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Own the right things

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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Topic Scripture: Matthew 5:6

Tiger Woods has been on the front pages all last week, seeking his second British Open championship. After becoming the first player in 30 years to win the Masters and U. S. Open in succession, he was in position to win the Grand Slam—all four major tournaments in the same year. He has amazing gifts, but even more amazing determination. Dallas resident and golfing great Lee Trevino said “A lot of these guys can’t touch that bar Tiger is setting right now. The problem is, the best player right now is the most motivated.”

Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France; Barry Bonds in baseball; Shaquille O’Neal in basketball; Bill Gates in business—men whose determination is even greater than their talent. They are driven people. Driven to excellence, to achieve and then achieve still more. And our culture loves them for it.

What drives you today? What defines success for you? If you could be anything in the world, what would you be? What should you be? Let’s ask Jesus.

What do you want?

“Blessed are the ones hungering and thirsting,” he begins in the literal Greek. 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. And 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 for the lawn but a threat to life itself. Crop failures didn’t mean debt but death.

While our society is past that place, 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 which means success and significance to you. 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; being “happy.”

What drives you? 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” this morning?

What should you want?

“Hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Jesus continues. The Greek word here reduces to the idea of uprightness, of doing what is right. But there’s more to the word than that. Unpack it with me for a moment.

First, there’s an internal sense here—personal character and morality. Not just what you do, but who you are. 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.

“Righteousness” here requires personal, intimate holiness. A person whose attitudes and motives are just. The word means to be the same thing in private that you are in public, to be godly in character both places, every day.

One reason to value such righteousness is that what we are in the dark is usually exposed in the light. We read daily of business leaders who lied about the bottom line, fabricated profits, misrepresented in shareholder reports, and have to “take the fifth.” But there’s no fifth amendment with God.

Sandra Baldwin was president of the United States Olympic Committee until it was discovered that she lied on her resume about graduating from the University of Colorado and finishing her Ph.D, and she had to resign. George O’Leary was head football coach at Notre Dame for five days, until it was learned that he lied about his background. Tim Johnson was fired as Toronto Blue Jays manager after he made up tales to his players about fighting in Vietnam.

A friend called me this week with this statement: “happiness depends on circumstances; blessedness depends on character.”

“Righteousness” is first internal, and second horizontal. It points to our actions with others. The word means to practice uprightness and justice with all we know.

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.”

Such horizontal righteousness is vital to our society. Speaking recently about corporate dishonesty, President Bush made this eloquent and perceptive statement: “All investment is an act of faith, and faith is earned by integrity. In the long run, there’s no capitalism without conscience; there is no wealth without character.”

“Righteousness” is internal, then horizontal. And it is vertical as well: being right with God. Righteous in the sense of keeping God’s commandments, living by his word, fulfilling his will. Confessing our sins when we commit them, being sure nothing is wrong between us and our Father, walking close to him.

Jesus makes this the key to character, the attribute for which we must “hunger and thirst” each day, the pathway to “blessing.” If you can be only one thing, be righteous.

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 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 makes the answer clear today.

How do we achieve it?

So here’s the practical question: how do we achieve “righteousness” with ourselves, others, and God? How do we play our lives on this string?

Here’s the first step: want to be righteous. Decide that you will be godly in character, actions, and faith if you are nothing else. Choose holiness above everything. Hunger and thirst for it.

C. S. Lewis: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Settle for nothing less than righteousness as the central attribute of your character. Seek it with desperation and passion. Then you can receive it from God: “they will be filled,” satisfied completely. If you hunger to be righteous, your hunger will be satisfied. But you must hunger first. You must want this food before you can have it.

Second, admit that you are not righteous without God.

Here’s what God says of us: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10-11).

This is the biblical doctrine called “total depravity.” It means that every part of our lives is affected by sin. The cancer has metastasized throughout the body of the patient. The patient can still read the paper, drink coffee, even go to work perhaps; but the disease is everywhere, and death is inevitable.

In the eyes of a holy God, “there is no one righteous.” Let’s see. Think about your last sin. That one sin alone is enough to keep you out of God’s perfect heaven.

Admit that you cannot be righteous without the help of God.

Third, make Christ your Savior and Lord. This Beatitude is addressed to Jesus’ disciples, his faith followers. You cannot keep this principle unless you first join his family. First ask him to forgive your sins and be your Lord.

Fourth, seek the righteousness of God by faith.

You cannot make yourself righteous. That’s why Jesus’ Beatitude is in the passive tense: “they will be filled.” Not “they will fill themselves,” for we cannot. This is not a call to try harder to be better. Not works righteousness. We can do better for a while, but ultimately we’ll fall and fail again. I’ve tried. So have you.

Instead, accept this fact: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ is our righteousness. He will impart to us his Spirit, his holiness, his character. This is the exchanged life. Believe that Christ lives in your heart, by faith. Ask him to make himself real through your character, your personality. Ask him for his righteousness for yourself, others, and God.

Give him time to do so. Meet him in Scripture, so he can transform your mind. Meet him in prayer, so he can transform your spirit. Meet him in worship, so he can transform your soul. Let the carpenter work with the wood, molding and shaping it into his own image. And believe that he is.

So, where do you need to be righteous this morning? Where are you grappling with sin or temptation—with yourself, with others, with God? Identify that issue right now. Hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God. Admit to him that you cannot make yourself righteous. Be sure that you’ve made Christ your Savior and Lord. Ask him for his character, his holiness, his power, his righteousness. Spend time with him, allowing him to transform you into his image. And you will be “blessed” indeed.

Conclusion

John Rippon became pastor of the Carter’s Lane Baptist Church in London in the year 1775. His ministry saw some of the most chaotic days in English history. He served God in that one pastorate for over six decades. Rippon published one of the best-known hymnals of his era. And he discovered the truth of these words his hymnal made famous:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!What more can He say than to you He hath said,You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to standUpheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;The flame shall not hurt thee; I only designThy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,I will not, I will not desert to its foes;That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

You can make his words your experience. The next step is yours.