The Straight Line to God

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst
after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

   HERE IS A STRANGE DECLARATION: so simple it is passed over as obvious, so profound it is usually misunderstood. Were we to substitute the words, "Blessed are they who keep struggling to do better; for they shall be rewarded," we would express the meaning usually attached to the Beatitude. We would then have a worthy addition to the world's collection of platitudes and half-truths. We would also be doing a great injustice to the words of Jesus. Our Beatitude says nothing about toil or struggle. It says nothing about achievement or even about improvement. Quite the contrary: it speaks of men whose emptiness leaves them unable to work.

   The deeper we get into our study, the more do the Beatitudes stand out in bold relief, overarching the maxims of men and wisdom of this world. The world cannot read the Sermon on the Mount; only the eye of faith is able to focus properly on the Word and to grasp what Jesus is teaching. The world reads the fourth Beatitude and thinks it is saying something about lifting ourselves by our bootstraps; faith senses that here is something closely akin to the cry from the Cross, torn out of the anguish of the soul of our Lord: "I thirst!"

   It is common today for a community to honor one of its more active citizens by declaring him "Man of the Year." A profession or vocation finds it useful to select some prominent member and present him with an award. A philanthropist or a man of achievement will have a street, a park, a city or a mountain named after him. Of the honored one many will think, "He has arrived. His works of righteousness have been rewarded. He has reached the top. What more can he ask for, and what more can life provide?"

   Yet the righteousness of which Christ speaks is not necessarily kind deeds or good citizenship. New Testament righteousness is not synonymous with goodness. Neither is righteousness to be confused with self-righteousness. Thus the upright man in the Bible is neither a do-gooder (in the tiresome sense) nor a prig.

   The Old Testament concept of the seeker after righteousness is best symbolized by a pious Hebrew sitting under a fig tree, meditating on the law. The New Testament portrait is more dynamic. It conceives the seeker as possessed of a mission, a man stripped to essentials and basic drives: "this one thing I do." He is a man with desire, with hunger and thirst. His eye is "single."

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His appetite will be appeased by no fleshly dainties. He is on a hunger strike for truth  about himself and his environment. Is he right with God or is he not; and, if he is not right, how can he be set right? Such a man, says Jesus Christ, will get his answer. He will get it not by dashing up and down mountains of moral effort, nor by aspiring after some distant Holy Grail of achievement, but by quietly starving out every other claim on himself.

   That, perhaps, is why spirituality often has been associated with some kind of fasting. To miss a meal for God may not fill us with righteousness, but our relationship with Him is never quite the same afterward.

   Right at the beginning, then, we must readjust our approach to the Beatitude. It seems so simple  if we go after a thing we will get it. "The Lord helps those who help themselves", is a well-known adage. Are we not so trained from childhood? Yet Jesus is not talking about a "thing," He is talking about righteousness. And in the Bible righteousness is always a condition before God rather than before men. Therefore, our Lord is speaking of what it takes for a man to be justified in God's sight, to be ripe for the Father's fellowship, so that he can walk and talk with his Lord freely and without rebuke. To do all this, says Jesus, takes more than man can muster. He must look for help beyond.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   Two members of Grace Church met on a downtown street. Their thoughts naturally gravitated to their

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church and to the potluck supper scheduled for that evening. One asked, "What are you folks planning to bring?" The other replied, "My wife is away, so I'm bringing a good appetite!"

   A poor enough way to conduct a potluck supper, you remark; but our subject is righteousness, and Jesus Christ says that the man's reply is exactly correct as far as righteousness with God is concerned. If he brings his hunger with him that is all he needs to bring; he will be filled. We are told that nature abhors a vacuum, but in the life of the Spirit it is different: God honors a vacuum and fills it to overflowing.

   Before a man can be made righteous before God, then, he must be made "un-righteous." He must get rid of his "hot dishes and desserts" — the food of his own cooking. He must be relieved of the claptrap of the ego, the things that he considers commendable in his own eyes. It is a process so painful that Paul calls it crucifixion and Jesus Christ calls it something close to starvation. It is the spiritual leveling that takes place before the Cross.

   The seeker finds that he has been hungering and thirsting after the wrong things, after forbidden fruit, and he has committed the sin of his first parents all over again. He discovers to his dismay that the sins on one side of Main Street are as offensive to God as the sins on the other side; "for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:22-23). He finds that the attitude that sustained him in life — perhaps best described as "I'm just as good as anybody else" — has actually distorted his vision and kept him

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from facing reality. In short he finds a description of himself in Paul's words: "They being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God" (Romans 10:3).

   Our Beatitude suggests that if a man yearns to be blessed with the righteousness of God he must first be stripped of the things that contaminate. In a defective environment, in a society that lives by compromise, we ask how such decontamination is possible. We know that the world steadfastly refuses to recognize that human nature can be changed. Do not the philosophers advise us that we are doomed to struggle through life half nobleman and half beast? In the words of James Branch Cabell, "Man plays the ape to his dreams."

   When the cadres of Marxism announce dogmatically that in the future Communist society, when all "vestiges" of capitalism are removed, there will be no more thieving, molesting, or disturbing the peace, we laugh at their naïvete. We know better! Man does not educate himself out of his sins. And when we apply the same logic to the new birth we are tempted to pause in doubt. Are we really purified? Are we truly holy? Our friends ask us knowingly, is that halo dust on our shoulders or is it only dandruff? And then the final temptation of Satan: wouldn't it be better to relax in our dirt and contamination than to assume a virtue we do not possess?

   The answer of the Gospel is like thunder from the seventh heaven: No! The God who made human nature can change human nature, and does! All efforts by the creature

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to make himself over are futile; "without me you can do nothing." Our hope is in the Lord who saves and renews. We need not imagine that our fates are written in the stars; God made the stars too. By His Grace He has made a way for us out of the human predicament. That way is by the Cross, and it is by hunger and thirst. We must want God — want Him badly. "When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek" (Psalm 27:8).

   We must want the righteousness of God so desperately that we are willing to label even our goodness as unfit for His holy sight. We simply cannot have it both ways: we cannot confess that we are sinners and at the same time seek to justify our acts. We cannot throw ourselves penitently on the mercy of the Lord and still try to preserve prestige and maintain our reputations. Christ did not die for noble beasts or beastly noblemen; He died for sinners, and He clothes only sinners who have discarded the rags of their own righteousness.

   Thus the nails are slowly driven into our hands and feet, and the spear enters our side. We realize at last that we have reached the end of the road to Calvary. It is the moment of moments — the "existential" moment. For us all decks have been cleared, all planes have been grounded, all battlefields are quiet. There is darkness over the Place of the Skull, and silence in heaven for the space of half an hour. The clock at the heart of the universe seems to have run down. We know now what it means to be under the curse of sin. It is God's move.

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*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   God does not fail us. The moment we have divested ourselves of the rags we once thought becoming, the moment we reveal to Him our spiritual shame and nakedness, He hastens to us with cover. That is the great word of divine mercy in the Bible: cover. He covers our sins with His robe of righteousness.

   At the age of seventeen I was inducted into a university fraternity by the process known as "hell week." After being exposed to the usual collegiate indignities for several hours I was flung into the fish pond and brought nude and shivering before the assembled chapter. My mortification was without limits; but at that point someone flung a quilt about my shoulders and covered me. I shall never cease to be grateful to that "brother"; the quilt's warmth and the kindness it symbolized after the ordeal fairly melted me, and the act is as vivid today as when it happened.

   Since I have become a Christian I have been flung many times into a spiritual fish pond. The life of a believer was never calculated to inflate the ego — too much of the "id" is forever bubbling to the surface. And yet the promise of Scripture is unfailing: God covers our unrighteousness with His own righteousness.

   How does He do it?

   With the seamless robe of Jesus Christ.

   When Christians speak of the "work" of Christ they do not refer to His woodwork in Joseph's carpenter shop,

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or even to His labors of teaching and healing. They mean the work of establishing men and women before God, of making them worthy of the heavenly Father and holy and righteous in His eyes. Such is the work of the Cross.

   The scene at Calvary cannot be made a pleasant one by any stretch of imagination or theology. The more we examine it the worse it becomes. What a ghastly business to have gone through! To study the Passion of our Lord is to realize that the real meaning of this Beatitude is: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled — by me, through the Cross." Seekers after righteousness do not find their reward automatically, as if life never fails, or as if the search itself is the reward. They are blessed because Christ atoned for them by interposing Himself in their stead.

   If our sense of justice is annoyed by this, the annoyance is only a smoke screen to hide a greater issue. Far more deeply disturbing is the implication that each of us who believes owes more to Jesus Christ than to any person who ever lived. Not because He founded Western society, or gave to us the climate of democracy and science, or created the Church. Rather because He lifted the curse of unrighteousness from us and made us fit for the Kingdom of Heaven. "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). And to break our cold and doubting hearts He did it gladly.

   There is no greater work than Christ's — or harder work — and in a very real sense it is still being carried on. When I see the Lord at work on a human soul today

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I stand back and gape in sheer admiration. I would never have dared to make the attempt. Even when Christ uses me to sow the seed, and I explain the Scriptures to an inquirer, a voice seems to whisper that my own personality defects are so glaring that the message will never come through. Thus when a proud, self-sufficient, ambitious soul comes crashing down at the base of the Cross, I think, "Is it possible?" It is not easy to tell when a man is spiritually hungry or thirsty. "Spiritual things are spiritually discerned." I have been mistaken many times. Only the Holy Spirit is wise in these matters. He draws the heart in the first place. He riffles the water, kindles the fire, creates the appetite.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   The deepest yearning in life is to know that our lives are somehow fulfilled and have meaning, that in spite of everything they "add up." Though we live in a tainted world that is forever rubbing off on us, we want the assurance that we pass muster, that we make the grade. We are eager to know that when the heavenly Father checks us over, instead of discarding us as a "reject," He will put on us His stamp of approval. We don't like to think that at the end of our span of years we are going to be picked up as "returned empties." We wish to be brought upstairs as "vessels of honor."

   To know that he is right with God gives significance to every breath a Christian draws. Not to know it is to spend one's days seeking consolation in the markets and assemblies and revels of dissatisfied humanity. The world

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assures us that it is foolish to seek the righteousness of God, for it takes a genius to make a saint. Far better (argues the world) that we make an amiable adjustment to sin in this life, without, of course, overdoing it. The Scriptures reply that sainthood, like genius, is a gift, but a gift available to anyone. The robe of Christ fits everybody. The New Testament saints were not "canonized," they were simply people with faith. They did not earn their good standing with God, they received it from His hand as a gift, and only in that sense were they "gifted."

   Anybody can find significance for his life in Jesus Christ. What Christ came to earth to do was not only to set men free but to set them right. His sacrifice was specifically to prepare us for fellowship with God here and hereafter. The heavenly Father welcomes us with open arms and imparts to us blessing upon blessing — not because we are upright but because Jesus Christ has clothed us with His own virtue.

   There is a moving description in the Old Testament of Abraham pleading with God to spare the city of Sodom. Abraham asked first if God would destroy the city should there be fifty righteous men within it. The Lord replied that for the sake of the fifty righteous ones He would forego the destruction. Abraham then lowered the number to forty-five, then to forty, to thirty, to twenty, and finally to ten. The Lord replied each time, saying in turn that if such a number of righteous men were found in the city, He would spare the place (Genesis 18:20-32).

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   Abraham stopped with ten, but no suggestion is given that the Lord's patience was exhausted. Had Abraham reduced the number to five, or three, or even to one righteous man, it cannot be inferred that he would have been refused a hearing. In fact, it is the teaching of the New Testament that for the sake of one righteous man the whole world has been offered a God-sent chance to avert its destruction and doom.

   If we only knew it, Jesus Christ's righteousness is enough to cover all our lack of it. His love is enough to make up for our unloveliness. More than that, His Grace is able to take these virtues and to invest them in us, so that we become more like Him. When we hunger and thirst after Jesus, this Beatitude is fulfilled; for He is our righteousness. "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink . . . from within him shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:37-38 ASV).

   Jesus went to the Cross not only to bring us to God by conveying His righteousness to us, but also to show us what practical Christian living means today. As Chaucer wrote of his "poor parson":

This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf,
That first he wroghte, and afterward he taughte.

Jesus not only wrought upon the Cross, He also taught. He left us an example, and bade us take up our crosses and follow Him. He showed us how to behave like men, how to use the assurance of our righteous standing before God, not to lord it over our neighbors,

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but to help them. He showed us that true righteousness is nothing we can boast about, since it is only a borrowed cloak, dearly purchased, with ownership in heaven.

   And it is the glory of the Gospel that for all the darkness of the road Christ leads us along, there is a light in the distance. Beyond Calvary shines the Resurrection. The way of the Cross is no nightmarish death march into oblivion, with just one sacrifice piled on another. It is a straight line to God. It leads home. The promise of this Beatitude is that in spite of everything that afflicts us on the way, in the end we shall be filled.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   At one period in my life I carried on a running debate with myself on the question of questions: Why did Jesus Christ die for me?

   He die for the world, perhaps; for the Church, to be sure; for "sin," so the apostle indicates; for the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy, undoubtedly.

   But for me?

   I was being trained in a theological seminary with a deserved reputation for scholarship. I studied every "theory" of the atonement — penal, commercial, forensic, classical, moral influence, Anselmic. The strong and weak points of each were made known to me. I looked upon them with detached, twentieth-century objectivity. "Interesting historical phenomena," I thought, "but the mountain has labored and brought forth a mouse."

   I learned that Jesus of Nazareth combined within Himself the concepts of the Son of Man as found in

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Daniel, and the Suffering Servant as found in Isaiah; that the shedding of blood is necessary for the remission of sin because the cost of forgiveness is high; that a savior-figure is psychologically useful as a therapeutic agent to rid man of his guilt feelings.

   None of these answers convinced me. None caused me to leap out of bed in the middle of the night, after the manner of Horace Bushnell, crying, "I have found it. I have found the Gospel!" They only left me more puzzled. Of all the reading of those years, I can remember only two passages that really spoke to my condition. One was a comment of Williston Walker, the church historian, in his discussion of theories of the atonement: "The message of the Gospel is that in some true sense Christ died, not for general justice, but for me."1 The other was a passage in the journal of John Wesley, entered on Saturday, February 7, 1736:

   Mr. Oglethorpe returned from Savannah with Mr. Spangenberg, one of the pastors of the Germans. I soon found what spirit he was of: and asked his advice with regard to my own conduct. He said, "My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?" I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it, and asked, "Do you know Jesus Christ?" I paused and said, "I know He is the Saviour of the world." "True," replied he; "but do you know he has saved you?" I answered, "I hope he has died to save me." He only added, "Do you know yourself?" I said, "I do." But I fear they were vain words.

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   The truth is that I did not want anyone — God or man — to be sacrificed on my behalf. Lenin was agreeable to sacrificing half the world in order to forward his theories, but I told myself that I was not inclined to be so free with other people's lives. The Biblical arrangement by which righteousness is imputed to the believer is wonderful, but (as I reasoned) it is too hard on the sacrificial victim. It seemed to turn Jesus Christ into a kind of scapegoat for a makeshift cosmic plan to gloss over the defects of the human race, in order to satisfy the Creator. The Cross becomes a kind of apology for man as the one creative act that misfired. I called it unfair to Jesus.

   Yet the answer of Scripture was that I could not have it any other way. All the power of the Christian life, the promise of joy beyond pain and triumph beyond tragedy, is possible only because of those six wretched hours on Calvary when God "made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

   Today I know that the reason Christ died upon the Cross was to ready me to meet God, here and hereafter. The years of hunger and thirst have ended in blessedness and the filling of the Holy Spirit. That which alienated me from the presence of the Lord has been taken away, removed, covered. I have freedom of access with every other believer — as Peter Forsyth says — not because I am

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a lover of love, but because I am an object of Grace. Once this tremendous truth comes home, the search is over, the seeker becomes a finder, and Christianity comes alive. When the sinner owns up to his sin and is clothed with the divine righteousness, all the dull, dreary forms of the Church become clothed in His sight with richness and glory. Life itself is transformed into a doxology. He is born anew.


1. Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1942 ed. 

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