What if righteousness is less about behaving right and more about belonging well? What if it’s not about moral performance but mutual participation?
One of the notions I picked up from my evangelical upbringing was that God demands perfection from us. But because of sin, we can’t be perfect for God, so Jesus came to be perfect for us, so now we can go to heaven when we die, because the entrance requirement was perfection.
So the story goes.
Now, obviously I thought it was great news that God forgave my sins, but I still had this latent idea that what God was really interested in was my moral performance. What God really wanted from my life was for me to behave better.
This was my imagination every time I read the word “righteousness” in the Bible. Righteousness was about moral performance, measuring up, getting it right, behaving, for goodness’ sake.
Moral performance or mutual participation
But now I think that righteousness is less about moral performance for God and more about mutual participation with God.
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Here’s what I mean. Take Psalm 15, for example. The Psalmist begins,
Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
Then we hear the answer:
The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
The psalm goes to to describe this righteous person in more detail.
Righteousness as moral performance
Here’s one way to interpret this passage. This is the moral performance interpretation:
The righteous person performed in an exemplary way, and his reward is that he gets to dwell in the Lord’s sacred tent, on the holy mountain. God noted his moral performance and said, “Great job! As a reward, you can hang out in here with me!”
Righteousness as mutual participation
But there’s another way to interpret why the righteous person is hanging out in God’s sacred tent. This is the mutual participation interpretation:
The righteous person trusted that God’s way was good, and so she began living into it (speaking the truth, etc). She found as she did so that God was there with her, empowering her to continue to live abundantly.
The more she practiced this new way of life, the more her life could be characterized as a with-God life. The natural result was a life on God’s holy mountain, hanging out in the Lord’s sacred tent.
Dwelling in God’s sacred tent isn’t a reward for good behavior, it’s just the natural result of choosing to flow with grace in God’s kingdom. It’s just what happens when you “practice righteousness.” It’s a natural result, not a reward.
In fact, that’s why God urges us to practice righteousness! Not because he is capricious and controlling, but because he knows that our life will flourish with him and others when we live in this way.
Righteousness is good, but not because God arbitrarily decided it was, or because God finds pleasure in controlling people, but because it’s the best way to bring human flourishing to ourselves and others!
Training in righteousness
It’s like physical training. I’m trying to get back in shape right now. I go to the gym regularly, and I’m trying to eat better. But why? Do I think the gym gods will reward my performance with a more in-shape body? Of course not.
Losing weight and feeling better aren’t a reward for my good performance, it’s just my body’s natural response to my new practice. It’s a natural result, not a reward. It’s just what happens. (At least I hope it does.)
This is the dynamic the apostle names in 2 Peter 1:3-11. God’s power gives us everything we need for a godly life, so he urges us to make every effort to add to our faith: goodness, knowledge, self-control, etc. And why?
For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ… if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Being effective and productive, never stumbling, receiving a rich welcome in the kingdom… all natural results of “adding to your faith,” not rewards for good behavior.
In other words, the “righteousness” we are called to practice in this passage is a way for us to mutually participate with God in his kingdom, not a moral performance we complete apart from God and hope he’s pleased.
People who join with God and live the life he shares with us get certain natural results, because how can you not? They never die, because God doesn’t die. They will never stumble, because God doesn’t stumble. They will never be shaken, because God is never shaken. They lack nothing, because God lacks nothing.
Our flourishing is always a natural result of our mutual participation, never a reward for our moral performance.
Stepping back into the flow
The good news, then, is that God isn’t trying to get you to behave. At least not for the reasons you might think. He’s simply inviting you to experience life with him in his kingdom, where you’ll never be shaken, never stumble, where you’ll receive a rich welcome.
And any time we notice we’re not experiencing those things, all it means is that we’ve momentarily stepped outside the flow of the kingdom. All we need to do is simply step back in. That’s repentance, just stepping back in.
There is no reconnection fee. No lengthy explanation needed. No penance required. God is not frustrated or flustered by it in the least. He is simply there in his sacred tent, waiting for us to step back into the abundant life he offers, warmly welcoming us when we do so.
Richard M says
Thanks Ben. are you sure this is an either/or decision? It sounds to me very much like the typical now/not yet tension in the gospel. Your thoughts?
@Richard M thanks for the comment. Sorry I haven’t responded until now! I think my notifications don’t work on this comment plugin.
I think that the natural result of our mutual participation will be exemplary moral performance, but the trouble with it is that if we AIM at moral performance, we never get to mutual participation (and fail at moral performance, ironically).
Willard said it like this: The Law is forever the course of righteousness, but it can never be the source of righteousness. This means the Law can describe righteousness, but the way we actually become righteous is not by reading the Law and trying to become righteous. It’s only through our mutual participation in Christ, where we are aiming “beyond” the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, that we become truly righteous. Moral performance becomes “natural” as we pay attention to participation.