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“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Righteousness—isn’t that what the really loud preachers are always talking about? And the people you know who give you guilt trips because you don’t study the Bible at least 15 hours per day?

One reason I dislike listening to the loud preachers so much (in addition to the fact that they hurt my ears and that they may have more to say to me than I’d like to admit) is that when they say (or yell), “Righteousness!!” all I hear is “self-righteousness!” or “legalism!” This is not what Jesus means in the beatitudes. When Jesus says “blessed” it means “happy” or “particularly fortunate.” Someone who “hungers and thirsts” for legalistic self-righteousness is, in my book, closer to “deluded” than to “blessed.” Given His comments to the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t hot on legalism either. Which must mean that “righteousness,” to him, means something I am completely misunderstanding.

To Jesus, righteousness is not stiff. It is not a weight to crush you; it is not a rule to follow. It is more like an elemental gladness: the giddy gladness from which life sprang in the beginning of all things. Righteousness, Jesus says, is so good that if you so much as long for it you should be counted among the luckiest of people: for God will fill you. When that happens and as that happens you will not know where to turn for joy.

Righteousness is being able to want “yes,” to say “yes” and then to do “yes.” Righteousness is being able to walk without falling on the people you love and hurting them. It is being able to hold something precious safely, without dropping it to shatter on the ground. Righteousness is the song that makes the world alive; it is a caterpillar’s knowing to wrap itself in silk, the silk’s turning hard and the caterpillar’s metamorphosis, the glory of flight on new wings.

Righteousness is something entirely different from trying to do the right thing. Righteousness is the way we live when we’ve been made new inside, when we’ve been filled. This is essential. I can try to do the right thing. I should try to do the right thing. But real righteousness is about who I am. And I can no more make myself be different, in my invisible self, than I can suddenly choose, in my body, not to be made of 97 percent water. It’s not possible. I could stop drinking anything and in less than a week, when I’m dead, I might have reduced my water percentage to 90 percent. I am what I am; if I am to be something else, the change must happen through a power beyond mine.

Which is to say we’re not talking about hard work here; we’re talking about a miracle. That’s where longing comes in, hungering and thirsting: we cannot make this thing happen. We cannot cause, or force, or speed up our becoming right; we cannot lessen the degree of our wrongness. But we can look up. We can see what is good and though we may see no good in ourselves, we can let ourselves cry out with wanting, with hunger, to be what we are not.

There is a wonderful promise Jesus makes here – that in just looking up, fixing our eyes on what is good and admitting the ache of our inadequacy, we become blessed ones. God knows what you are made of, Jesus seems to be saying. That is why God asks you only for your emptiness: it is all you have to give.

And it is enough.

Dig Deeper:

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Matthew 5:6

[Stephanie Gehring is a 23-year-old self-employed portrait artist, high school math tutor and freelance writer. She spent the first sixteen years of her life in Germany and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.]

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