By John Stackhouse
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27-29, TNIV).
Well, sure. Looking after people in trouble and staying away from sin—James is not exactly astonishing us with insight into our religion. Nor is he enthusing us with heroic demands on our piety.
Everybody knows that it’s good to be charitable and it’s good not to be bad. But where’s the excitement, the drama, the challenge? Where’s the call to plant a church in a difficult neighbourhood, or preach to a resistant crowd, or testify to a bloodthirsty mob?
Aren’t the most extreme forms of Christian service the examples by which we each should stoke and steer our lives?
Maybe. But James presses us regarding issues about which there is no “maybe.” And he is pressing us hard, much harder than it might appear. Caring for widows (who, in his culture, have not only lost their soul mate, but their social status, standard of living, and security) and orphans (who, in his culture, have the bleakest of prospects relationally, socially, economically, and even in terms of sheer survival) requires extensive and extended love.
Daily love. Costly love. Wise love. For weeks and months and years on end. That’s the way our heavenly Father cares for us. And that’s the kind of religion he expects from us.
As for keeping oneself unpolluted by the world, well, that requires daily, costly, wise discipleship as well. Such religion doesn’t win prizes, or book contracts, or commemorative plaques (“8 Years since the Last Major Sin!”). But allowing oneself to be infected, distracted, and disabled by the world simply can’t be tolerated. If we aren’t vigilant about that, we won’t be capable of doing anything else God wants done. Such as realizing how vital in our Father’s regard is caring for widows and orphans, versus the splashier, more “interesting” work we might prefer to do. Letting the world influence us is exactly how we stop doing the things that most obviously show us to be the images of God our Father.
So let’s stay pure. Let’s care for the needy. Let’s keep remembering the Father’s love for us and in gratitude freely give as we have freely received. Of course we must. And of course it’s hard, hard, hard. That’s why James has to tell us to do it. That’s why we have to remind each other…often.