Hungering and Thirsting after Righteousness
by Ray DeGraw
[On Sundays this year we are publishing a series from Ray that will focus on the Sermon on the Mount, analyzing each characteristic of godliness found in Matthew 5-7. Essay 1, Essay 2, Essay 3, Essay 4.]
As I thought about the idea of hungering and thirsting after righteousness, the very first thing that hit me – hard – was how little I think about hunger and thirst. I have experienced relative hunger and thirst in my life (more thirst than hunger), but I have not been desperate for food or drink to the point of concern at any point in my life. I was raised poor, but we never missed meals. My entire life has been just comfortable enough to allow me to be a bit picky, like having the option to choose not to eat or to tell my kids to eat sandwiches or cereal if they don’t want to eat what we have prepared. For a few years, I traveled with a company expense account, allowing me to acquire a taste for fine dining in cities across the country. I lost 50 pounds last year, and part of my problem in the years I was gaining weight simply was my love of good food.
In other words, I’m not sure I ever have “hungered and thirsted after” food in a real, powerful, physical way except as a baby, and certainly not in my memory. Whenever I feel even a little hungry or thirsty, I am able to satisfy that feeling very quickly and with minimal effort. That was an interesting insight, something I simply hadn’t contemplated previously.
I wondered how I can learn to hunger and thirst after righteousness when I really don’t know what it feels like to hunger and thirst deeply and desperately – certainly not in the same way that those who first heard Jesus’ original statement would have understood it – certainly not in the same way that others in this day and age understand it. I have come to believe a central part of gaining a real understanding of this concept for many of us who live in relative luxury (even as I still am considered relatively poor in the USA) includes some extended fasting, since that is the only way available for me to experience real, powerful, physical hunger and thirst.
Next, I did the uniquely Mormon thing and considered the Book of Mormon version of the verse in question. 3 Nephi 12:6 repeats Matthew 5:6, with a modified ending. It says:
“And blessed are all they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost.”
Feeling hunger and thirst has one, and only one, purpose: to prompt the one who is hungry and thirsty to eat in order to quench that hunger and thirst, thus protecting the body from the damage that inevitably occurs from lack of nourishment. Thus, we feel hunger and thirst when we are in need of physical nourishment and are at risk of physical harm. There is a deep irony – an apparent contradiction – in translating that to our spiritual health, since I am not about to pray for a state of spiritual starvation in order to understand and appreciate better being spiritually nourished. Fasting can induce physical hunger and thirst by depriving the body of food and water, but how can we induce spiritual hunger and thirst without depriving our spirits of the influence and presence of the Holy Ghost, something we rightly do not want to do?
Perhaps fasting can accomplish this to some degree by helping us see what it feels like truly to be hungry and thirsty, thus emphasizing more clearly and understandably the spiritual condition we want to avoid, by making the “threat” of losing the Spirit more real to us as something to avoid at all costs.
I then thought of Alma 32:27, which says:
“But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.”
Maybe fasting and prayer and pondering can increase our desire to believe and understand, and maybe letting that desire work in us can produce an even greater desire, a true longing similar to what it feels like to hunger and thirst.
Finally, an epiphany hit me:
The footnote for desire in the verse above references being teachable, which generally is synonymous with humility, and is an aspect of being poor in spirit. Perhaps, it takes a recognition of one’s nothingness before God – one’s spiritual poverty and inability to feed one’s self adequately without the grace of God – to truly experience spiritual hunger and thirst as commanded by Jesus. Maybe being poor in spirit and meek are necessary precursors to being filled with the Holy Ghost, since such characteristics are exactly what bring about the willingness to accept and follow His promptings when they come: to be filled with the Holy Ghost by actually partaking of His nourishment when it is offered.
Contemplating the phrasing of this blessed condition changed my outlook on it, and I came to focus my fasting specifically on feeling the sweet and filling nourishment that the Holy Ghost can provide, specifically so that I would desire it more and more, so that I truly would know what it feels like to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to feel a driving motivation to find righteousness (being right, correct, suitable, favorable before God).
One way to sharpen hunger and thirst is through deprivation, but another way to do so is to taste something so delicious that the mere memory of that experience makes you hunger and thirst for more.