Many believers have the mistaken notion that the Christian life is something we take no part in – it is all God’s work. “Let go and let God” is a popular expression used here. It is as if the Christian just switches on the auto-pilot, puts his feet up, and enjoys the ride.
As with all theological errors, there is a bit of truth here. The initial act of salvation (justification) is of course all of God. It is by grace through faith. And the rest of the salvation process (sanctification) is of course made possible by God as well – the indwelling Holy Spirit.
But as I have stated so often, we have a very real role to play in this: being obedient, saying no to sin, putting off the old man, denying self, crucifying the flesh, resisting temptations, not going along with the world, picking up our cross and carrying it daily, and so on.
So there is no magic pill we can take to be holy and Christlike. It is something we must continuously seek after whole-heartedly, as we co-labour with Christ to see it progressively being realised in our lives. And a holy zeal and desire is a big part of this.
Do we want more of God? Do we desire God? Is he our main focus and deepest longing? Our attitude is crucial here. Do we hunger for God? Do we thirst after God? Those are the sorts of questions we all need to be asking ourselves. And if the answer is no, then we must take necessary steps to correct this.
Simply being honest with God is a great way to begin: just tell him you do not really hunger after him, but you would like to. ‘Make me willing to be willing’ is one way to pray here. Admit your lack of hunger and thirst for God, and tell him you want this to change.
God honours the hungry heart, and if that is not there, he honours the willing heart. So let me mention a few passages that speak to this. I just read again Matthew 5:6 which says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
The imagery here is pretty easy to follow. If you are physically hungry and thirsty, you will actively take steps to alleviate your hunger and quench your thirst. When we have a spiritual hunger for God, we do things: we seek him more, we spend more time with him, we pray more, we read the Bible more, we fellowship with other on-fire believers and so on.
There are numerous passages which speak to such hunger, including the following:
-Psalm 42:1-2 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
-Psalm 63:1 O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water.
-Psalm 143:6 I stretch out my hands to You; My soul longs for You, as a parched land.
-Isaiah 55:1 Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money come, buy and eat Come, buy wine and milk Without money and without cost.
-John 6:27 “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.”
-John 6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.
-John 7:37 Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.”
-Revelation 21:6 Then He said to me, “It is done I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.”
-Revelation 22:17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come ” And let the one who hears say, “Come ” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.
It should be clear that some of these verses are referring to those who are not yet God’s people. Their spiritual hunger can only be satisfied in God. The three passages I offered from the gospel of John would fall into this category. But here I want to speak to those who are already believers, and to their ongoing hunger for more of God.
So let me return to Matthew 5:6 and spend some more time on it. To begin with, let me use Martyn Lloyd-Jones as my guide. His Studies in the Sermon on the Mount should be on every Christian’s bookshelf. Let me share some of what he has to say on this important passage. He sees this longing as a real indication of genuine Christian discipleship:
“I do not know of a better test that anyone can apply to himself or herself in this whole matter of the Christian profession than a verse like this. If this verse is to you one of the most blessed statements of the whole of Scripture, you can be quite certain you are a Christian; if it is not, then you had better examine the foundations again.”
He points out that most folks get it wrong here: they seek after happiness instead of holiness:
We are not to hunger and thirst after blessedness; we are not to hunger and thirst after happiness. But that is what most people are doing. We put happiness and blessedness as the one thing that we desire, and thus we always miss it; it always eludes us. According to the Scriptures happiness is never something that should be sought directly; it is always something that results from seeking something else.
So what exactly does this hungering mean? He explains:
To hunger and thirst after righteousness is nothing but the longing to be positively holy. I cannot think of a better way of defining it. . . . It means that one’s supreme desire in life is to know God and to be in fellowship with Him, to walk with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the light. . . . It means a consciousness of our need, of our deep need. I go further, it means a consciousness of our desperate need; it means a deep consciousness of our great need even to the point of pain. It means something that keeps on until it is satisfied. It does not mean just a passing feeling, a passing desire. . . . You see the Christian is one who at one and the same time is hungering and thirsting, and yet he is filled. And the more he is filled the more he hungers and thirsts. That is the blessedness of this Christian life.
R. C. Sproul also has some very helpful things to say about all this. He notes that although the teaching of justification (involving the imparted righteousness of Christ to redeemed sinners) is a glorious truth, that is not what Jesus has in mind here:
Even though we are justified by faith and not by our works, we are justified unto works. Even though our righteousness will never justify us, the fruit of our justification is growth in real righteousness. As Martin Luther said, we were dead in our sins, but God raised us from the dead, and He declared us well while we were still in sin. That is what justification by faith means. Not only did He give us that declaration, but He gave us the medicine by which we actually do become conformed to the image of Jesus, and every Christian is called to grow up into maturity and righteousness.
Elsewhere in this Gospel we are going to see this quest for righteousness, but we have an allergy to it because we tend to link righteousness with self-righteousness, that which the Pharisees displayed, rather than with real righteousness. Real righteousness is, simply, doing what is right. That should be a concern for us, and not just a passing concern. The images used here are those of hunger and thirst. This message was given to people who, for the most part, lived in the desert, who knew what it meant to have such a parched palate that their thirst was so consuming that just one cup of cold water would dramatically improve their condition. They also knew what it meant to endure starvation, to go hungry for long periods of time. For someone who is in that state of hunger, like one who crosses the desert and runs out of water and prays every second for the appearance of an oasis, the pursuit of that oasis is the only thing that keeps him going. The intensity of that sort of thirst and hunger is what Jesus says should mark our lives.
As I stated earlier, it all comes down to attitude. Are we content with the way we are, or do we crave more – much more of God? Most of us are far too content to live a third-rate or fourth-rate Christian life. Many of us have not really tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). As C.S. Lewis put it in “The Weight of Glory”:
“We are half hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea, we are far too easily pleased.”
At the risk of spooking out a few believers here, let me close by describing a dream I sometimes have. I am in my very meagre and humble home, but then discover there are other rooms therein: big and amazing rooms filled with all sorts of treasures. I had no idea such rooms even existed, yet there they are.
They are opulent rooms containing all sorts of magnificent things, yet there I had lived my whole life not even being aware that such rooms were in my home. The spiritual truths of such a dream are pretty obvious for me: I live a very half-hearted Christian life.
I have settled for mediocrity. I have been content with a mere pittance of what God has in store for me. I have been quite happy to live a spiritual life which is only a fraction of what it is meant to be. I have been satisfied with knowing God just an infinitesimal amount, when I could know and experience so much more of him.
And Satan is more than happy to keep me – and us – in such a condition. He is an expert at diverting our attention, keeping us seeking after trivial pursuits and being constantly entertained and amused, so that we have little thought of God, or of seeking him more.
Thus we are not blessed, and we cannot be really blessed. Only those who hunger and thirst after God, to know him more, and to be more like him, will know the real blessedness and happiness which only God can give. And that joy, as C. S. Lewis and others keep reminding us, is a by-product. As he put it in Mere Christianity:
What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ – could set up on their own as if they had created themselves – be their own masters – invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.
The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.
So, I must keep asking myself: am I hungering and thirsting after God? Or am I spending my life running after false gods in a vain attempt to be happy, fulfilled and at peace?