These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.'
The earlier beatitudes are a little more negative and force us to look inwards and see if we’ve been humbled by God’s righteousness and come to realise our need of him.
But this fourth beatitude (which follows on logically from those before) turns our eyes outwards, and causes to ask ourselves these sorts of questions: What am I living for? What do I dream about? What are my deepest hopes and ambitions? Jesus wants us to pursue righteousness above everything else.
And with that there is this promise of ‘satisfaction’. The word Jesus uses was also used of feeding animals to fatten them up. You could think of that sensation you get after the most amazing slap-up meal, a food coma, if you will. Do you want to feel this satisfaction and joy in life?
We need to begin by thinking a little about the place of desire in the life of the Christian. We live between two poles. At one extreme we have the world’s view of desire and happiness, which is that desire is god. Most of the ethical issues that we debate today are revealing this point, that people have made happiness a god, and so whatever makes you happy (whatever you desire) must be right, and it must be a right. Obviously, this is not going to hold up to much scrutiny, because whatever makes me happy may well make you unhappy, so whose happiness is more important? And moreover, the harsh reality is that it doesn’t work: if you make happiness your goal and pursue it above all else, you will never attain it. Happiness is always the result of attaining something else, and the Bible tells us that it’s the result of pursuing righteousness.
At another extreme we have religious teachings that tell us to squash our desires, as though they were inherently and automatically evil. But Paul had no time for asceticism calling it ‘human wisdom’ that has ‘no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh’ (see Colossians 2.20-23). The more you try and suppress your desires the more you obsess about them, and they become inflamed and impossible to control.
In the Bible, godly people possess powerfully strong desires or spiritual appetites. ‘O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water’ (Psalm 63.1).
What then does the Bible teach us about desire in the life of the Christian?
1. There are desires we have to crush
While the Bible is not anti-desire, it is also true that there are desires that are very dangerous and lead us into dark places. ‘But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death’ (James 1.14-15). There is a deadly cause-effect that is set in motion when wrong desires are nurtured: desire leads to sin which leads to death. This is exactly how we see sin enter the world when Eve sees that the fruit is desirable. ‘So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit…’ (Genesis 3.6).
And even though we know that sin has deadly consequences, there is also the fact that sinful desires, when indulged, do not lastingly satisfy. Psalm 107 speaks of those wandering in ‘desert wastes’ (Psalm 107.4-5). They are hungry and thirsty because, without God, they can’t find satisfaction for their souls. This is what Jesus is appealing to in the woman at the well when he begins to speak about the ‘living water’ (John 4.10). He knows that her lifestyle has demonstrated a deep spiritual desire, but that she has not been satisfied by her sexual conquests.
The Biblical advice is blunt: ‘Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming’ (Colossians 3.5-6).
2. There is a deadliness in apathy
In some ways it is more dangerous when you fall into a state of apathy and spiritual stupor, as opposed to raging temptation. At least in the midst of temptation you know you’re in danger, your conscience is screaming at you, and you know what needs to be done. But when you drift into a place of spiritual apathy the danger is less obvious, it is chronic rather than acute, but no less deadly. That is why Jesus says to the Laodiceans, ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth ‘ (Revelation 3.15-16).
What causes this apathy? Here are some possible causes. (1) Disappointment or disillusionment. Often we can experience the disappointment of delayed answers to prayer, or of dashed expectations in our own spiritual life or in our church. It is not uncommon to let the fire grow dull when you experience this kind of disappointment with God. (2) Wealth and fatness. When we’re suffering we know we’re in danger but when we’re prospering, and enjoying the blessings God has given us, we can lose our spiritual edge without even realising it. (3) Tiredness from spiritual exertion. Sometimes leadership is a very dangerous place spiritually, because you are constantly giving out, and you can begin to drift but not know how to recover. At that point you end up faking it, too tired to deal with the root issue, but unable to stop. Perhaps this is what happened to Elijah after the contest on Mount Carmel. (4) The slow creep of falling away. Even if nothing in particular has dulled your spiritual appetites, I think it is quite easy to start drifting, and not realise how far you’ve gone until you think back some way to when things were better.
The only counsel we need hear is this: WAKE UP! There is too much at stake to go through our Christian lives in an apathetic fashion.
3. There are desires God wants in us
In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott wrote this:
‘There is perhaps no greater secret of progress in Christian living than a healthy, hearty spiritual appetite. Again and again Scripture addresses its promises to the hungry. God “satisfies him who is thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things” [Ps 107:9]. If we are conscious of slow growth, is the reason that we have a jaded appetite? It is not enough to mourn over past sin; we must also hunger for future righteousness.’
It is positive and vigorous pursuit of righteousness that God loves and blesses. He wants passion! And moreover, he promises that we’ll experience real joy and satisfaction as we hunger after him.
We see this in the life of Jesus. Why was he so incorruptible? Why was he able to escape the devil’s temptations? It was not simply through an act of sheer willpower from some super-human effort. Jesus says, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work’ (John 4.34). Jesus had a full heart, a perfect sense of satisfaction in his walk with the Father, and so he could not be swayed to the right or to the left when temptations were offered to him.
How do we awaken these spiritual appetites? (1) It’s important to understand what it is that Jesus wants us to pursue. We’re called to hunger and thirst after righteousness, and it seems that he doesn’t mean saving righteousness (justification), but rather the ever-growing transformation of becoming more like Jesus, and knowing him more deeply. (2) It’s important to know that it’s God who accomplishes this work in us. Paul wrote to the Philippians, ‘And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1.6). If God has saved you, he won’t discard you like some hobby he’s bored of, but he’ll keep working on you until he’s happy with the result. (3) You need to know that what Christ offers is better. So often in the Bible when we’re told to kill sin, we’re not left in some kind of vacuum, but instead we’re given greater motivations, something bigger, and better, and more fulfilling to run towards. You see that happening in Colossians 3. Just before Paul has told them to ‘put to death what is earthly in you’ (v.5) he’s told them this:
‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory’ (Colossians 3.1-4).
Finally, in the light of all of these great truths, you have to realise that your spiritual appetites won’t be stirred if you ignore the ordinary means God has given you: your church, your Bible, your amazing privilege of being able to approach God freely in prayer, and so on. It does take discipline to keep doing the right stuff, but you can’t expect God to meet with you if you ignore the gifts he’s given.