The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Christians: Goodness
Matthew 5:1, 2, 6
Steve Lyons will always be known as the baseball player who dropped his pants!
I know, you can’t believe what you just heard and I can’t believe what I just said—but it is true. On July 16, 1990, the Chicago White Sox were playing the Detroit Tigers. At a crucial point in this closely-contested game, Steve Lyons bunted and then raced down the sideline toward first. He knew the play was going to be close so what did he do? To everyone’s astonishment he dove headfirst toward the bag. “Safe!” the umpire called. The opposing pitcher disagreed. He and the umpire got into a shouting match, and Steve Lyons stepped in to voice his opinions. Absorbed in his passion for the game and the heat of the debate, Lyons felt dirt trickling down the inside of his pants. Without missing a beat, he dropped his britches, wiped away the dirt, and—Holy Smoke!—twenty thousand people screamed with horror and humor. When Steve Lyons realized what he had done…well, he will always be remembered, and ridiculed, as the player who dropped his pants!
But you know I think that’s a shame. I think Steve Lyons ought to be remembered for something else. I think he ought to be remembered as the guy who dove headfirst into first base. You see, Steve Lyons is a baseball player with just average ability, but his passion, his desire, his enthusiasm have made him an above-average player. That headfirst dive into first base is typical of the reckless abandon with which he plays the game. He loves to play baseball.
Let me ask you something, and I want you to be honest. Do you love anything like that? With that kind of passion and enthusiasm? Is there anything in your life that inspires you, excites you, stirs you, motivates you, thrills you and fills you like that? Interestingly enough, Jesus says that we should be that passionate, that enthusiastic, that fired-up in our pursuit of goodness and righteousness in life. Here is how He puts it in the fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” In other words, “O how close to God are those who are consumed with the desire to speak what is right and to do what is right and to stand for what is right in life! O, how near to the heart of God are those who crave goodness and Godliness in their living. O, how fulfilled are those who go after righteousness the way the starving go after food and the thirsty go after water!” They are the most highly effective Christians I know. They are the ones who are living life the way God wants it to be lived.
Of course, the key word in this Beatitude is the word “righteousness.” In the Bible, the word “righteousness” is used in three different ways. Let’s look at those together. Hopefully, we may find ourselves (or someone we know) somewhere between the lines.
First, the Bible uses the word “righteousness” to describe individual goodness or personal morality.
All of us have seen hitchhikers on the roadside holding up signs indicating where they would like to go. Some are very specific like Tampa or Miami or Dallas or Atlanta. Others are less exact: Florida, Michigan, New York, Tennessee. Still others are even more general. Glendon Harris reported that he saw a young man hitchhiking in southern California, holding up a sign which read: “Anywhere.” Wouldn’t you like to know the rest of that story?
But the truth is that many people go through life like that. They will go anywhere life takes them. Wherever the fads of life, the moods of life, the waves of life take them, they will go. They have no sense of personal conviction, and consequently, they have no sense of personal direction. But here in the fourth Beatitude, Jesus reminds us that we need to stop drifting and start heading in the direction of goodness in our lives. We need to be moving toward morality, pursuing character and cleanness and ethics and integrity in our living.
Don Shelby is a Methodist minister out west. One morning, the custodian in his church asked him to come to the sanctuary to see a strange offering which had been left on the altar. It consisted of a pair of corduroy pants, a belt, a white T-shirt, a pair of worn boots, and a note. There were blood stains on the shirt and the note. The note said: “Please listen to God.” It was signed and there was a phone number. Don Shelby dialed the number. A young man, nineteen years old, answered and poured out his story. He had run away from home and had been wandering for several years in a wasteland of drugs, drifting from one place to another, getting into all kinds of trouble, becoming involved in all sorts of sordid behavior. The night before, he had hit bottom. There had been a fight on the streets and an almost fatal beating. After making sure that the victim of his uncontrolled assault was going to be all right in the emergency room of a nearby hospital, the young man then came to the church, found an unlocked door, and went into the sanctuary. There he stayed all night, crying, praying and pondering. He asked God to forgive him and to show him the way to go. All at once the presence of God became very real to him, and there he committed himself to follow Jesus Christ. He was determined to do right and to make things right in his life. He felt fresh and clean, like a new person. To symbolize his new life, he put on the clean clothes he had wrapped up in his bed roll, and he left the old clothes as a kind of offering to God. He walked out the door with a new vision and a new sense of direction in his life.
Why had he come to the church? Why did he pray all night? Why did he plead for forgiveness? Why did he make that new commitment? Because he was hungry for God and thirsty for goodness. When he realized that and came to his senses, like the Prodigal Son, he wanted to come home to God. He realized that his soul was starving to death. He wanted to do better and to be better. He did and he was.
My friends, if your life is unfocused and misdirected, if you are being blown about by every changing wind of fad and fancy and fashion, if you have lost the sure and steady guidance of the moral life, then come home to Jesus Christ. Don’t let your soul starve to death. Partake of the nourishing goodness and righteousness of Jesus Christ in your personal life. “O how near to the heart of God are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Next, in the Bible we find the word “righteousness” means corporate goodness or social justice.
Years ago, a young lawyer made a trip to New Orleans. He saw something there that turned his stomach and broke his heart: a slave auction. Black Africans had been brought in by boat and were being sold to the highest bidder. Young children were crying, women were screaming, men were struggling helplessly and hopelessly against their shackles, families were being torn apart, probably never to see each other again. It was a cruel, sordid business. The young lawyer watched the ugliness and inhumanity of it all with tears in his eyes and with fists clenched inanger. He said: “This is wrong! Terribly wrong! And if I ever get a chance to strike a blow against it, I will hit it and I will hit it hard!” Of course, you know that the young lawyer was Abraham Lincoln, and years later, when his opportunity came, he stood tall and struck the blow for justice!
A part of our calling as Christians is to be the “conscience for the nation,” to stand tall for Jesus Christ by working for social justice. All through the Bible we see it. Moses, Amos, Isaiah, Elijah, the Apostle Paul, and especially Jesus—all committed themselves not only to personal morality, but also to social justice. Sometimes they paid a heavy price for that passion, but they paid it willingly. So should we.
For more than a decade now I have been guided in my own life by some principles set forth by a high school teacher and coach, a disciple of Jesus Christ named Howard Ferguson. He calls them “Ten Contradictory Commandments for Committed Christians.” Here they are:
- People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered—love them anyway.
- If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives—do good anyway.
- Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable—be honest and frank anyway.
- If you try to break down the walls separating people from each other, you may be scorned and hated—break down the walls anyway.
- The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest ideas—think big anyway.
- People say they favor underdogs, but they follow only top dogs—fight for the underdogs anyway.
- What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight—build anyway.
- People really need help, but may attack you if you try to help them—help them anyway.
- If you stand for what is right and good in society, you may belaughed off the court—stand anyway.
- Give the world the best you have and you may get kicked in the teeth—give the world the best you have anyway.
Here’s the point. The value of an action lies not in the response it receives, but in the quality of the action itself. Doing what is right because it is right, and attacking what is wrong because it is wrong is abundantly worthwhile whether or not it is understood or appreciated or reciprocated. We are called to strive for what is good and right and fair and just in society, no matter what, because we stand for Jesus Christ. “O, how near to the heart of God are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be satisfied.”
Finally, in the Bible, the word “righteousness” also means “right relationships.”
I read recently about a fellow who prayed: “O God, use me any way you desire, but especially in an advisory capacity.” Well, the truth is that God doesn’t want us in an advisory capacity. He wants us in a relational capacity. He wants us to be linked together in His love. In the original Greek, the word for righteousness literally means “to be set right with God and with other people.”
This is one of the major themes of the Bible. We are to love God and the best way for us to express our love for God is to show love for His children. The prophets said it. So did Paul. So did Jesus. Remember what He said? “By this shall the world know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” God wants us to be linked together by His love, and when we are linked together we can change the world.
Some years ago in Wisconsin, a little 8-year-old girl was lost in the woods. It was winter—snowing, sleeting, bitterly cold. Hundreds of people combed the forest, desperately searching for the little girl. Time was of the essence. They knew she could not survive long in that weather. The hours passed, but she was not found. Then someone came up with the idea of having all the searchers join hands and walk together through the forest in a single line, holding hands. They tried it. In less than fifteen minutes, they found the little girl—but it was too late! She had died from the cold and exposure. In the hush of that awful moment, someone said: “Why, O why didn’t we join hands sooner?” Sometimes, my friends, when I see the troubles and the conflicts in the world, I think about that: “Why, O why, O why can’t we join hands?” But all the time, my friends, when I reflect on what God has done in my life, I am thankful that He has allowed us—you and me—to be linked together by His love.
Jesus said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be satisfied.” When he said that, He was calling us to strive energetically for personal goodness, to stand tall enthusiastically for social justice, and to join hands eagerly with others in the service of our Lord.
So may it be in your life and in mine.