What is the hungriest you have ever been? Was it on an all night fishing trip when you smelled the aroma of bacon and coffee sizzling and perking on the campfire cutting through the sharp chill of dawn? Or perhaps, less colorfully, it was during the first week of a crash diet when your stomach begged for something more than celery and cottage cheese. Do you know what it feels like to be desperately hungry not just missing an occasional meal but eight or ten meals in succession? That is the kind of hunger which is experienced by a fourth of the world's population right now. Have you any idea of what it feels like to be really hungry?
What is the thirstiest you have ever been? Was it on a hot summer day on a country picnic when somebody forgot to bring the Kool-Aid jug? I recall an unforgettable trip across the Sinai Peninsula when our car got separated from the rest of the caravan and our Egyptian driver had to stop at a lonely military post to ask directions. Having had nothing to drink on that long desert drive, we waited with parched mouths while our driver, who spoke no English, carried on a long conversation with the soldiers pausing from time to time to drink from their jug of water. They were courteous enough to offer us a drink too, but we had been warned against drinking any water that had not been boiled. "No thank you," we said shaking our heads in the universal sign language for refusal. We found some watermelon seeds near the post and by some creative sign language offered to buy a melon, but either that was the last one they had, or it had been left by a previous visitor. In any case our thirst was unquenched. My friend, who was riding with us, began to reason that since the Arabs who were drinking from the common jug appeared to be healthy, there was no danger to our health if we joined them. He paid dearly for his drink of water with a miserable illness lasting several days. The rest of us suffered our thirst a few hours longer until we found our way and caught up with the rest of the cars in our group.
I doubt that many of us know the kind of hunger and thirst that was common to people of New Testament times when the average daily wage was eight cents and when water was so scarce that they pictured heaven with a river flowing ceaselessly from the throne of God. When Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," he used words that had far more meaning to them than to us because it was far more common to their experience than to ours.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled," is the most demanding beatitude. Hunger and thirst are essential for our spiritual welfare. Before we can be filled we must hunger for the bread of life and thirst for the living water. The Psalmist said, "As the deer pants for water so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God" (Psalm 42:1,2).
Many sensitive Christians are puzzled by periodic dry spells in their religious experience. They ask, "Why are there times in my life when I no longer feel the closeness of God? I feel empty, squeezed dry of the sweet joy I once had. What has happened to my religious experience?"
In such times it helps to remember that both physical and spiritual appetites are normal to healthy human being. Neither the body nor the soul is self-sustaining. Both must be fed regularly. Just as physical hunger is a sign of physical health, so spiritual hunger is a sign of spiritual health. The dry periods, when you no longer feel spiritual but continue to live the Christian life out of naked obedience, may be the moments of greatest spiritual strength. In one of Screwtape's letters he writes, "Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe, from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys." Screwtape's Enemy, Jesus, says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
In spite of its exhausting demands, it is better to hunger than not to hunger. Jesus' teaching is the opposite of Buddhist philosophy which seeks a state of nirvana in which one desires nothing. The solution to hunger is not to kill it, but to fill it. Our desires are not too strong, but too weak. C. S. Lewis said, "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased." "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
It is better to hunger for right things than for wrong things. Of all the hungers we have, it is only the hunger for righteousness, i.e. right things, that is pronounced blessed. Our biggest mistake is trying to satisfy spiritual hunger with physical things. Humankind is amphibian a blend of dust and the breath of God, kin to both alley cats and angels, with spiritual as well as physical hunger (Matthew 4:4; Amos 8:11). Trying to feed your soul on things that satisfy the flesh is a diet for spiritual malnutrition (Galatians 5:16-24). It is like trying to feed your dog on radishes. Tony Campolo in his book, Wake Up America, wrote: "In our TV Ads, it is as though the ecstasy of the spirit experienced by a St. Theresa or a St. Francis can be reduced to the gratification coming from a particular car, and the kind of love that Christ compared to His love for His church can be expressed by buying the right kind of wristwatch 'for that special person in your life.' Hitherto, spiritual gratification could come only via spiritual means. Thus, people were urged to choose between the things of this world and the blessings of God. Now, that duality has been overcome. Ours is an age in which spiritual blessings are being promised to those who buy material things. The spiritual is being absorbed by the physical. The fruit of the spirit, suggests the media, can be had without God and without spiritual disciplines." "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
It is better to hunger now than to hunger later. In Luke's account of the beatitudes we find Jesus saying, "Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied," and "Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger" (Luke 6:21, 24). The rich, young ruler who kept all the commandments came to Jesus asking what more he need to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus said, "Go sell all you have and give to the poor and you shall have treasure in heaven." The young man responded by going away sorrowfully because he had many possessions (Luke 18:18-25). He was too full of worldly things to hunger for that which really mattered. He didn't hunger and thirst for righteousness. Satiated Christianity is sicker than hungry heathenism. The person without hunger is without hope. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
It is better to hunger for all of righteousness than for part. This is clearer in the original Greek than in our English translations. Greek words for hunger normally take the genitive case (showing a desire for part of a loaf or pitcher of water, etc.), but here the case is accusative expressing a hunger for total righteousness. Too many are content with fragmentary righteousness. They are satisfied with an unbalanced spiritual diet. They gorge themselves with the sweet dessert of church fellowship, but turn up their noses at the green vegetables of church service. They take a double helping of the meat of God's word, but skip the wine of God's Spirit. They are guilty of terrible table manners picking over what the Lord serves saying, "I don't like this or that," and wasting the food he has carefully prepared for our nourishment. In spiritual as well as physical ways it is possible to be both fat and undernourished when one's diet is not balanced. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, not for their own favorite food, but for total righteousness.
Not only is this the most demanding beatitude, it is also the most encouraging one. It shows God's sympathy for our struggle. Notice that it is not the one who attains righteousness that is pronounced blessed, but the one who hungers and thirsts for it. God knows the real you. He sees the mixed impure motives behind your good deeds. He also sees the longing for righteousness behind your sins. And that longing for righteousness he pronounces blessed and promises that it shall be satisfied. It is a great comfort to know that God meets you at the point of your aspiration, not your achievement. He is more concerned with your intention than your success. No matter how far short you fall from perfect righteousness, God will reward your hunger and thirst for it. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
The word Jesus used for filled means in Greek "stuffed." It's the feeling you have when you can't hold any more. The only thing that can satisfy your hunger is to receive what you truly hunger for. A hungry baby crying for milk can not be quieted with a toy. Not until the nipple is in the youngster's mouth will the incessant crying stop. Likewise your heart will remain discontent until it is satisfied with the Righteous One. "I am the bread of life," Jesus said. "He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35).
The simple fact is that you have as much of God as you really want. That is the most encouraging and demanding truth I know. If God is not deeply involved in your life right now, it is because you don't really want him. The degree of your holiness is measured by the intensity of your desire for it, not by any visible achievement. Certainly in your frailty and sin you often "miss the mark," but the important thing is your aim. How badly do you want the righteousness of God? "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
You need not go on with that gnawing hunger in your soul. Hear and respond to the invitation of the God who made you for himself, and without whom your heart is restless until it rests in him: "Come, everyone who is thirsty here is water! Come, you that have no money--buy grain and eat! Come! Buy wine and milk--it will cost you nothing! Why spend money on what does not satisfy? Why spend your wages and still be hungry? Listen to me and do what I say, and you will enjoy the best food of all" (Isaiah 55:1-2).