What is righteousness? And how do we become righteous? The word righteousness is translated throughout the New Testament from the Greek noun, dikaiosyne, which means both “the state of doing what is in agreement with God’s standards” and “the state of being in proper relationship with God.” To be righteous is to do both: to follow the law and to put God first. When our focus is solely on following the rules, laws, commandments, etc., we often miss the second half of the equation.
In focusing on the commandments, we can forget that our primary job is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength—that was the Great Commandment of Jesus. We are to do our part to build that relationship until we’ve given all of ourselves over to God. As we move into that kind of relationship, we become co-creators with God of our lives.
And yes, as we journey towards that close relationship, we do work at following the standards by which God would have us live. The goal is to be righteous and to live in a proper relationship with God. As we live into a loving relationship with God, we are being transformed of all the tendencies and addictions and anything that would take us away from the Lord—that is the Holy Spirit’s job! Not ours! Our part of our own transformation into loving people is to open the doors to all the private, shameful, selfish tendencies within us, so that God can heal them.
I can see where this misunderstanding about putting the rules first arose: since we are raised to be rule followers; we start with the rules, trying to be true to them, and readily forget that the relationship with God is our primary task. If we focus on the rules, we focus on our behavior, on the surface of our lives and forget the attitudes and need for healing that prompt the behavior. If we focus on following the commandments we may be trying to accumulate enough points to get us into heaven when we die, a short-sighted goal that denies the relationship that God offers us.
We hardly need to dig to find these things that keep us from God; they are right there on the surface as we “forget,” we ignore, we’re “too busy,” we only let God in so far, we refuse to hear his voice and more. As these areas are offered up to God and healed by the Spirit, we gradually draw nearer to God. We let go of all the things that stand between God and us. Then we can be in God’s presence without shame or holding back or ignoring his call or resisting in all the myriad of ways there are. Then we stand in righteousness before God, embraced and embracing.
Another Greek word often found in the New Testament, teleios, can also confuse this issue of how to be with God. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect.”[Matthew 5:48] The meaning of the Greek word teleios is perfection in the sense of wholeness and completeness, maturity. So the passage might also read, “Be whole and complete, therefore as your father in heaven is whole and complete. What Jesus is calling attention to is not our perfect rule-following selves, but he is asking us to bring our whole selves to God. He is restating the Great Commandment—heart, mind, soul and strength.
But translating teleios as perfect takes us right back to following the rules and out of the issue of relationship and integrity that Jesus so well demonstrated. We can follow the rules and our hearts can be fearful or angry or sarcastic or demeaning to ourselves and others. But if we are first resting in the relationship with God, in the love with which he embraces us, then our attempts at following the rules are accompanied by the transformation of our inner spirit as well.
When we are transformed by God’s love through resting in him, through the proper relationship with God, there is no longer any desire to drift from the relationship with G, no tendency to forget or ignore the Lord, no need to disobey, no need to work at following the law. We are living the law and the commandments, not just following them. We can no longer do anything that is not love. Can you see the difference between obeying the law and being love and living it,?
Questions to ponder this week: Am I rule follower or do I put the relationship with God first? Is my goal to be perfect? Or whole? Will I bring my whole self, warts and all, to God?