What Does it Mean to Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness?


by Marie Notcheva

For the last several weeks, I have been doing a study on the Beatitudes with a friend. Today I realized that I have been reading Matthew 5:6 incorrectly for my entire Christian life.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” always sounded to me like a yearning for social justice. As believers in Christ, it naturally follows that we should want to see justice served in this world. This is not incompatible with the Bible’s teaching on caring for the orphans, the widow, and not looking down on the poor – or its many warnings against cheating and falsehood. An earnest desire to see the social structures of this world controlled by Christian morality sounds like a noble desire; certainly something that Christ would call “blessed.” It is reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your Kingdom come; Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10; emphasis mine).

We want to see righteousness in this world, as the nations turn to Christ.

Social Justice or Personal Righteousness?

Except….that’s not really what Matthew 5:6 is about. It helps to take a step back and look at the preceding beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (verse 3); “Blessed are those who mourn” (verse 4); “Blessed are the meek” (verse 5). We see a progression here – in personal holiness. Being “poor in spirit,” as I wrote about several weeks ago, means acknowledging our abject moral failure before God. It means coming to the table empty-handed; which leads to a “mourning” over one’s personal sin. These two verses center on our sinfulness, whereas being “meek” reveals a spirit that is already seeking righteousness. Why? Because meekness centers on God’s holiness, not our sinfulness. We see in the beatitudes not a grocery list of qualities to add to our spiritual resumes, but rather a progression in sanctification.

“Meekness is a by-product of dying to one’s self,” preaches John Macarthur, and it is a result of deliberately yielding to the Holy Spirit. The characteristic of meekness is commanded in Titus 3:2, where believers are instructed to be “gentle and meek” to everyone; and in Colossians, God’s children are told to deliberately clothe themselves with meekness (along with other virtues such as kindness and humility). So, when we get to verse 6, and are told we are “blessed” if we “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” it is not specifically an end to racism or halting political corruption that is in view. It is the believer’s personal holiness and inner striving for righteous thoughts and behavior that Christ is referring to.

How Are We Satisfied in God?

This is a good starting point for almost any context in counseling. While we would all surely say we “hunger and thirst after righteousness” in the global, general sense, the question for heart-examination is deeper. Do we (or a counselee) still have that burning desire to be holy, just as Christ is holy, purely to please our Heavenly Father? Do we still have that sense of awe at His Majesty that we had when we were first saved?

The word in Greek for hunger is peinao, which means to suffer from want or be in need. Metaphorically speaking, it means to crave and seek intensely. Dipsao is the Greek word for thirst; spiritually, it describes those who painfully feel their want of (and eagerly long for) things which will refresh and strengthen their soul. So when Jesus says that such a hungry person will be satisfied, what does He mean?

John 6:35 links Christ’s reference to hunger and thirst to the spiritual realm: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” So, He is declaring “blessed” those who truly hunger and thirst for the “living water” and bread of life that only He provides. Earnestly desiring what Christ came to grant and fulfill leads to receiving from Him the greatest satisfaction there is – a right relationship with Himself. This is the Gospel – the whole Person and Work of Christ; and sincerely desiring His will in our own lives is what He means by “hungering for righteousness.”

The Spiritual Barometer

A sure-fire way to test if we have gone lukewarm is to consider how strongly we desire the righteousness of Christ – not in the abstract, but tangibly. A counselee may be asked what is satisfying her now; what would really satisfy her in the near future? Does she desire acceptance, fame, money, security or another (not necessarily bad) thing that can become a heart-idol? What do we do when we are not seeking or desiring God? A study of the Prodigal Son provides an excellent lesson on consequences of hungering and thirsting after the wrong things (as well as a portrayal of the Father’s extravagant grace in drawing us back to Himself). Tim Keller’s “The Prodigal God” is superb reading material for counselees who are prone to seek spiritual satisfaction elsewhere.


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