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Righteousness – Far More Than Personal Piety

“Righteousness.” What a confusing and misunderstood word.

We use it and use it over and over again without much critical thought as to what it means.

Thanks to our traditional focus on personal piety, this word has taken on overtones of a personal experience. One is “righteous” if they are upright, pure and above reproach in their personal morality.

Clearly, that is part of what makes someone “righteous,” but it ignores a whole side of the word that is of utmost importance – perhaps of even more importance than this personal side of the word.

What would you say if I were to tell you that in the New Testament “righteousness” and “justice” are one and the same? Would that change how you understand this word?

In all honesty, this is a uniquely English problem. If you read the Bible in many other languages, there is no word for “righteousness” – a word that for us deals with personal piety and piousness.

Instead, whenever we read the word “righteousness” in the Bible, other languages translate to the corresponding word for “justice.”

Take, for instance, this well-known beatitude of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

How, I wonder, does the verse change if we were to hear it like it is read in many other languages? “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.”

To me, justice is a much more holistic word. It not only has to do with my personal piety, but with how I relate to and live with every other person who surrounds me.

Justice reminds me that to be righteous I must treat others with love, respect and forgiveness. It’s not about me, but how I relate to others.

Maybe our understanding of righteousness stems from our individualistic culture. We’ve so individualized Christianity that we fail to realize the corporeality of the gospel.

The gospel isn’t simply about me and my personal relationship with God. It isn’t only about restoring me to God. That is part of it, but it’s also about restoring my relationship with those who surround me – my friends and my enemies.

For that to happen, we have to live lives of repentance, forgiveness and justice. I have to repent of wrongdoing, forgive when I’m sinned against and learn how to live justly, righteously with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

It doesn’t end there, however, because my justice, my righteousness doesn’t end with my fellow believers but extends to all people because I’m called to love them as God does – unconditionally.

So, this is my challenge to us all: As we read the Bible and as we come across the word “righteousness,” replace it with “justice.”

Maybe that will help us to see the fullness of what that word ought to mean.

Blake Hart and his wife, Bekah, are CBF field personnel in Chile. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Thoughts of a Recovering Seminarian, and is used with permission. You can learn more about the Harts here.