Righteousness isn’t a popular word in our culture. Yet righteousness is essential to our happiness because it involves being in right relationship or right standing with God. To be righteous is to conform to God’s character, fulfilling our responsibilities toward him and others. But even though this righteousness is vital, it’s impossible to achieve, no matter how much we long for it. It comes only as God’s gift through faith in his Son.

The Hebrew word tsedeq is usually translated as “righteousness” but can also be translated as “righteous,” “honest,” “right,” “justice,” “accurate,” “just,” “truth,” or “integrity.” Though people who observed the Law were often called righteous in the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament stresses that righteousness is not merely a matter of outward behavior but a matter of the heart—of thoughts, motives, and desires. The goal is not merely to do what God says but to become like him in the process. In the words of Addison Leitch, righteousness “is primarily and basically a relationship, never an attainment…. Christian righteousness . . . is a direction, a loyalty, a commitment, a hope— and only someday an arrival.”[1]

The prophet Jeremiah predicted the coming of a King who would be called “The LORD Our Righteousness” (yah-WEH tsid-KAY-nu). Jesus fulfilled this prophecy by restoring our relationship with God through his life, death, and resurrection.

Praying to Yahweh Tsidqenu

“Say hello to this forty-two year old divorced mother of two from Southern California. I am a brunette of Italian descent, a little taller than average, a little plumper than average, though still considered a looker by my male friends….“

Ok, what’s a personal ad doing in a Bible? I include it because it’s touted on the web as an example of the kind of ad that is likely to attract a lot of people. Now let’s do a little editing for another, hypothetical ad.

“Say hello to a fellow human being. I’m not going to tell you whether I live in Sacramento or Saskatchewan. Neither will you discover whether I’m a psychologist, a secretary, or a research scientist. The most important thing about me—the one thing you need to know–is that people say I’m a lot like my Father. I know the comparison is way overblown, but I love to hear it because my Dad is the greatest person I know. He’s hugely forgiving, generous to a fault, loving beyond belief and kind, kind, kind. …”

Ok, the chances of such an ad appearing on an online dating site are slim to none, and you probably wouldn’t believe it if it did. But the point is that what’s most attractive about us is not ultimately the shape of our lips or the sensuousness of our bodies but the beauty of the soul we have. Are we generous or stingy, patient or prickly, forgiving or fault-finding? In the day to day, these are the qualities that either endear us to or alienate us from people.

But wait. What do such things have to do with righteousness? To modern ears, the word sounds priggish and unattractive because we mix up righteousness with self-righteousness, equating the two. But if that were so, why would Jesus commend those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? To be righteous is simply to be in right relationship with God and others. Instead of fighting God we allow him to reshape us so that we become more like him.

If you doubt how much God values righteousness, listen to this passage from Daniel: “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (12:3) True righteousness is not something repellant but something attractive and compelling, a shining of God’s light and life into a dark world, desperate for his love.

[1] Addison H. Leitch, “Righteousness,” Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 5:115.

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