Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)
The fourth beatitude describes a deep longing to grow in personal righteousness, a longing which springs from the consciousness of spiritual need that is described in the previous beatitudes. It is not a vague aspiration tucked away at the back of the mind. It is not the good intentions that proverbially “pave the way to hell”. It is as strong as our instincts to satisfy the most basic of physical needs. It is the craving of a starving person who can think of nothing but food, or a person dying of thirst whose thoughts revolve all the time around water.
The promise of blissful happiness is for those who yearn for righteousness with this unwavering fervour. It is for those who know that their sins have separated them from God and long to establish or restore a relationship with Him. It is for those who want to live out the Beatitudes in their daily lives, who want to show the fruit of the Spirit in every action, who long to grow more Christ-like as they walk with Him. For this righteousness is more than mere conformity to law; it is about being like Jesus, who is Himself our righteousness.
It is because of him [God] that you
are in Christ Jesus, who has become
for us wisdom from God – that is, our
righteousness, holiness and redemption.
(1 Corinthians 1:30)
Some have said the fourth beatitude could equally well begin, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for Me.” This reminds us of the psalmist who was panting and weeping for God (Psalm 42:1-3).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains how “righteousness” in this verse includes both justification and sanctification.1 It encompasses the desire to be set right with God, through the atoning death of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the desire to be free from sin in all its forms, that is, the desire to stop being a “slave to sin” and become “a slave to righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18). The first desire is fulfilled as soon as we make a decision to trust and follow Christ, and after this we no longer have the same relationship to sin (1 John 3:6). The second, however, is a process that will continue for the rest of our earthly lives.
The unusual Greek grammar of Matthew 5:6 shows that we are to desire total righteousness, like a whole loaf of bread not just a slice, a whole jug of water not just a glass. Blissful happiness does not come to those who are willing to settle for partial goodness, to deal with some sinful habits and not bother with others, or to cultivate only a selection of Christ-like character traits. The beautiful fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is, as the Greek grammar shows, a single fruit with nine aspects of it described, not nine separate fruits.
We know from the first beatitude and from many other Scriptures that we cannot do any of this in our own strength. The righteousness that we yearn for is the righteousness that comes from God (Romans 10:3), a free gift from Him to us. This applies both to our justification by faith and to our gradual growth in holiness.
The promise that goes with this beatitude is that those who have such a desire will be given the very thing they are longing for. After we have put our trust in Christ, the Holy Spirit will work in us, enabling us to learn to resist Satan. We shall be transformed with ever-increasing glory into the likeness of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18). This transformation process will be completed in heaven. When we see Him we shall be like Him, and meanwhile we look forward to that day with confident Christian hope and continue to strive for His purity (1 John 3:2-3)
Here on earth we must not be dismayed to find that we are still a flawed “work in progress”, winning some battles with Satan and losing others. We must remember that Scripture promises us forgiveness and purification from our unrighteousness, whenever we confess our sins (1 John 1:8-9).
Many Christians have written of their daily struggle with sin. The apostle Paul described his desire to do good and his consternation at so often finding that he had done evil instead (Romans 7:15-20). It has often been said, “The perseverance of the saints is falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up, all the way to heaven.” The fourteenth-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, wrote also of this falling down and getting up, a process that helps us to appreciate God’s astonishing, unbreakable love for us.
If there be any such lover of God on earth who is continually kept from falling, Idonotknowofit, for it was not revealed to me. But this was revealed: that in falling and in rising we are always inestimably protected in one love; for in the sight of God we do not fall, and in our own view we do not remain standing, and both of these are true, as I see it, but the sight of our Lord God is the highest truth.
If our heart’s desire is to be like Jesus, that desire will eventually be granted. Meanwhile, we have this beatitude’s promise of blissful happiness as a “by-product” of our desire. If we pursue happiness we will not find it, but if we pursue holiness we will be given happiness along the way and, at the end of the road, perfect holiness too. Our lives may be full of sin and failure, but if we keep our passionate yearning for righteousness, this promise of bliss is for us. It is the longing that brings the happiness.
Our longing is known by God and affirmed by Him, just as He affirmed King David with a “well done” for David’s desire to build a temple (1 Kings 8:17-18) even though David’s warfare prevented him from carrying out his desire (1 Chronicles 22:7-10).
As Dr Lloyd-Jones, writing in 1959, pointed out:
If you are anxious about the state of the world and the threat of possible wars, then I assure you that the most direct way of avoiding such calamities is to observe words such as
[the fourth beatitude]. If every man and woman in this world knew what it was to ‘hunger and thirst after righteousness’ there would be no danger of war. Here is the only way to real peace.