Advice for Preachers and Teachers (11)
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.” Matthew 5.6
“This attitude [of lamentation] causes him to ask with constant prayers for the consolation of divine assistance lest he fall into despair, and he thus enters the fourth step of fortitude, in which he hungers and thirsts for justice [righteousness]. And by means of the affection of the Spirit he will extract himself from all mortal joy in transitory things, and as he turns aside from this joy, he will turn toward the love of eternal things, specifically toward that immutable unity which is the Trinity.”
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine
Stepping into the Lord’s strength
Augustine saw growing in the Lord as increasing continuously in His strength. We have no strength of our own to love the Lord or to follow and serve Him. We need His strength, strength that comes by the inward working of His Spirit, according to the teaching of His Word. The goal of preaching and teaching is to help hearers increase in the strength of the Lord, that they might know and love Him, and loving Him, might love their neighbors as themselves.
Sanctification – increasing in the strength of the Lord – is a process, not an event. People grow in the Lord’s strength like plants in a garden. They must be firmly planted in healthy soil, watered faithfully, protected against pests and weeds, and given the space to realize their full fruit-bearing potential.
So it is with the followers of Christ. They must be planted firmly in the soil of God’s Word, watered by His gracious Spirit and faithful teaching, taught to recognize and resist temptation, tended like tender shoots, and fed and watered with the pure milk and wholesome meat of God’s Word and Spirit. While every believer is called to take up the Word daily and submit to the leading of God’s Spirit, God has given pastors and teachers to provide essential direction and equipment for them, that they might do the works of ministry which God sets before them each day (Eph. 4.11, 12).
Hence the importance of teaching people to fear the Lord, so that they might truly love and eagerly obey Him (the first step of fortitude). Fearing God, they will welcome His convicting Word, and will confess their sins and repent of them as the Lord leads each day (the second step of fortitude). Recognizing that we are sinners will keep us humble before the Lord, so that we look in dependence on Him and follow His guidance, preferring His will over our own (the third step of fortitude). And this, Augustine explained, leads us to hunger for the righteousness that comes from God alone – the righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ (the fourth step of fortitude).
The process of leading the followers of Christ through the steps of fortitude must be attended to continuously, as we all have a tendency to lose focus and return to our self-centered ways. Augustine called those preachers and teachers who read his work to keep this process in mind at all times, that they might work to nurture the people they served along that sanctifying way.
Hungering and thirsting for righteousness
How appropriate are the ideas of hungering and thirsting for the pursuit of righteousness! When we are hungry, we simply must eat. Likewise when we thirst. We cannot ignore these strong bodily impulses, but must satisfy them as soon as possible.
How do we know when we’re hungry or thirsty? If we’re really hungry and thirsty, we don’t just sit around thinking about it. We may find it hard to concentrate on our work. All we can think about is getting something to eat or drink. We’ll poke around in the refrigerator, ask what’s for dinner, grab a glass of water or a soft drink, rummage through the pantry, or search out some snack. The sensations of hunger and thirst catch up our whole soul and body, so that we move in the direction of whatever we think will give us relief.
Jesus taught that the blessed of the Lord hunger and thirst for righteousness. What does it look like to hunger and thirst for righteousness? Is it like hungering and thirsting for food, so that we think about it constantly, and seek out something to quaff our thirst or satisfy or hunger? Does the longing for righteousness so occupy our minds that we have trouble thinking about anything else?
If we have been brought along in the process of knowing, fearing, and loving the Lord, so that we are convicted of our sins and humbled before His unfailing love, then the desire to increase in righteousness will grow in us, and we will move in the direction of those refreshments – God’s Word and Spirit – which can alone satisfy that hunger.
I don’t know about you, but I find my hunger increasing the minute Susie starts working on dinner. The sounds of bakeware being troubled by a whisk; the smell of mirepoix simmering; the smell of a roast, expanding throughout the room; and the appearance of tableware – my hunger increases as I see her working to meet our needs.
Do we provide such enticements for the people of God, to increase their hunger and thirst for the Lord and His righteousness? Are we a fragrance of life for them? Do they see in our righteousness, peace, and joy the example of Kingdom living they want for themselves? Peter called on the shepherds of God’s people to set an example that others would notice and follow (1 Pet. 5.1-3). Our lives, and our own practices of feeding on God’s Word and Spirit, are a primary resource for our work as preachers and teachers. When the Word and Spirit are producing such delightful sights and sounds in us, others will hunger and thirst for what they see in us.
We do not feed people on our example. We say, with Paul, “Follow me, as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11.1), so that, when they see in us the kind of righteousness – the kind of Jesus-life – that has the fragrance of divinity, the beauty of holiness, the goodness of self-denying love, and the truthfulness of complete trust in God’s Word, hunger and thirst for righteousness will increase in those who are truly fearing the Lord and living humbly before Him. Then we can lead them into the Word, and teach them the ways of the Spirit, so that they increase in the strength of the Lord day by day, and grow in His peace and joy.
Note how drastically he expresses it. For Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who cling to righteousness,” but “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness”—not in a superficial way but pursuing it with their entire desire. By contrast, the most characteristic feature of covetousness is a strong desire with which we are not so hungry for food and drink as for more and more things. Jesus urged us to transfer this desire to a new object, freedom from covetousness.
- John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 15.4
1. What makes you hunger and thirst for righteousness? How can you help the people you teach to have this same attitude?
2. Why is it helpful to think about sanctification as taking steps of fortitude?
3. How would you explain taking steps of fortitude to a new believer?
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).