There are some pastors who always knew they wanted to be a pastor. They set up “church” in their attic and preached sermons to their families. Everybody always knew they were going to be a pastor.
I am not one of those people.
I did not dream of being a pastor when I was a kid mostly because I hated going to church. It’s not that we didn’t go to good churches; it’s just that I somehow internalized a message that made it impossible for me to like church, or believe that God might like me.
The message I internalized was that I needed to be a whole lot more righteous than I actually was in order to fit in at church, and in order to be liked by God. I noticed that most of the kids who went to church had personalized bible covers with their names embroidered on them. Those bibles were filled with all kinds of scribbles that suggested they actually read it. These are the kinds of things that righteous people do, I thought. They go to the flagpole and pray with other Christians before school, they wear tee shirts that declare things about God, and they never swear.
I remember going through a phase in seventh grade where I said Jesus Christ! a lot. I used it in that derogatory way that you are taught never, ever to say growing up in an evangelical church. This is certainly not something that the kids with the bible covers did, and perhaps that’s why it felt so delicious to say it.
Righteous people, I thought, like reading the bible, like going to church, never swear, and certainly don’t come to church hung-over.
According to that list, I was not a righteous person four times over.
Somewhere along the way, I developed a different understanding of what it means to be righteous, and it changed everything for me. And over lunch with a friend yesterday, it all came together into actual words, which I’m delighted to share with you.
This friend has a PhD and is really smart. He’s a professor at a university and studies the Hebrew language so that he can understand the Scriptures. We share this nerdy love for biblical languages, so our eyes were gleaming and we were interrupting each other all throughout lunch as we inhaled our tacos and laughed together. And then we stumbled onto this word, righteous.
He asked, “When we use the word righteous, how do most people define it?”
Before he could even finish the question, I barked out my answer. “Being perfect. Getting it right. Doing the right thing. Not doing the wrong thing.”
He smiled. “Exactly,” he said. “Only that’s not how I see the Bible defining it. After years of studying, here’s how I would describe someone who is righteous: One who trusts God with their life and their future.”
We remembered Abraham, who was told by God to “leave his country, his father’s land, his extended family, and go to a land that God would show him.” And we read in the Scriptures elsewhere that when Abraham did it, it was credited to him as righteousness.
The same Abraham that lied about his own wife and let her become a part of Pharaoh’s harem.
The same Abraham who stopped believing that God would bring him a child and slept with his wife’s servant in order to obtain a child.
The same Abraham who brought his nephew Lot along with him even though God told him not to bring any of his extended family on his journey toward the land that God would show him.
It turns out Abraham didn’t have an embroidered bible cover, either. But he did trust God with his life and his future (well, most of the time, anyway).
This realization led me to believe that God might actually care about my life and my future. That God might actually be leading me into a life that is better than any life I could create on my own. It gives me a tremendous sense of freedom because when I fail, I can turn around and remember that God can lead me out of whatever dead end I have led myself into.
Righteous people, it turns out, are simply those who decide that God can be trusted because it is God who is the righteous one. One commentary describes God’s righteousness this way: “God’s ready capacity to be present in situations of trouble and to intervene powerfully and decisively in the interest of rehabilitation, restoration, and well-being.”
Let that sink in.
So, friends who struggle with church and church people and bible covers, take heart. God is simply present with you in situations of trouble, and is ready to intervene powerfully and decisively in order to restore you. And anyone who puts his or her trust in that God is righteous.