Righteousness, Not Spirituality
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6)
Spirituality can be a cheap substitute for righteousness.
Over the years I’ve had many young Christians ask me how to be more spiritual or more pious. Rare has been the earnest student who said, “Teach me how to be righteous.” Why, I wondered does anybody want to be spiritual? What is the purpose of spirituality? What use is there in piety?
Spirituality and piety are not ends in themselves. In fact they are worthless unless they are means to a higher goal. The goal must go beyond spirituality to righteousness.
Spiritual disciplines are vitally necessary to achieve righteousness. Bible study, prayer, church attendance, evangelism are necessary for Christian growth, but they cannot be the final goal. I cannot achieve righteousness without spirituality. But it is possible to be “spiritual” at least on the surface without attaining righteousness.
Jesus was a man of prayer. His prayer life was intense and powerful. He was a man of vast knowledge of the Scriptures. He obviously mastered the Word of God. He was spiritual. But His spirituality ultimately showed itself by authentic righteousness. It was not merely a surface thing. His inner life displayed itself in outward obedience, obedience even unto death.
What is righteousness? Righteousness is doing what is right in the sight of God. This is a simple definition that is far more complex under the surface. To be righteous is to do everything that God calls us to do. The demands of true righteousness are so great and many that none of us ever in this world achieves it perfectly. It involves following the whole counsel of God.
Righteousness means right living, treating people right, living with personal integrity. A righteous person is moral without being moralistic. And he has an overarching desire to please a loving God.
R. C. Sprout
There can be no question that the Pharisees were spiritual or that they majored in spirituality. The lawyers and scribes continually debated exactly how to carry out their keeping the law and thus maintaining at least the appearance of spirituality. From them we can learn that the thing about being just spiritual and not righteous can often lead to self-righteousness and harsh judgement of others.
In Jesus we see true righteousness and how it affected His relationship not only with the Father but humanity. From the position of true righteousness, we find Christ who called us to a new and deeper spirituality that would exceed that of the Pharisees, but it also gave mercy and grace to the fallen. True righteousness proceeds from a holy and just God who declares clearly what is righteous and what is sinful and does so with great mercy and love. Though righteousness may point out our failures and shine the light on out flaws, it does so with an offering of grace and help.
Many take great pride in their spirituality and we hear it often when they tell about how much they read the Bible or attend church or bless the needy. Now please don’t take this wrong. I’m by no means saying these aren’t good things to do. Certainly we ought to read God’s Word and gather for worship and fellowship and do good deeds.
But none of this leads to righteousness. Several years ago while working in the corporate world I was given a great example of this principle. There were two ladies who ran machines adjacent to each other. They would fight and bicker and their attitude was such that the rest of the employees did their best to avoid being near them. Both of them attended church every Sunday and were actively involved. One day a new employee arrived. She was colorful in her language and dress and conduct. I’ll never forget what these ladies said to me. They insisted that since I was a preacher, I should go to this young woman and have a conversation with her about her lifestyle. In their words, “I was to straighten her out.” I remember thinking at that time that here was two church-goers whose attitude and conduct was so bad their fellow employees didn’t want to be near them and they wanted me to pressure a sinner to “live right” by their standards. The good news is that God provided me an opportunity to show her the grace and mercy of God. Sometime later she and her family came to the church where I was pastor and gave themselves to Christ. This is what she said, “I knew John was a preacher and I saw that he lived what he said. I expected him to preach at me for my lifestyle. I knew I was living wrong. But instead of trying to force me to change, he told me about the love of God and how God wanted the best for me.” That’s what brought me to church and now to Christ.”
You see we can observe all the rituals properly and perform all the acts of service but they can at best only lead us to righteousness. They cannot be an end in themselves. Our friends and neighbors aren’t impressed that we go to church. What impresses them is how we live every day. Righteousness produces the fruit of right living. It produces integrity in our business affairs. It is seen in how we treat our fellow humans such as cashiers and servers. It moves us to seek the best for others and quenches the self-life. It calls us to give mercy and kindness rather than mean spirited judging. It demands we speak truth in love and that how we live is a reflection of the Christ who lives in us.
We can choose to just be spiritual, that is to carry out spiritual acts that have an end in themselves. We can also choose to allow every spiritual act to bring us nearer to God and closer to righteousness.
Hear the words of Jesus:
20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness (uprightness, moral essence) is more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 21 “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘Whoever murders shall be guilty before the court.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who continues to be angry with his brother or harbors malice against him shall be guilty before the court; and whoever speaks [contemptuously and insultingly] to his brother, ‘Raca (You empty-headed idiot)!’ shall be guilty before the supreme court (Sanhedrin); and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fiery hell. 23 So if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and while there you remember that your brother has something [such as a grievance or legitimate complaint] against you, 24 leave your offering there at the altar and go. First make peace with your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 Come to terms quickly [at the earliest opportunity] with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way [to court], so that your opponent does not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you are thrown into prison. 26 I assure you and most solemnly say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid the last cent. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who [so much as] looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye makes you stumble and leads you to sin, tear it out and throw it away [that is, remove yourself from the source of temptation]; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand makes you stumble and leads you to sin, cut it off and throw it away [that is, remove yourself from the source of temptation]; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It has also been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife is to give her a certificate of divorce’; 32 but I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on grounds of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who has been divorced commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not make false vows, but you shall fulfill your vows to the Lord [as a religious duty].’ 34 But I say to you, do not make an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God; 35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you are not able to make a single hair white or black. 37 But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’ [a firm yes or no]; anything more than that comes from the evil one. 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth [punishment that fits the offense].’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person [who insults you or violates your rights]; but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other toward him also [simply ignore insignificant insults or trivial losses and do not bother to retaliate—maintain your dignity, your self-respect, your poise]. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also [for the Lord repays the offender]. 41 And whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor (fellow man) and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love [that is, unselfishly seek the best or higher good for] your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may [show yourselves to] be the children of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on those who are evil and on those who are good, and makes the rain fall on the righteous [those who are morally upright] and the unrighteous [the unrepentant, those who oppose Him]. 46 For if you love [only] those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers [wishing them God’s blessing and peace], what more [than others] are you doing? Do not even the Gentiles [who do not know the Lord] do that? 48 You, therefore, will be perfect [growing into spiritual maturity both in mind and character, actively integrating godly values into your daily life], as your heavenly Father is perfect. 6 “Be [very] careful not to do your good deeds publicly, to be seen by men; otherwise you will have no reward [prepared and awaiting you] with your Father who is in heaven. 5 “Also, when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to pray [publicly] standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets so that they may be seen by men. I assure you and most solemnly say to you, they [already] have their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your most private room, close the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees [what is done] in secret will reward you. 16 “And whenever you are fasting, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they put on a sad and dismal face [like actors, discoloring their faces with ashes or dirt] so that their fasting may be seen by men. I assure you and most solemnly say to you, they [already] have their reward in full. 19 “Do not store up for yourselves [material] treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there your heart [your wishes, your desires; that on which your life centers] will be also. 25 “Therefore I tell you, stop being worried or anxious (perpetually uneasy, distracted) about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, as to what you will wear. Is life not more than food, and the body more than clothing? 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. 7 “Do not judge and criticize and condemn [others unfairly with an attitude of self-righteous superiority as though assuming the office of a judge], so that you will not be judged [unfairly]. 12 “So then, in everything treat others the same way you want them to treat you, for this is [the essence of] the Law and the [writings of the] Prophets.
While the Pharisees taught living an outward spiritual life, Christ taught an inner heart transformation that is evidenced outwardly. In other words, the Pharisees taught that by doing spiritual things, one became righteous. Jesus taught the by becoming righteous one does spiritual things.
Dr. John Thompson