a special endeavor. Each day look for ways to increase our giving out of love would be a great way to start.

Tim said...

What a marvelous suggestion, Sherry. Sometimes our quest to lose ourselves to God's ways can be so overwhelming we're at a loss where to begin. But I like your idea very much, starting with one trait and adding another as each as mastered!

What will happen, I'm sure, with each is we'll be consistently humbled by how at odds what we assume is right contradicts the righteousness of Christ. Removal of self always leads to that conclusion, doesn't it?

Blessings--and thank you again for the marvelous idea!