“Righteousness will go before Him
And will make His footsteps into a way.”
–Psalm 85:13 (NASB)
I sometimes think that Christians don’t talk about righteousness enough.
I suspect that I just provoked a pretty strong response, and that two reactions were predominant. The first sort of reaction was to be viscerally opposed, to object to the idea of focusing on something off-putting at the expense of the good news that Christians get to share. The second sort of reaction was probably just as visceral, but in agreement, the passionate call to condemn all sorts of people for their bad behavior. I am of course guilty of both reactions, depending upon my mood when the idea of righteousness arises. I think both reactions are wrong though, and both for the same reason: righteousness is good.
The first reaction sees the requirement to righteousness as a sort of embarrassing anchor on what is otherwise an uplifting message. We like offering people hope and a future; we don’t like telling them that they shouldn’t do whatever they want. Even more we don’t like it when someone hints that maybe we shouldn’t do whatever we want. It’s pretty common nowadays to quote (and thoroughly misapply) the verse about not judging unless we want to be judged, because none of us wants to be judged. We use it to espouse tolerance because we all want to be tolerated, that is to say that none of us want to risk having to change.
The second reaction sees righteousness as a difficult and exacting test, the sort that lawyers and doctors have to pass to prove that they’re qualified in their important but complicated fields. Passing the test becomes a badge of honor, a testimony to our fortitude in sacrificing for the achievement. We object to people who don’t pass the test then because it belittles our own efforts. Whether people think that the entire endeavor is unnecessary, or whether they want the achievement without the test, we get angry because we’ve already sacrificed. A lot of times we condemn unrighteous people either because we’re worried that our sacrifices don’t matter, or because we’re jealous that other people don’t seem to have to sacrifice at all.
The problem with both views is that they present righteousness as something kind of arbitrary and primarily negative. In the second view we give up good things just because it’s been decreed that we must. In the first view we don’t give up anything, because it’s good not to make decrees. According to Christianity though, righteousness is not only primarily positive, it’s the only way life makes sense. We don’t have to be righteous so that we can live, we get to be righteous, which is what living looks like.
I think we all instinctively know this. If we try to imagine truly authentic living–especially life in community, which is something most people would want–it’s hard to combine it with unrighteous things like cruelty, disdain, or abuse, isn’t it? On the other hand, righteous things like honesty, patience, kindness and charity fit in naturally.
Our problem is two-fold. First, I suspect that as we’re imaging that perfectly righteous community, we all feel a bit ashamed. We recognize that we couldn’t live there: we would be the people who ruined the neighborhood. We can’t make ourselves be that righteous; it would be exhausting and we’d fail. Second, we probably all want to dismiss the image as a fantasy: a nice daydream but not the way the real world works. In the real world, righteousness doesn’t always look like it will pay off, so we take what seems to be the safer bet. We choose unrighteousness because it might let us be happy now, and immediate happiness at the very least has the virtue of being more solid than a daydream. (We casually ignore how this choice is the choice to destroy that daydream both for ourselves and everyone else.)
In fancy theological terms, that two-fold problem is sin: we couldn’t be righteous even if we tried, but most of the time we’re too scared even to try. Unfortunately, if righteousness and living go together, we all choose death, and most of the time because we’re trying to be happy and safe. Most of the time we don’t even understand that we’re choosing death, that we’re destroying the very good things we crave and our own ability to enjoy them anyway.
This is the problem that Christ came to face, the terrible muddle he came to repair. I could talk about that repair for a while, but one thing is critical here: clearly the repair has to involve righteousness. No solution would be complete if it didn’t transform us into people who could be righteous. Being forgiven for the destruction we’ve caused isn’t going to help us if we can’t stop destroying again. Being given life isn’t going to help us unless we’re made fit to live it. We ought to remember that righteousness is a blessing and a benefit, not a burden or a sacrifice.