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Righteousness—the Fruit of the Spirit

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has spent most of his 23 years trying to be righteous. Righteousness for him was fulfilling the wishes of his Muslim religion.

In one of his recovered emails, posted on the Islamic Forum Web site that automatically assigns dates to users’ posts, he had written: “I will describe myself as very ambitious and determined, especially in the deen [the religious way of life]. I strive to live my daily life according to the quran and sunnah to the best of my ability. I do almost everything, sports, TV, books. . . (of course trying not to cross the limits).”

In January 2005, probably about l9-years old, Umar wrote about the tension between his desires and his religious duty of “lowering the gaze” in the presence of women:

The Prophet (S) advised young men to fast if they can’t get married but it has not been helping me much and I seriously don’t want to wait for years before I get married.

In referring to “his dilemma between liberalism and extremism” as a Muslim, he wrote,

The Prophet (S) said religion is easy and anyone who tries to overburden themselves will find it hard and will not be able to continue. So anytime I relax, I deviate sometimes and then when I strive hard, I get tired of what I am doing i.e. memorizing the quran, etc. How should one put the balance right?

Is there anything Umar has written that sounds familiar so far?

Umar had everything this world says is important. His young life had it all—very rich, raised in a highly respected family, schooled in Togo at an elite British boarding school, and at University College London, loaded with an unlimited bank account, a frequent visitor to London, the United States and many other countries. His friends called him brilliant, though they thought him only willing to do the “bare minimum.”

In other words, he was not envious of the rich and famous—he was one. He was not denied the opportunities of education and travel—he soaked it up. He was not a wastrel. And he surely was religious with a passion. He wanted to be righteous! What went wrong?

Many readers of this week’s lesson will wish they could have told him of a better way to seek righteousness. And he would not have needed his fame and wealth to have found what his mind and heart wanted.

For too many, “righteousness” sounds like a scary word. Yet, it really is an old English word that meant “right-wiseness.” Like “clock-wise” or “side-wise.” Righteous people do right things, think right thoughts, going in the direction of “right.”.

The question is, what is right? When we find out what is right, then we can know how to think and act “righteously.” Jesus was not ambiguous: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33, NKJV). And John got the point: “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him” (1 Jn 2:29, NKJV).

Righteousness, in Bible terms, is a word that describes people who have chosen to do what God has outlined for their health and happiness—in other words, the “right way.” Unfortunately, in some English translations, the word “justification” has clouded the picture; it has snuck in due to theologically biased thinking: both righteousness and justification are translations of the one Greek dikaiosune. But that is another topic for another day.

I don’t think I have met anybody who believes that unrighteousness is the goal of his or her life. Like Umar, however, many Christians seek righteousness in attempting to please their God, but also end up in frustration, never finding the peace and empowerment that Jesus has promised. What goes on here?

I know that some who have read so far will say simply that Umar was a legalist. True. But so are many Christians, sincere Christians, just as I believe Umar was and is sincere. Again, what is going on here?

What would we rather have, a legalistic Muslim or a licentious Muslim? A legalist Christian or a profligate Christian? Not good choices, I know. Both groups are contemporary problems in either religion. Paul was surely describing legalist Christians in Colossians 2 where he focused on their external behavior—their exacting concern for what they ate and drank, for special religious days, false humility and physical self-denial. (Of course, he was not speaking against commonsense health principles and the weekly Sabbath.)

But Paul was far more troubled by those who did not practice what they preached (the opposites to legalists)—to those who found theological excuses, so that they would be comfortable to be saved in their sins. Yes, he told the Corinthians, they had turned their backs on “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desires, and covetousness, filthy language. . . lying, etc (3:5-9); yes, they were “good and regular members” from the standpoint of external behavior; but they still had much to do in areas even more important in the eyes of God—their interpersonal (more hidden) behavior and attitudes.

A wise lady clearly delineated these two kinds of church members who had not yet grasped the healing power of the gospel: “those who would be save by their merits, and those who would b e saved in their sins.” [Ellen White, The Great Controversy, 572].

Umar never had a chance, no matter how righteously he obeyed. His religion did not empower him because it did not promise what his soul needed; nor do Christians have a chance when they live trapped in the dark shadow they cast over their families, their church, their workplace. Long the list could get of families, or church congregations that have been lashed by harsh, judgmental members.. They misrepresent their Lord, as they act out their legalistic sense of rightness, and exercise power over others (whether administratively or with overbearing personalities). Legalism, like child abuse, often creates a continuum of coldness and judgmentalism from one generation to another.

Legalists have the words but not the music! They see the importance of obedience; they flee from license, from pushing the envelope to the extreme. In a way, legalists get satisfaction out of punishing themselves into “being righteous,”—precisely what Paul called the “yoke of bondage.”

But wait a minute—how about the “faithful” church members who have given their best to the church though cloaked in legalistic gloom. For more than a century a good percentage of Adventist tithe and offerings have come from the pockets of those whom others have called legalists! In contrast were church members who wanted the “blessing” of Christianity without the responsibility of genuine faith-obedience — while extolling the riches of free grace.

Both groups need to hear “all” the good news. Both groups need to hear the fullness of the gospel. Both need to understand that righteous persons realize that they need daily empowerment as well as daily forgiveness, as they grow up righteously in their Heavenly Father’s family.

Both groups need daily assurance that their High Priest has been here and done that — and knows exactly what we need to know as we seek to sing the right melody with the right words. Trust Him!

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