Real Religion

“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 1:27Do you ever find yourself feeling a bit defensive if someone tells you that you are being too religious? The term “religious” or “religion” often comes with very negative connotations. Phrases like “holier than thou” come to mind, or in many cases thinking about the Pharisees in Jesus’ day certainly brings about negative connotations of what “religion” is often viewed to look like “up close and personal” to the world-at-large.

However, our perceptions about “religion” aren’t even close to what James 1:27 states is God’s view of religion:

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.

Many of us fall short regarding that definition of religion. How often do we actually “look after orphans and widows in their distress” and “keep oneself from being polluted by the world”?

So… what is “pure and undefiled religion”? GotQuestions.org gives us this explanation:

In James 1:27, the apostle James gives us insight into what pleases God: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (NASB). The word for “undefiled” is translated “faultless” in the NIV.

When interpreting any verse in the Bible, including James 1:27, we should always look at its context to get an idea of what the verse means within the surrounding verses. In this case, we can look at what comes immediately before James 1:27 and get some idea of what is going on in this particular passage. Verse 26 says, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” So, in these final two verses of James 1, we have a contrast between what makes religion “worthless” and what makes religion “acceptable” to God.

Here it would be good to define the word “religion.” Byreligion,” James means the external evidence of inward piety; that is, worship as expressed in ritual acts.

In the “worthless” religion, it doesn’t seem to matter what rituals or pious acts the worshiper engages in—it is all negated by an out-of-control tongue. A man may go through all the external motions of Christianity, yet if he tells lies or speaks unkindly or gossips or slanders or profanes God’s name, then his religion is empty. Everyone around him will see it, but he himself remains self-deceived. “By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37).

The implied contrast in the “pure and undefiled” religion that pleases God is that the worshiper keeps his tongue under control. “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies” (Psalm 34:12–13). But James goes beyond just tongue control and gives examples of the religious acts God is looking for. One is outward-focused: “Look after orphans and widows in their distress.” The other is inward-focused: “Keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Holy living, coupled with service to others, is the key. Or, as Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30–31).

“Pure and undefiled religion” happens when believers take care of the less fortunate and strive for personal purity. The right kind of religious practice involves helping those who cannot help themselves (and who cannot pay you back). As Jesus taught, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13–14). The right kind of religious practice also requires a personal commitment to growing in Christian virtue (see 2 Peter 1:5–8).

The apostle Paul also wrote about pure and undefiled religion, i.e., the actions of those who wish to please the Lord: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God” (1 Timothy 5:4). Taking care of one’s family is a proper religious practice.

Looking after widows and orphans and keeping oneself “unspotted” from the world (KJV) are just two practical examples of what the Christian might do who desires to please God in his or her religion. James is not trying to create an exhaustive description of what religious practice must include. He is most likely highlighting some areas of concern among the believers to whom he was writing. But the result—pure and undefiled religion—is what believers of all eras should have as their goal. (Quote source here.

In an article published on September 12, 2014, titled, Polluted By the World,” by Steve Gillis, Founder and Executive Director of PatchOurPlanet.org (an orphan care organization), he writes:

“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 NIV

This verse is not unfamiliar in orphan care circles.

If orphan care advocates were a football team (the Advocates), this verse would be on a sign hanging over the exit door in the stadium tunnel. Every advocate would reach up and touch it on the way out to the playing field. It’s been our rallying verse.

A rally is “an occurrence in which a team or player that has been behind or playing badly begins to play well.” Guess what? Our team is behind.

We have pockets of communities beginning to play well, but there are still too many churches who have yet to give it any effort. There is no rally. We’re falling behind.

Why are we falling behind?

We see in our rallying verse above that we have a clear understanding of what God calls “pure and faultless” or undefiled religion. Powerful words. But did you also see that the biggest threat to our team also exists in that very same verse?

“….keep oneself from being polluted but the world.”

Twitter. Facebook. iPhone. Text messages. Netflix. World News. YouTube.

It’s not that these things are bad. They are simply contributors to the noise in our world and they, along with so many other things, are polluting our world, derailing our focus, and limiting our face to face interaction with people. Only because we let them.

Why knock these things? They can be great tools if used with wisdom. I agree. I use them, too.

But many people would rather post something about themselves on Facebook than meet someone at a coffee shop who may need a little encouragement. Many would rather “influence” the masses on Twitter than sit patiently with a widow in a nursing home. Or worse, “creatively” tell everyone in your social network about how good you were to do those things (I know, that was below the belt. I’ve done it too, unfortunately.) Many would rather look down at their phones when their children are crying for their attention – just look at them and be all there for a moment. You will need their full attention one day.

And this is the way we lose the ministry of James 1:27 in churches as well.

Busy people = busy churches. Polluted.

What can we do?

Pray. Ask God to identify and illuminate the noise in your life. Then ask Him what He would have you to change. It’s always a good idea to talk to God about things before you talk to someone else. Let’s start there and continue this talk after we get the most important step rolling. Rid ourselves of the excess noise in our lives. Clear the pollution.

It’s late in the game and our team is behind.

We desperately need you and your church to come charging out of that faith tunnel with a renewed focus to serve those who are most vulnerable in your community and those within your influence globally. (Quote source here.)

In another article titled, Marks of Maturity: A New Beginning,” by Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, he writes:

After years of walking with the Lord, the apostle Paul said, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection! But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be” (Philippians 3:12 NLT).

Truly spiritual people will always recognize that there is so much more to learn and so much more in their lives that needs to change.

In contrast, self-deceived people—people who think they are spiritual but really are not—think they know it all, which only shows how little they know. They are like those whom the Book of Revelation describes from the church of Laodicea, claiming to be rich and lacking nothing. But God’s assessment was that they were “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17 NLT).

So how can we know if we are truly spiritual people? In James 1, we find three things that we as Christians should be actively doing if we are really seeking to live godly lives:

If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (vv. 26-27 NKJV).

If you are a true Christian, a truly spiritual person, you will:

Control your tongue. The true test of a person’s religion is not his ability to speak his mind, but to hold his tongue. That is why the psalmist wrote, “I will watch what I do and not sin in what I say. I will curb my tongue when the ungodly are around me” (Psalm 39:1 NLT).

As Christians, we may pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t steal from others or attack other people or commit immoral acts. But we may bring pain worse than a blow to the body by wounding the heart of someone with our words. We can steal someone’s good name and their reputation, and that, too, is sin.

Gossip, slander, and backbiting are extremely widespread sins in the church today, so we must seek to control our tongues. If you are a godly person, then you will exercise self-control over what you say.

Care about others. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble…” (James 1:27 NKJV). This phrase “to visit” suggests the idea of caring for or looking after. It is the idea of not just seeing someone in need, but taking action to help meet that need. Jesus said that if you give a drink to strangers or invite them into your home or clothe them or visit them when they are sick or in prison, it is the same as doing it for Him (see Matthew 25:35-40).

Keep yourself unspotted from the world. Have you ever worn an outfit that you didn’t want to spill anything on? Doesn’t it seem that you always spill on it? If I am wearing jeans and a T-shirt, I don’t spill anything. But if I am wearing a suit and will be going to a meeting or maybe giving a little talk, I will always spill on myself. It happens immediately: a big stain somewhere. Even when I cover myself in napkins, inevitably, a big glob will find its way through that one, little, microscopic gap in the napkin. To try and keep oneself unspotted takes effort.

While Scripture says we are “kept by the power of God through faith for salvation” (1 Peter 1:5 NKJV), we are also to keep ourselves pure (see 1 Timothy 5:22). Rather than being a contradiction, this shows us there is God’s part and there is our part in keeping ourselves unspotted from the world.

God will keep us. The question is, do we want to be kept?

You see, true spirituality is not measured primarily by what we say, but by what we do. Truly godly people will come humbly to His Word, recognizing their great need for Him and His truths. Truly godly people will control their words. Truly godly people will reach out to those who are hurting and will keep themselves unspotted by the world.

In short, truly godly people will be doers of His Word — not just hearers. (Quote source here.)

And in one last article for this blog post titled, What does James 1:27 mean?” published on BibleRef.com (the author’s name is not mentioned), the article states:

In the previous verse (v. 26), James called out anyone who labels themselves as religious, but doesn’t control their tongues—their words. Such people are lying to themselves. What this implies is that it is not enough to participate in religious ceremonies, keep a few commands, or refer to ourselves as a religious followers. So far as Christianity is concerned, obedience to God is meant to be followed down to the level of every word we speak.

James lived in a very religious time in history. He was born into the religion of Judaism, a political-religious system instituted by God Himself. It had been corrupted over time by its human leadership, leading to great misunderstanding about who God was and what He wanted from His people. In addition, the culture of that era was packed with religions that included the worship of all kinds of idols and false gods. All of them had specific rules and practices. All of them gave people a false sense of security in exchange for money or loyalty or ritualistic obedience. None of them was pure or undefiled religion.

Now, though, James writes that there is a form of religious expression that is still pure and undefiled before God. It is simple, though not easy: show up with the widows and orphans in their suffering. Help them. And don’t let yourself be polluted or stained by the world.

As with other verses, we need to carefully understand the point at hand. James is not restricting “right religion” to only literal care for literal widows and orphans. At the time James wrote, these represented society’s most helpless members. Widows, in that culture, were women who had lost their husbands prior to bearing children. This left them destitute. Children without parents, and women without husbands, were among that culture’s most needy. According to this verse, “pure” religion is defined as caring for those who are in need, and avoiding the sins of the world.

When the New Testament speaks of “the world,” it usually means the “world system.” This is the fallen, sin-soaked attitude of humanity, which rejects God and opposes His wisdom. Later in this letter, James will describe worldly wisdom as bitter envy and selfish ambition. To be unstained by the world means that we refuse to be driven by our own appetites and desires and selfish goals. It means not compromising with a system that hates God. Just as James pointed out in James 1:5–8, the world’s wisdom is not like God’s.

With this, James is also implying that it’s very difficult to practice pure and undefiled religion before God…unless we see some serious changes inside of us. Merely planning to follow the right list of regulations is not enough. (Quote source here.)

The above information gives us plenty of “food for thought” on the topic of being religious. It really boils down to the question that was asked to Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (see Matthew 22:36-40). And Jesus answered: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it…

Love . . .

Your neighbor . . .

As yourself . . . .

YouTube Video: “The Least of These” by Matt Maher:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

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