Once we are real, we are called to really relate. And that's what it means to be righteous.
PART 1: Blessed Are Those »
Halfway through my project on the Beatitudes, it struck me that, once again, this is all about relationship. God is trying to show me how He relates and how He created us to know Him and each other. It used to confound me when people said Jesus set us free from religion, and yet all Christianity seemed to be about was rules, boundaries and forbiddances. For many, the pursuit of righteousness is still all about appeasing God with practiced outward behavior.
Jesus even said we are supposed to be perfect (Matthew 5:48). Of course, if you happen upon that verse in context, rather than thrown out alone to make somebody else's point, it's a little more clear. Jesus was talking about loving enemies, blessing people because we were made to bless people, not just as a reward to those who've chosen to be our friends.
In the first half, I proposed that being humble is simply about embracing the real you. In the second set of Beatitudes, I believe Jesus is communicating that once we are real we are called to really relate, and that's what it means to be righteous.
Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
To hunger and thirst for righteousness: To know that God's holy, uncorrupted nature is the supreme treasure of the universe; to seek out, celebrate and share God's glory every day, in every circumstance; to never stop coming to Him to be made clean, made new, built stronger and higher and truer to His likeness.
My pastor described righteousness in a way I hadn't heard before: "To be righteous is simply to meet the demands of a relationship." It seemed like sort of a mundane definition, but the more I thought about it, the more profound it became in my mind.
What would you say is a righteous husband, other than a man who is faithful and mindful of his wife's needs and desires? Righteousness for a mother would be to nurture and care for her children, selflessly and with love. A faithful friend is there for you, sticks up for you, tells you the truth and loves you through whatever comes. You'd call those kinds of people righteous, wouldn't you?
Every time some hotshot tried to grill Jesus about religious rules, relationship is where he took the conversation. That's where we get all His timeless parables, whose names and morals find their way into every facet of our culture — even among those who find His name offensive.
It's been hard for me to hash out the demands of Scripture, and how the tiniest screw-up could bring everything crashing down. But the pursuit of righteousness has never been about a score card and a list of rules; it's about a heart change.
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel.... I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. (Jeremiah 31:33)
This is one prophecy that began to come true right before the eyes of the early Church:
Even Gentiles, who do not have God's written law, show that they know His law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God's law is written in their hearts. (Romans 2:14-15)
I don't want to obsess about where the lines are, what the code of conduct is, how much of this is too much and how far I can go with that. You can't come at relationship with a schematic and expect it to work like a machine — because it was never meant to be one.
This entire time, what God has really wanted is for us to respond to Him and to each other, doing right by the relationships we are all created to have, because of love. Originally, we were even meant to be naked and unashamed.
My prayer and my goal is that my heart would be always turning toward love, pursuing relationship with the knowledge of what I have to offer and the willingness to give it up. It could be summed up in simply trying to believe three simple statements that adorn a plaque in one of my friend's living rooms: "Life is worth living, people are worth loving, God is worth trusting."
Blessed are the Merciful
To be merciful: To embrace Jesus' cross as the end of all wrath; to know in my heart of hearts that, as one forgiven an insurmountable debt, I cannot hold others to debt; to always be about His business of loving and restoring people; to remember that His Kingdom is built of sinners immaculately transformed.
I used to think a lot about the people who had hurt me: bullies in school, gossips in church, enemies in the workplace. Sometimes I'd have dreams about them — all of them from every stage of life, still surrounding me. I'd be overwhelmed with all the stored-up anger.
At some point I was reading through the Gospels and it struck me that Jesus walked through that dream, but it was his road to Calvary. He tasted the pain of being singled out for rejection and wrath, not so that He could tell me to quit complaining, but so that I would know He understands. And also so I would understand that just as He was willing to forgive in the midst of his greatest pain, He wanted me to lay down the wrongs I'd suffered at the cross.
There are people in our lives we wish would get what's coming to them. If you turned the dark part of our hearts loose, we'd love to beat them half to death and run them out of town, if you asked us in our darkest moments. Well, if you'd like to see someone broken and humiliated and hung up to dry, look no further than Calvary. He got what was coming to them.
To be more like God is to find the willingness to lay down our wrath in the face of all the ugliness and injustice that confronts us. It's not to ignore our anger, but to feel it with Him and with each other, let ourselves be comforted and let it go.
There aren't just people that have wronged us, there are also those we don't understand: struggles we can't readily identify with, people who do things we either find distasteful or that have hurt us in the past.
I hate the phrase "loving the unlovable." Many times I've heard people use it when referring to ministry to people like myself. I could appreciate that their heart was sort of in the right place, but seriously? I'm unlovable?
I don't know if I want to be "loved" by someone who is just being nice to exercise his or her own character. People like that usually do a lot of "speaking truth" and rarely much loving.
Ministry isn't about telling people what you think their problem is, or putting them in what you think is their place. Ministry is making room in your life — and in your heart — for people.
Many people have done a lot of talking at me, and a lot of them had some really good points. Didn't matter. I was only ever deeply changed by those who called me part of their family, despite the inconvenience, despite what anyone thought. That's the kind of mercy I want to show.
Blessed are the Pure in Heart
To be pure of heart: To recognize and reject unhealthy intentions; for my heart to be powered by a child-like awe and adoration of God; to allow my lingering sinful longings to starve for the sake of sitting at God's table.
I struggle sometimes with the concept of intentions — can they ever really be good? I don't know if human intentions — or I should just say mine — can ever be 100 percent pure.
I'd be lying if I said I love others without the hope of being loved in return. In every area it seems like my plans, hopes and desires are intricately wound up in who I am and thus everything I do. The trick is not to make them the deciding factor in whether or not I will be loving, giving and genuine.
Jesus said we are to love not just our friends, but our enemies. If I'm going to be consistent in who I am in my heart and how I relate, I can't look to other people to inspire that in me. I have to look to God, to make my awe of Him the fuel on which my heart runs into relationships — both the good ones and the difficult ones.
I've written several times about things that have stricken — and often surprised — me with an impression of God's character. It's true that "the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace." The converse is also true: If I shut Him out or just allow myself to forget about Him, the things of earth swell up and take over.
Each day I need to be in awe of God, I need to be captivated by something about Him. So I have to go looking.
I used to think Scripture was all I had to go on, but these days I see it more as a guidebook than as the sole scrap of Heaven I'll ever see in this life. God wants to encounter us in real time, in our lives, not in a Book. The Bible guides us through the murky waters of a fallen world, counterbalances our flawed perceptions so that we will know Him when we see Him. But reading it isn't the only way to spend time with Him.
Watch a thunderstorm and think about His power. Take in a sunrise and imagine the day God's beauty is fully revealed. Take notice when a little inexplicable love comes your way through another person; now what does that tell you?
At the beginning of the day, it's about enjoying Him, celebrating Him, being excited about Him like a kid waking up on Christmas. It's about letting that awe and adoration color every desire and intention that's in me. Then I can stand to starve the flesh. Then I might just approach relationships as the real, God-made me, and share something truly good with someone.
Blessed are the Peacemakers
To be a peacemaker: To make the focus of each encounter and every relationship the reflection of God's Gospel; to embrace and invite others into the resting place of grace.
The world is full of people clawing their way to the top of any little hill they can find. Relationships are battlefields, and the weapons are too numerous to count. Wherever you go, there will be people always wanting to one-up you, shock you, impress you, manipulate you or offer you meaty tidbits of damning information about others. I can't honestly acknowledge how disgusting it is without admitting how often I've played along myself, hoping to grab some of the vague benefits the world's way of relating has to offer.
Then you meet people who really know Jesus — and they make you so mad. At least, I know I felt that way. I didn't know why until I read The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis.
In this book, a magical talking horse who has lived among ordinary, dumb horses all his life, is on a journey back to his home country. Along the way, he displays habits — like rolling around in the dirt — that his traveling companion finds odd.
You don't think, do you," said Bree [the Horse], "that it might be a thing talking horses never do.... It would be dreadful to find, when I get back to Narnia, that I've picked up a lot of low, bad habits.
Among those I've encountered who really loved God in a way that I envied, a common trait is an ease of spirit that refuses to be shocked, offended or manipulated. They are never interested in the deflecting things I had to say, or in the image of myself I have tried to put up. But they always seem interested in meeting me where I'm at, finding a way to be ourselves together.
There is a peace in these relationships that, while they've challenged the unhealed places in me in uncomfortable ways, have also given me room to grow.
I want to be that way for others, especially for my brothers and sisters in Christ.
And for those who are not family yet, perhaps if they sense somehow that I am not clamoring for superiority, if they feel for some reason that they do not have to be poised against some inevitable slight or manipulation, then maybe they will more readily consider something I say about God one day.
Blessed are Those Who are Persecuted for Righteousness' Sake
To be persecuted because of righteousness: To be willing to accept the backlash from living and speaking truth; unashamed to throw my lot in with Jesus; to put the world in its place — a weak and temporary vision soon to be forever outshined by Heaven.
I've heard pastors say that if you aren't being persecuted, something is wrong.
I don't believe this is necessarily true. I don't get from Scripture that persecution is an everyday staple of Christian life, one to be sought out if it appears to be missing. This leads to the kind of Christian that is always out looking for a fight with the world, doing and saying ever more outlandish things in hopes of incurring the culture's wrath, in order to validate their own insecure faith.
We don't need to go looking for it, we just shouldn't shy away from it when it inevitably shows up. I can't change course, modify my worldview or mince words because somebody — or even everybody — out there wants me to.
It's not just about verbally speaking truth, though. We're usually pretty eager to speak up and say "This is immoral!" or "That's against God!"
I've got to be OK living the life God has for me even when it looks really weird to the people around me. Having a gentle spirit, being eager to put others ahead of yourself, honoring your body (and everyone else's), are all things that people will appreciate — and yet simultaneously spurn you for. In pursuing these qualities in the secular work force, I know it's made a positive impact on people, but I've also been called a coward and a doormat. When I respect myself by asserting personal boundaries, I'm commonly offered various colorful synonyms for meanie.
There may be no imprisoning, torture or killing of Christians in the Western world today, but there is immense pressure against living a godly life — and certainly social backlash when we do it. I think it's fine to be afraid; courage is simply refusing to let fear make my decisions.
In some ways, we will each be called to pay a price that, in the context of this world, seems too high. But many amazing believers have gone before us and experienced the absolute worst this world has to offer in cruelty — but their eyes could not be torn away from the goal, where Christ is calling us up to heaven.
A wife promises to forsake all others and cherish her husband. May I always pursue the same promise in my heart toward Jesus.
Now comes the hard part: remembering it every day, trying it again and again, reapplying it to new circumstances and all the unexpected facets of relationships that await me.
It's the hardest thing I've tried so far, but I'm after something so very important. Ultimately it's about living in such a way that, one far-off day when I look Jesus in the face, I'll recognize Him.
Copyright 2009 Mike Ensley. All rights reserved.