We are used to seeing our money lose its value. We are aware, for example, that we earn more dollars now than we did 10 years ago—but we are equally conscious that we can purchase less.

Of course, it is not only money that loses value. Sadly, words also lose their value.

Any good word seems destined to be devalued. Take “righteousness”: it is a word little used now. More often than not it is used derogatorily, as when we speak of someone’s self-righteousness. But righteousness is a key word in Scripture, for God is righteous.

The prophet Amos records the Lord’s passionate appeal: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6), and “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).

Yet the world does not see us as having a passion for righteousness. If you were to ask the so-called man in the street what the church is about, the answer would not be “a passion for righteousness.”

On the other hand, we don’t want to be too righteous. The world has persuaded us that to be righteous means missing out on the good things of life, and carries with it the inherent possibility of that all-too-dangerous disease of self-righteousness. The world so easily identifies goodness with gloom, and indulgence with fulfillment. We know on one level that self-indulgence does not lead to ongoing happiness—but on another level, we want to indulge ourselves.

Further, the danger of self-righteousness can loom very large. We know that those who are good can become very hard, priggish, and look down on others. We know that the pure man ...

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