(shared with the people of Friendship Church, July4, 2004)
Keith Miller was successful in the oil exploration business in Texas. He was married and had two beautiful daughters. But in short succession, he was forced to deal with one terrible event after another: his father suddenly died of a heart attack; his brother was killed in a plane crash; his mother contracted cancer. While helping his mom through the final stages of her life, Keith, who'd seemed capable of handling everything with unflappability, suddenly found himself overcome by anxiety.
This really threw him for a loop. As a boy whose father had by and large ignored him, Keith had tried to prove himself, first to his dad and then to himself and lastly, to the world. He’d been a confident conqueror as a student, an athlete, and a businessperson. He thought that he really could handle anything. But now he doubted himself. He couldn’t face all that life had thrown his way. That was when something happened to Keith Miller. He writes about it in a book called, A Hunger for Healing:
...finally, on a roadside in the tall pine woods country in east Texas, between Tyler and Longview, I turned to God in a desperate moment and offered Him my life. As soon as I did, I was relieved of my sense of shame, fear, and failure and was given new meaning in life: to tell people that there is hope if one will surrender to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
For the next few years, Keith Miller experienced the peace of Christ. He began to help others know Christ’s peace too. He left the business world and took on the direction of a conference center where ordinary Christians and those exploring Christian faith could come and open themselves to Christ the way Keith had done on that Texas roadside. He even became a best-selling author, helping others to experience God’s goodness. But slowly, without even knowing it, Keith Miller found the old habits and motivations taking over his life again, the old dependence on self instead of God. He was more of a workaholic than ever, still driven to conquer. As a result, he spent less and less time with his family. “I neglected my family,” he writes, “just as my father had neglected me. Because I was doing it for Jesus [or so he thought], it was hard to criticize.” Complimented constantly and enjoying success as an author and speaker, Keith began to suspect that he was “a special and gifted person.” He couldn’t understand why his wife and family weren’t as happy with his “success” as he was.
An afterthought in Keith’s life, his wife convinced him that their marriage must come to an end. Keith was devastated. What made things worse is that with the exception of a few people, church leaders from around the country who had, just a short time before endorsed and applauded him and been close to him, were now ignoring him. He realized the truth of one observer’s words: The church is the only army in the world that shoots its wounded. He began to become bitter until one day, during a time of prayer, he sensed that God was speaking to his heart:
“Keith, quit blaming the Church for your sins. You’re the one who behaved sinfully [ignoring your family and thus, breaking up your marriage]...You deal with your own sin, and I’ll take care of the Church!”
That became the trigger for Keith Miller to begin taking honest stock of himself. He realized that even while he’d been busy telling others about the God Who is big enough and loving enough to take all of our burdens—all our sins, all our hurts—and give us new lives, Keith had still been trying to be a conqueror. He’d been worshiping himself, trying to get the whole world to join in lifting him up as a master of the universe. He so hungered for a sense that his life mattered that, in spite of the faith in Christ he professed, he was still caught in the trap of trying to prove himself to the world, to God, and to himself.
We all hunger for what one pastor calls the cosmic okie-dokie. We all want to know that we’ve arrived, that we’ve achieved some sort of success in the game of life. Each of us is born with a hunger and a thirst to know that something about our lives has mattered. That appetite for significance can drive us to measure our lives by how much property we accumulate, how many sex partners we’ve had, how much knowledge we pile up. The possibilities are endless. And it should be said that there is nothing wrong with trying to achieve things in life. God gives us talents and abilities. And it is a sin not to use the abilities that God gives to us in the ways God leads us to use them. But, as Keith Miller’s experience demonstrates, nothing that you and I can achieve through the use of our talents can ever truly satisfy the hunger we all have to know that our lives matter, that we are valued, that our existences count for something.
Jesus says: “Blessed, happy, fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The happy people are those who hunger for righteousness; they’re the ones who get the cosmic okie-dokie. But what is righteousness exactly? Righteous people are people who are right with God. They’re not perfect. They’re forgiven. They’re reconciled to God. They’re empowered to live the best versions of their lives possible. They live in confident anticipation of eternity.
Jesus once told the story of two men who went to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. Both of them were hungry to know their lives mattered. But each fed themselves in different ways, one on junk food and the other on God. The first was a member of the religious group called the Pharisees. They were spiritual workaholics. They believed that if they abided by certain rules, they would be right with God. They fed themselves on holier-than-thou spiritual pride. The Pharisee in Jesus’ story prays: “God, I thank You that I’m not like other people. I obey Your rules, make the right offerings, and really, in every way, I’m a holy guy. I especially thank You that I’m not like that sinner standing over there a few feet away.”
The interesting thing about the man the Pharisee pointed out is that he would have agreed. He’d come to see himself as a sinner who needed to change. He was a tax collector, which in those days was a profession for extortionists. They were like mobsters running a protection racket. The Romans gave them franchises to collect a designated amount of taxes in a certain area and the tax collectors would shake down the area residents for lots more, threatening them with foreclosure and imprisonment if they didn’t pay up. The tax collector had tried to feed his hunger with the junk foods materialism, power, and other sins. But he regretted it all. He cried out to heaven, simply, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
After laying out those two vignettes, Jesus says that it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who left the temple justified. The first of two brief Greek lessons, because the New Testament portion of the Bible is written in Greek: That word, justified, is the verb form of another word, righteous. What’s the point? The tax collector who regretted sin and hungered to be right with God was right with God, at the very moment he asked for mercy. He had the cosmic okie-dokie. He could face life in the knowledge that he was right with God. Those who hunger and thirst to be right with God will be satisfied.
But what about the rest of his life? Did the tax collector ever sin again? Did God’s mercy so fill him that he didn’t ever need to confess another sin or worship God or read God’s Word? Was his hunger for rightness taken care of forever? There are times when I get a real hunger for junk food. There are other times when I want good things. I think that as long as I live on earth, I will have to choose which diet I’m going to use: the one that’s bad for me or the one that’s good for me. This is exactly what Jesus is telling this morning about being right with God and experiencing happiness. The verbs hunger and thirst that Jesus uses today, are in what the grammarians call the durative present tense. That means that “hungering and thirsting” for righteousness isn’t a one-time thing. Our appetite for the cosmic okie dokie, the sense that we are accepted and okay, is with us every day. Keith Miller’s roadside cry to God brought him peace. But it didn’t banish sin completely from his life. Nor did it spare him the temptation of filling that hunger up with spiritual junk food—the applause of others, success. Instead, he had to begin to learn to choose his diet.
If we’re to maintain a right relationship with God, we need to keep hungering and thirsting for it. Our relationship with the God we know through Jesus must be the central object of our lives. We must, in that phrase of Luther’s, live in daily repentance and renewal, feeding on Christ and His love and power every day!
It’s a funny thing about God. He is the Master of universe, its founder and the One Who one day will bring it to an end. But even with all that power, He never forces Himself on us. We must cry out to Him and invite Him to be in our lives for it to happen. And that brings up a funny thing about us: God will fill us with Himself; but the more He fills us, the more we want Him with us all day, every day, 24/7. Keep hungering for God and no matter what life brings your way, you will always be happy!