Jesus chose 12 men to be His disciples. They were the ones into whom He would pour everything He desired to share about God’s kingdom. These men grew into His closest friends. He invited these 12 friends to climb up a mountainside, sit and listen.
These friends would be left to carry forth the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20), but none of them had the slightest clue about that at the point when Jesus invited them on this trek. Jesus began teaching them by listing blessing upon blessing upon blessing. One can imagine that as the disciples listened to the growing list, it was not lost on them that those most supremely blessed were the lowly in spirit, the humble, the merciful, the peacemakers and even the persecuted. As the list of Beatitudes was shared in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), the theme of the entire sermon came into focus: the call to righteousness.
Did the disciples understand what Jesus meant by righteousness? Better yet, do we understand? The ones who would be blessed were not the ones who declared their own righteousness. Those who lived at the time of Jesus who touted their righteousness were in no uncertain terms told that they were being self-righteous. In Matthew 5:6, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
As it turns out, it is not about being righteous, but about hungering and thirsting for righteousness that should get our attention.
I had the opportunity in February to attend the National Prayer Summit in Spring Arbor, Michigan. I was among nearly 600 people who came to seek God with a hunger and a thirst for more of Him — more rightness, more moral integrity, more of God’s heart and, in particular, more of His will in our lives and in our world. On the second day of the summit, I had a growing sense that I had no idea what God’s heart really felt like when He looked upon the broken world in which we live and the longing He felt for those who were estranged from their Maker. So I began to pray (not a bad thing to do at a prayer summit). I prayed and asked God to break my heart for what breaks His. One of the speakers that morning had mentioned that we sing these words in song, but do we really mean them?
As I was praying, crying and pleading with God to forgive me for my lack of empathy, I saw a picture of a very pretty brass heart. It was embellished with bands and rivets that made it aesthetically attractive. I saw how shiny it was and, in a sense, pure. But I was also shown how this heart, made out of hard material, could not really feel. When this hard heart brushed up against God’s heart, or even brushed up against the pain of those who were broken, it couldn’t feel anything. Even though there was a brightness emanating from the shininess of polished brass, this heart lacked the genuineness of God’s love.
On the Monday morning of the week after I returned from the prayer summit, I woke up with an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I have endured depression before, so I know what that feels like, and this was not a normal depression. It wasn’t self-focused, but it overwhelmed me to the point that it was a struggle to accomplish the tasks necessary for my job. I struggled with this feeling for a couple of days, wondering what I had done to bring on this depth of sadness, wondering what I needed to do to get rid of this sadness, and praying and asking Jesus to lift this feeling from me. It was well into the second day of this overwhelming sadness that God began to bring understanding to these feelings. In a sense, what God was communicating to me through the sadness I was feeling was a little bit of how His heart breaks for those who are lost and far from Him.
The imagery of the brass heart and the tangible feeling of sadness juxtaposes our sense of appearing righteous against true righteousness that is only available through Christ Jesus. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome saying, “We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are” (Romans 3:22 NLT).
This means that no one is able to strive hard enough or reach high enough or establish oneself right enough apart from Christ. Righteousness is achieved only through coming to the end of ourselves, exposing what we might be hoping will pass for righteousness through hearts that really don’t feel — even if they look nice — with a hunger and thirst by which we will be undone. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Carlene Nisley is the lead pastor of New Vision Fellowship in Beaverton, Oregon.1