Some years ago, I spoke with a man whose business was to help people plan for the future. He asked me about my goals, about what I wanted to accomplish in life. As I went through this exercise, I noticed that one thing was conspicuously absent from my goals: there was nothing there about righteousness.
I thought, "What's wrong with this picture? How could a Christian establish life goals and not have at the top the attainment of righteousness in the sight of God?" Did not our Lord say, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matt. 6:33)? One of the scariest things that Jesus ever said was the warning He gave that "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). The Pharisees were devoted to the quest for righteousness, but they ended up in a distorted pursuit of self-righteousness. It can be easy to dismiss the pursuit of righteousness as always ending in an inflated self-righteousness. But this does not eliminate the obligation that Christ gives us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
This comes to the fore in the Beatitudes, where Jesus pronounced a blessing upon people whose goal is righteousness: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matt. 5:6). He didn't say, "Blessed are those whose goal is righteousness, for they shall attain their goal." Nor did He say, "Blessed are those who have a desire for righteousness, for they will get to their heart's desire." Rather, He spoke in everyday terms regarding intense hunger. We are not simply to seek righteousness or have righteousness as a goal; we are to hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Sometimes we see athletes who are so well paid that they tend to rest on their laurels and don't have a drive to win. Sometimes the critics will look at these superstars and say, "They're not hungry," whereas the young player who's not established and doesn't get the big bucks is hungry. He's giving 100 percent of his effort. When someone is passionately committed to his task, we say he's hungry for it. Jesus was not saying, "Blessed are those who are concerned in a cavalier way that they might, perhaps, grow in righteousness." He pronounced blessing on the ones who are hungry for it. Blessed are those whose thirst for righteousness is a consuming passion.
What does the New Testament say about Jesus Himself? That zeal for His Father's house consumed Him (John 2:17). This graphic language means that Jesus' passion for the affairs of His heavenly Father ate Him up. His food was to do the will of His Father. So Jesus Himself was pictured as a man who was passionately pursuing righteousness, and He achieved what He was pursuing. There's no way Jesus could have been any more righteous than He was, but He was hungry for it in His human nature.
We're conditioned to define ourselves in terms of our accomplishments rather than in terms of our character. But Jesus pronounced blessing on a character trait: blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. He affirmed that this would not be a fruitless endeavor, for He promised, "They will be satisfied." Often, the teachings of Jesus, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, echo sentiments that are found in Isaiah. In one place, God says this: "When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive" (Isa. 41:17–19).
This promise that God made, in a dry and parched desert land, was that He would fill those who are hungry and thirsty for Him. He said, "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" (Isa. 55:1). We feed upon the bread of life, the bread that has come down from heaven, that nourishes the soul and fills the human spirit.
In the final analysis, we want the approval of God—but the applause of men can be deafening, and it can cause us to turn our attention toward achieving everything else apart from what Christ set as the priority for His people: to be righteous. Being righteous is not all that complicated; it means doing what is right. We have to have a passion to do what is right.