Every few years, my wife and I go on a diet. Neither of us particularly enjoys dieting, but we do it for our health and because the discipline required for a diet usually bleeds over into other areas of our lives. The most frustrating part of a diet is not necessarily what you eat while you’re on the diet, but what you can’t eat. We develop incredibly intense cravings for all of the unhealthy foods we love to eat but no longer can. Sometimes you don’t realize how good certain foods taste until you can’t have them anymore. There’s nothing quite like a diet to make you long for what you don’t have.
Sitting or Stalking?
Longing. Craving. Hungering. These words should describe our desire for God. The Psalms express this sense of longing well:
“As the deer longs for flowing streams, so I long for you, God. I thirst for God, the living God.” (Psalm 42:1-2)
“God, you are my God; I eagerly seek you. I thirst for you; my body faints for you in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.” (Psalm 63:1)
How would you describe your walk with God? I’m not talking about your encounters with the things of God in your professional capacity as a pastor. I’m talking about your personal relationship with the Lord. Would you describe it as dry, desolate, and without water? Or would you describe it as hungering and thirsting after God? Do you long for the Lord? Do you crave God’s manifest presence in your life?
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). Hungering and thirsting for the righteousness that comes from God could simply be described, in the words of A. W. Tozer, as “following hard after God.” It is longing for God himself. It’s a desire to see God fill your life with what you don’t have without his presence. It’s a craving for the kind of life only God can produce in you. God will bless the hungry pastor.
I love to hunt, but not all hunting is created equal. Deer hunting in Texas, for instance, is about as boring an activity as you can ever experience. You sit in a deer stand and quietly wait for an unsuspecting deer to wander close enough for you to take a shot. Growing up in Texas, this was the only kind of hunting I knew. When our family moved to New Mexico a number of years ago, my eyes were opened to a new world of hunting.
One of my favorite hunts now is an elk hunt. There’s no waiting around, no boredom, no passivity. When you hunt elk, you hunt elk. You hike for miles, using an elk call to try to identify the location of a herd of elk, and then the fun begins. In an elk hunt, you don’t sit; you stalk. You track the elk until you get that moment of ecstasy when an elk appears in your crosshairs and you consummate the hunt.
I cannot think of a more apropos description of a spiritual pursuit of God. You can either sit or stalk in your relationship with God. You can be passive or active. You can be self-satisfied with what you already have or hungry for what you don’t yet have but desperately need. Hunger and thirst for the righteousness only God can give is actually the hinge point of the Beatitudes and of the entire Sermon on the Mount itself.
One of the most startling verses in the Sermon on the Mount is Matthew 5:20. Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus then begins to define exactly what it means to have surpassing righteousness.
Six times in the subsequent verses, Jesus says something along the lines of “you have heard . . . but I tell you.” He addresses the issues of anger, adultery, promise keeping, truth telling, and the treatment of an enemy (Matt. 5:21–48). In each case, the righteousness of the kingdom is greater than that of the Pharisees.
Not only that, but Jesus also explains the manner in which the righteousness of the kingdom is to be expressed. In Matthew 6, Jesus condemns righteous acts that are done for show, and in Matthew 7, Jesus condemns self-righteousness. Both describe what true righteousness is and how it is expressed. Jesus elevates the expectations for his followers above and beyond the norm and practice of the Pharisees.
The question every one of us should be asking when we read Matthew 5:20 is: How do I get the true righteousness of the kingdom? But then again, we already know the answer. The first beatitude reminds us that we are spiritually bankrupt.
Here’s the kingdom conundrum: to enter the kingdom you must have a true righteousness that surpasses that of the religious Pharisees, but it’s a righteousness you don’t possess and cannot possess on your own.
This is why Matthew 5:6 is so important. Jesus says we must hunger and thirst after the righteousness that we don’t have (v. 3) but desperately need (v. 20). At this point, the purpose of hungering spiritually for a righteousness we cannot produce on our own but without which we won’t enter the kingdom, the second half of this beatitude becomes critical. It’s a promise. Jesus says, “If you’re hungry for it, you will be filled with it.” You will be filled. This is a promise. Jesus promises to give us what we need, if we simply long for it.
This is a passive promise. The righteousness we need is not something with which we can fill ourselves. It’s something the God of righteousness himself will do for us. A hunger for righteousness is not the same as trying to earn or achieve righteousness. The Reformers understood this truth well: the righteousness that comes by faith is a passive righteousness, a righteousness received not earned.
Righteousness is achieved for us, not by us. Theologians call this the doctrine of imputation. This is what Paul means when he says, “Faith was credited to Abraham for righteousness” (Rom. 4:9).
Even though this righteousness must be passively received, it must also be actively pursued. It cannot be earned, but it must be sought. It cannot be achieved by you, but it must be received by you.
Matthew 5:6 is the essence of the gospel: you need righteousness you don’t have, but if you want it, you can have it if you will find it in Jesus. He will do for you what you cannot do for yourself. He will provide you with what you can never have on your own. In short: Jesus will satisfy the deepest longings of your heart.
Dr. Andrew Hébert is the lead pastor of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. The article above is an excerpt from Dr. Hébert’s forthcoming book entitled Shepherding Like Jesus: Returning to the Wild Idea that Character Matters in Ministry (2022).