We all want to be happy. And Jesus tells us how. In Matthew 5:6, Jesus says, "Blessed [or happy] are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." If you were quickly reading through your Bible and you ran across this verse, you might say, "I'm not exactly sure what this means, but it has a nice, poetic sound to it. It's got a nice roll and a contrast that would be nice to put on a plaque or poster or Hallmark card." But that response would be like picking up a stick of dynamite and saying, "Look at this pretty little red toy! It's even got a string to swing it with!" because this poetic saying is designed to go off and blow up our tidy assumptions about life. It may sound poetic, but it's actually subversive. You say, "Well, how dangerous can it really be? It doesn't even seem to make sense. It's saying that those who hunger will be satisfied, but by definition, if you're hungry you're not satisfied—you're hungry." All you're thinking is, Must get to the refrigerator. Need food. You're not satisfied.
Before I went in college, I went on a three-week wilderness adventure program called The Solo. They put you out in the woods by yourself for three days, and they gave you enough water and a tent (kind of like a tarp), but that's all you had. You didn't have food. I had these romantic notions of seeing a wild turkey and catching it with a stick, but that didn't happen. The second night I was out there, I was dreaming, and here's the dream I had: I was at a picnic, and there was an enormous bowl of potato salad. It was as big as a washtub and as deep, and I was scarfing it down. I woke up so happy, until it hit me: Oh, shoot. No more food. That dream wasn't real.
When you're hungry, you're not satisfied. You're longing for something; you're dreaming for something. Yet Jesus says here that there is at least a certain type of hunger with which you will be satisfied. That doesn't seem to make sense, does it? Maybe the reason we struggle with this kind of saying is that it flies in the face of everything we've been taught to believe about finding satisfaction in life—and about finding happiness.
I don't know what your house was like as you were growing up, but in my house it was clearly communicated to me in different ways that you should work hard at school and get as much education as possible, because then you can get the best job possible with the best income possible, which allows you to enjoy a standard of living that will bring you satisfaction. We all came to believe that. You might not feel that you're caught in that belief, but just follow me for a moment. The average American watches 53 hours of TV a week. In those 53 hours are embedded 16 hours of commercials. That's two full work days. And who puts those commercials together? Very smart people who are skilled to communicate a certain profoundly compelling message—a message coming to you and me 16 hours a week.
Just so we can have an equal comparison on the beatitudes of Jesus, let me give you three beatitudes of these commercials: Blessed are those who drink beer, for they shall be surrounded by highly attractive and socially gifted women in the first half of life. They shall be satisfied. Blessed are those who have the latest Smartphone, for they shall gaze on a screen swirling with color and get all the information they need just when they need it, and they shall be satisfied. Blessed are those who have a golden Labrador retriever who bounds along in that slow motion videoed day of playing with their perfect children in the park, for they shall be the envy of real families everywhere. These are the things we all take in. But there's a problem: when we get filled with these fillings, we just get hungry again.
In 1955, if you drove to McDonald's—one of those new burger stands with the golden arch on each side—the largest serving of soda you could get was seven ounces. Today, if you go to a McDonald's drive-thru and you order the large soda, you get 32 ounces. Just to remind you, from Home-Ec, that's a quart—for one person! And we still ask, "Do I get free refills with this?" It's clear: the more we get, the more we want. The more we fill ourselves, the hungrier we get.
I have an iPhone 3GS. It is one of the most technologically advanced devices created in human history. No kidding. This thing has a sensor that knows when I pull the phone away from my face, and it lights up the screen for me. It has a sensor that knows when I turn it. It's got a GPS. It's basically a TV. It's a radio. It's a calculator. It's an alarm clock. There's really nothing this thing does not do. I can be driving down the road, and I can watch a video of a home run ball that was just hit, within minutes of when it actually happened.
You'd think that with this astonishing level of capability, I would be thrilled and satisfied and really happy to have this phone. And I was for a little while. But I was at a business meeting last week, and as usual in a business meeting, there was this ritual where everyone sits down at the table, pulls out their cell phones, and slaps them down in front of me on the table. I began to look around the table and I immediately thought, Oh my gosh, almost everybody here has the iPhone 4. The 4! It's newer than mine, it's thinner than mine, and it's got a retina display. Not only that, but it doesn't just show ordinary run-of-the-mill video like my poor, schleppy phone; it shows hi-def. It was then that my face fell, my joy was turned to mourning, and I wanted to tear my clothes and sprinkle ashes on my head.
You see, we're all caught in this insane cycle where we have these hungers we're trying to fill, and the more we fill them, the hungrier we get. Because what's the phone really about for me? It's partly about needing a phone, but it's partly about the cool factor—the power factor. And Jesus looks at us and says: "You know, I feel bad for you. There's a better way to live. What if instead of all these fillings that only leave you hungrier, I gave you a hunger that left you filled? Would you be interested in that?"
What would this hunger be that would leave us filled and happy? Jesus says that it is "righteousness."
What is righteousness?
What does righteousness mean? It means that something that was not right before is made right. Some Bible translators actually use the word justice here, which has both a personal dimension and a social dimension. Suppose that I leave my garage door up on a Saturday while I'm out running errands, and somebody comes by and steals my bike. Now, if justice is served, hopefully something will happen personally with the person who stole my bike, because something was clearly not right inside that person. What made him think he could just help himself to my bike? Hopefully there will be an appropriate consequence meted out by the authorities, and this person will get the clue that what he or she did is not right.
There's a social dimension to this as well. My bike's missing. I want my bike back. It's not right that I no longer have a bike. So hopefully, if justice is served, this person will either return the bike, or if it's already been hocked for parts, some sort of fine will be given and I'll be repaid enough that I can go buy a replacement bike. So there's a righteousness where things are made right personally for the one who has done wrong, and there's a social righteousness where things are made right more relationally and in the world around us. Jesus says when you get hungry for those things, you will be satisfied. That's what will fill you up.
Let's take these dimensions one at a time. We'll start with personal righteousness. Jesus says that if you really want to be satisfied, you don't get there by saying, "You know, I've really got it pretty well together. I know I occasionally have these personal short comings, but really I'm doing fine." Having that kind of attitude is not how you get satisfied. It's not an attitude of hunger. How you do get satisfied is when you start to hunger for change, and you say, "You know what? There are things in my life that are not right. These things have got to change."
Alcoholics Anonymous, which is one of the most profound human transformation programs ever created, was drawn from Christian principles. In their twelve steps of recovery, the very first step—the doorway to being satisfied with sobriety and getting your head clear—is this: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and our lives had become unmanageable." That's hunger. I can tell you what will happen when you have that kind of hunger: you will be satisfied. You will start to change.
When I'm working pastorally with somebody who has a drinking problem, I'll sometimes go to one of our church members who is in AA, because in AA people love to help others. That's part of the whole program. I'll say to this person, "Would you be willing to meet with someone to help them on their journey?" The response is, "Sure, I'd love to. Tell me more about them." And sometimes, after describing the person for two or three minutes, this AA member will say, "Oh, they're not ready; they don't want to change." I say, "Well, that was kind of blunt. How do you know?" And the guy says, "Well, if they're still saying such and such, they don't want to change. If they're still doing this or that, they don't want to change." You see, these people know that change is not possible until someone is hungry for it.
The satisfaction of a better life, a life made right with God, doesn't happen until you get hungry. It doesn't happen until you admit, "I'm powerless over this anger in my life," or, "I'm powerless over this envy in my life," or, "Why do I have this lust in my life? I'm powerless over it." It is at that point that you start to get better. If you will let that hunger for a better life develop in you, you will be satisfied. We have people all over this church who would testify to this principle—that the day they started getting better was actually a day that didn't feel good. It was a hungry day. It was a headache-low-blood-sugar-horrible kind of day where they had to realize, I'm powerless. I can't manage this. My life has become unmanageable in this dimension, and I want change. I want help. What we have found over and over again in this church is that you will find the satisfaction of transformation but you can't jump over the hunger part. You've got to feel the hunger that makes you say, "I want help."
Social or global righteousness
The same thing applies globally. Some churches do a great job emphasizing personal righteousness; some churches do a great job emphasizing global righteousness. But you can't really separate them. Jesus is into both.
I was reading a book this spring called The Hole in Our Gospel. It's written by Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision, which is one of the largest Christian humanitarian organizations in the world. In this book he started telling his story, and to be honest, I wasn't really getting it. His story wasn't really affecting me deeply until I hit chapter nine and read this: "More than 26,500 children died yesterday of preventable causes related to their poverty, and it will happen again today and tomorrow and the day after that."
That cracked me open. I immediately thought, That's not right! But what can I do about it? Holy cow, I don't even know any of those kids. I don't know what I would do for them. These thoughts just overwhelmed and paralyzed me. But I kept reading and got to page 267 where Rich writes this, "But it doesn't take billions of dollars to make a difference. The lack of clean water alone causes millions of needless child deaths each year, yet to bring clean water to one person costs only one dollar per year." I thought, That's fundraising hyperbole. I'm not sure that's right. But there was footnote there, so I flipped over and read that this number is based on drilling one borehole well at a cost of $12,500 to serve 500 people for about 25 years. If you run the math, it comes out that $1 gives clean water to one kid for one year. I realized, Okay, I can't do everything, but I can do something. I was getting thirsty. I can't live in a world where this kind of senseless death is happening.
I went to the people who were planning our church festival this year, and I said, "Hey, I know we're going to do some really fun stuff during the festival weeks. We're basically having parties for four weeks straight this fall. But while we're celebrating, why don't we make the celebration bigger than just us? What if we help spread the celebration to people who don't have access to clean drinking water? Wouldn't that be awesome?" This isn't the kind of challenge in which only the wealthy can participate. Everyone can contribute one dollar—even the kids have been saving their quarters for this event.
Giving in this way feels like being a parent watching your children open gifts on Christmas morning. Opening your own gifts is nice, but you don't love it half as much as seeing your kids so happy at receiving the thing they most anticipated. You feel so blessed. You feel so satisfied.
Jesus says that we can live in that kind of satisfaction with him. If you keep living this life of trying to fill yourself up with stuff and achievements and everything after which you lust, you're just going to get hungry. But if you hunger to be made right with God, and then in some way you help something around you to be made right, you enter into the joy of the Lord. In the New Testament it says, "Jesus was filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit." Jesus was not a dower person. He was a joy-filled person, and that joy is what he wants to share with us. He says: You can enter into my joy and my deep satisfaction if you will hunger and thirst for righteousness.
This is an awesome promise; it is really good news. We don't have to live our lives constantly frustrated, constantly wondering why we feel so restless and dissatisfied. We can live satisfied lives with the joy of the Lord as we offer ourselves to getting right with God, and we hunger to make the world a better place. But this good news is conditional. The beatitude says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." What if I'm not hungry? There are times when I really am hungry for justice and I am hungry for righteousness in my own life. But there are also times when I anesthetize myself and I don't want to deal with any of it. That's bad news for me, right? Because I want the satisfaction and the blessing, but it's dependent upon my hunger, and I don't always have the hunger.
But Jesus was hungry. He lived a very, very hungry life. When he started his ministry, the first thing after getting baptized was not to raise someone from the dead or to preach a sermon; rather, the first thing he did was to go out into the desert and fast for 40 days. He made himself hungry. Why? Because that's the paradigm of his life.
I started looking at different Scripture passages that all express the hunger with which Jesus lived: "'Oh, unbelieving generation,' Jesus replied, 'how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.'" (Mark 9:19); "'I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed'" (Luke 12:49-50); "Jesus wept" (John 11:35); "'Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I've longed to gather your children together as the hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing'" (Matthew 23:37); "'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do'" (Luke 23:34).
Do you see what's going on for Jesus? He knows this profound joy in the Holy Spirit, yet he's also living a life in which there are groanings and pleadings and longings for this world to be set right by the power of God. He can't get away from that. Looking at these passages I suddenly realized that Jesus is on both sides of this equation. Not only is he blessing us and giving us satisfaction when we hunger, but he'll give us the hunger. He's got the hunger. He's got more than enough hunger.
All we have to do is open ourselves and say, "Lord Jesus, would you give me your hunger for righteousness? I don't have enough hunger for my own life to be made right. Give me some of that please, because I know that then I will find the satisfaction of a new life in you. Lord, I don't have enough hunger for a world to be made right. It's easy for me to close in and let my life define everything. Would you kindly give me some of your hunger? Then I know that I will be satisfied." Amen.
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,