I once knew a pastor who was revered in his congregation unlike anyone I’ve ever known. Haven’t we all? Granted, he was a really, and I mean really, nice guy. In this congregation, the pastor’s mistakes and shortcomings were met with gentle—perhaps tacit—acknowledgment and respect; everyone loved this “godly” and “righteous” man. Why was he seen as such? Was it because he was nice? Because he had memorized the Bible and abstained from worldly pleasures? In the context of someone’s actions (we’re not talking about their position in Christ here), what makes a person righteous anyways?
There was one Sunday when a friend came up to me to ask for advice. She had just spoken to the pastor about a painful situation she experienced with a family member. She wasn’t looking for much, maybe just a word of encouragement, some godly counsel to help her navigate the situation. She explained to me that the pastor’s response to her plea for help was met with resignation: “I don’t do counselling,” he said. “You’ll have to talk to someone else.”
Ouch! Now, he was just being honest, so we should try and withhold any judgement we have of this friendly pastor.
So I began to counsel this friend of mine. Having experienced my fair share of “family dynamics” in the past and being a seminary student, I thought I could help out, with the Spirit’s help of course.
This situation has been on my mind lately, as I reflect on the way ordinary Christians view theological concepts like righteousness and godliness. Why was our pastor seen as righteous and godly? What actions do ordinary Christians associate these characteristics with?
When the Bible talks about the righteousness of God, it has much more in mind than God’s piety. While it is certainly true that God is superlatively moral, His righteousness extends far beyond His moral perfection.
Reformed theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, develops a holistic understanding of the righteousness of God in the context of covenant relationship and new creation.
“Righteousness in the Old Testament,” writes Moltmann in his book Theology of Hope, “describes a historic communal relationship which is founded on promise and faithfulness….Yahweh’s righteousness is his faithfulness to the covenant.” Moltmann’s definition of the righteousness of God is rooted in God’s faithfulness. God’s faithfulness—which for Moltmann is part of God’s essence—has to do with God consistently following through on His promises through concrete acts of redemption in human history.
The greatest of these concrete acts of redemption is seen in the Christ event; the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Here, we see what true righteousness and godliness is. God’s righteousness does not cause Him to withdraw from sinful creation, but rather, it leads Him to voluntarily enter into the messy contradictions of human reality. Indeed, at the cross, God’s “godliness” is in perfect form. God’s righteousness leads Him to enter into an all-encompassing collision of love with sinful creatures like us. He does so to heal and restore; to make all things right.
In the Bible, righteousness means standing in the right relationship. We can be confident, then, that the righteousness of God is best understood in the context of God’s relationship to human beings and creation. In this relationship, human beings and creation are given an overwhelming hope in God’s promise—according to the New Testament—to resurrect and restore everything. Moltmann writes, “The righteousness of God…provides creation as a whole with a new ground of existence and a new right to life. Hence with the coming of the righteousness of God we can expect also a new creation.”
So, when we talk about theological ideas like righteousness and godliness, we should remember that God is the model. Neither abstaining from worldly pleasures, memorizing the Bible, nor being a really nice guy means your acting righteous or godly. It’s a good start, perhaps, but if you (or the pastor you revere) are not entering into the broken reality of our world to bring healing and restoration—and there are multiple ways to do that—you might just be missing out on God’s righteous ways.