“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:27
I used to always think that the word “religion” bore such a negative connotation. “Religion” is just a bunch of rules, all the dos and don’ts, right? We’re called to relationship, aren’t we? Yes, this is true, but then I came across James 1:27, and quite frankly, my world was turned upside down. To understand this verse in its context, James is addressing the importance of walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Where Paul would tell us in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation comes by grace through faith alone and not from works (which is true), it might seem to some that James is contradicting Paul’s teaching (which isn’t true). Let me try to explain. To be genuinely saved by grace through faith will always result in good works. It is not the works that save you, but rather the works prove your faith to be genuine. You can’t have faith without works, because faith without works is dead (James 2:17).
Another misconception that I think I have always believed about “religion” is that it’s nothing more than a list of things I cannot do. Yes, God’s Word does give us boundaries that are put in place for our protection, but the motive of the heart when striving towards obedience in these things should be God’s pleasure, not legalism. Our motives in “not doing the wrong” or “doing the good” should always flow from a heart that desires to please God. We tend to put such an emphasis on “what not to do”, that we end up leaving the good undone. Scripture tells us right here in James 1:27 that there is a kind of religion that God the Father describes as pure and undefiled. Therefore, this type of religion is not about self-promotion or pride, but rather it is about obedience and having a heart like Jesus.
There are two major points of obedience that James 1:27 addresses. The first is quite simple to understand, but perhaps far more difficult to actually “do”. Visit orphans and widows in their distress. Do you even know any orphans or widows? Maybe not, which would then imply the need to place yourself in their lives. This obedience takes initiative and intentionality. We don’t accidentally fulfill this obedience. We must choose to sacrifice our time, energy, and perhaps even our resources in order to obey this very important calling that ALL Christians have been given. So, perhaps we could call this one somewhat of a “black and white issue”. Visit those who are in need, and meet their needs.
The second half of the verse is where it gets a little squirrelly. Keep yourself unstained from the world. “But wait, I thought we were supposed to go into the world?! How can we possibly keep ourselves unstained by the world while being in it?” VERY CAREFULLY. Again, this is an obedience that doesn’t happen by accident. When we go into the world without the intention of being a light in the darkness (Ephesians 5), we deceive ourselves in thinking that we are making much of a difference. If our lives look no different than the lives of those next to us that don’t know Jesus and don’t claim faith in Him, our efforts at righteousness are in vain. We are supposed to look different, meaning our choices of entertainment SHOULD differ from those of the world, our decisions on how we spend our time and money SHOULD look different from those of the world, and ultimately our words and our actions SHOULD look far different than those of the world. But do they? Maybe they don’t because we have thrown out religion as a whole and forgotten James 1:27. I never thought I’d say I want to be religious, but if being religious is what James 1:27 is talking about, then sign me up.