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What is ‘the whole duty of man’?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Violin player at work in the Ghencea district of the Romanian capital city Bucharest, April 2, 2011 (Credit: Nicu Buculei via Flickr)

 Nicolo Paganini was in concert with a full orchestra when a string snapped. He continued, improvising his solo. But then a second string snapped, then a third. Three limp strings were hanging from Paganini’s violin. He continued and finished the difficult piece with one string. Then he played an encore piece on that one string. And then he held up the violin and said to the crowd, “Paganini and one string!”

What should your “one string” be?

Jesus promised, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). “Blessed are the ones hungering and thirsting,” the Greek begins. Our Lord assumes that we all hunger and thirst for something. He doesn’t say, “Blessed are you if you hunger and thirst . . .” He knows that we do. Of course, he’s right.

In his day people knew physical hunger and thirst every day. People died without food or water. Droughts weren’t a nuisance to the lawn but a threat to life itself. Crop failures didn’t mean debt but death. While many our society are not threatened by starvation, we’re no less hungry and thirsty for the things that matter to us. We’re all driven by something.

Theologian Paul Tillich was right: we each have an “ultimate concern.” Something or someone which matters more than anything else to us. There’s something in your life that means success and significance to you.

What drives you? Is it raising successful children; becoming president of your company; retiring at 55; publishing bestselling books; getting into the right school, making the right grades, having the right friends; becoming a famous artist or doctor or lawyer or scientist or singer or teacher; feeling important?

What should? How can you be sure that when you climb to the top of the ladder, it’s not leaning against the wrong wall? What constitutes success with God? What makes us “blessed” by God? For what should we “hunger and thirst” today?

“Hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Jesus continues. The Greek word translated “righteousness” reduces to the idea of uprightness, of doing what is right, of seeking justice for all people at all times.

But we cannot give what we do not have, or lead people where we will not go. To advocate for justice effectively, I must be a just person.

Dwight Moody said that your character is what you do in the dark. Bill Hybels says what you are when no one is looking, is what you are. One reason to value personal righteousness is that what we are in the dark is usually exposed to the light. We read daily of public leaders who lied about the bottom line, fabricated profits, misrepresented shareholder reports or had to “take the fifth.” But there’s no fifth amendment with God.

Abigail Adams, wife of our second president, once wrote to her sister Elizabeth, “To be good, and do good, is the whole duty of man.” Note the order.


This article originally appeared inTexas Baptists Magazine