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Pure and Undefiled Religion

“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.” (James 1:26-27)

As the Lord laid these verses on my heart I experienced deep grief – so much so that I laid this article aside for a day….not wanting to write from any strong emotions. Rather, I wished to do what I always try to do: express what I sense the Holy Spirit of God wants to say TO me and then THROUGH me.

So, I waited and prayed.

The aching only increased.

This morning I was awakened earlier than I usually rise. I couldn’t shake that term. It virtually pounded in my heart.

“Pure and undefiled religion.”

We hear the word “religion” bandied about a lot. Many Christians and most people in the world system use “religion” to describe Christianity and the religions of the world.

Jesus never intended Christianity to be practiced as a systematic “religion” and I don’t see Christianity ever being presented in the Bible as “a religion” – complete with prescribed behaviors and systems and lists of things to do and things NOT to do.

Jesus has always intended for people to simply live out Christ.

Christianity is an exciting lifestyle of dependency upon Jesus (and NOT upon ANY earthly systems – even religious appearing Christian ones) and a lifestyle of listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit of God – moment by moment.

So, I don’t believe we Christians are to “practice a religion” in terms of Christian things to do.

Yet, in James 1, we are told something about “pure and undefiled religion.”

So, I dug into the Bible. Forms of the Greek word “threskeia” that we know as “religion” are only found a handful of times in the Bible. One refers to the ungodly worship of angels. Another has to do with the Jewish worship of God (Acts 26:5).

Only two verses use the word in association with Christianity: James 1:26-27.

Doesn’t it seem conspicuous that any form of a word that most Christians use to refer to Christianity only shows up THREE times in just two verses in the entire Bible?

Doesn’t it seem conspicuous that the ONE occasion in which it appears in a Christian context it is NOT used to describe rituals we might perform, “worship services” as we know them (in dedicated church buildings OR in homes OR in the marketplace) or, really, hardly anything we usually consider to be Christian religious practices?

“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.” (James 1:26-27)

What do the words “religion” and “religious” refer to in James 1:26-27?

Their use has to do with how we speak, how we care for those in need and how we keep ourselves from being polluted by the world and its systems.

My point is this: “pure and undefiled religion” has nothing to do with so-called Christian practices and rituals.

“Pure and undefiled religion” is about our LIFESTYLES.

Let’s break down the meanings of the words in verse 27 since James basically defines “pure and undefiled religion” in that verse. When we are done I will give the verse again using the definitions of the words.

“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.” (James 1:27)

James breaks the definition into two parts: an outward expression (dealing with orphans and widows) and an inward expression (effort to remain unblemished by the various systems of the world).

Because of what the Lord is speaking to me about this topic, I will focus on the first of those in the remainder of this article. However, it is important to acknowledge that the first hardly gets addressed because the second so often goes unpracticed.

In other words, we routinely entertain practices, ideas and beliefs in Christendom (“…but we’ve always done it that way….”) that are nowhere to be found in God’s Word. These ideas are from the world system and NOT from God, therefore, these are blemishes.

Because we do that, ministering to orphans and widows is often overlooked because we expect only congregations leaders or people with man-made titles to do it and/or because we lack the funds because they are all used up paying for things God never told us to do, buy or maintain.

We read James 1:27 and, trying to obey it, we might be on guard against sexual sin and greed and things like that but satan is a master at infiltrating our lives and the Church with worldly systems that HE has established and orchestrates. These are the “spots from the world”.

It seems sadly curious to me that as the systems of the world have encroached upon Christianity we have put in place programs to accomplish that first one. Our attitude is (spoken or unspoken) that if we have a “benevolence program” in place in the organization with which we identity ourselves we can check this one off our “to do” list.

This is part of my grief.

“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this:”

(James 1:27a)

The word “pure” means “clean”. We’ve seen that “undefiled” means “unpolluted by the systems of the world”. The word “religion” has to do with how we worship our Lord.

James points out that what he is saying is “before God and the Father”. In other words, this is God’s viewpoint on pure and undefiled religion. Truly, only God’s opinion on any issue ever really matters.

“...to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27b)

The word translated as “to visit” does not mean to drop by and hang out with the orphans and widows for a while or to have periodic programs benefitting them – both of which ARE good things to do.

The real meaning of the term is to “look closely, examining and discerning the need”. It is a term often associated with giving mercy to another as in TAKING CARE OF and nursing the sick or others in dire need. The word “trouble” or “affliction” in some versions of the Bible means “pressure”.

There is a lot of pressure to be had in being an orphan or a widow.

“…to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27b)

We don’t realize how legalistic we are in how we live until we start scrutinizing our thoughts and ideas.

Ask most people what an “orphan” is or what a “widow” is and they will say what I would have said, “Someone whose parents have died” or “A woman whose husband has died.”

That IS, for sure, the technical definition of the words “orphan” and “widow”. I have long noticed and have tried to address the reality that the needs of functional orphans and widows are every bit as real to them as are the needs of technically orphaned and widowed people.

The Greek word the Holy Spirit had James write that we translate as “orphan” is “orphanos”. It comes from a Greek root that means “dark or obscure”. This is because, in the words of the Greek dictionary I use for my research, “the orphan is often little esteemed and neglected and thus forced, as it were, to wander in obscurity and darkness.” (The Complete Word Study Dictionary New Testament – Zodiates)

It was used by Jesus to describe disciples without anyone to watch over and disciple them:

“I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18)

My reason for addressing this is that there are many kinds of “orphans”. While the plight of parentless children is very real, so is the plight of the other kinds of orphans that God has chosen to fold into our midst.

The sad truth is that most functional orphans of all ages go “unvisited” by the Body of Christ. Their need is never scrutinized and assessed. They are never nursed back to health.

NO ONE SEES THEM.

They “wander in obscurity and darkness.” Why? Because, the systems of the world have infiltrated the Church and in our corporate fragmentation we have unwittingly adopted a wicked concept: “value to the organization.”

Functional orphans are seen to have little or nothing to give, therefore they are considered to have little value to the organization.

So, they remain virtually unseen and their needs go unrecognized and, therefore, unmet. They stay in their “trouble” and remain under the pressure of being orphans.

Sadness.

“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.” (James 1:27)

What is a “widow”? Well, the Greek word here DOES mean “a woman whose husband has died.”

However, it has also been used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to refer figuratively to a city left desolate (Isaiah 47:8; Lamentations 1:1) and classic Greek writers would use the masculine form of the Greek word to refer to bachelors or widowers.

I believe, then, that the term “widow” refers not simply just to women whose husbands have died but, in general, to those who have been devastated by personal relationship losses.

There are among us functional widows such as divorced women and men and single mothers and fathers (however they came to find themselves in those roles.)

The needs of these functional widows often go unvisited. Functional widows are seen to have little or nothing to give, therefore they are considered to have little value to the organization. So, they remain virtually unseen and their needs go unrecognized and, therefore, unmet. They stay in their “trouble” and remain under the pressure of being widows.

I believe this breaks the heart of God Who established the Body of Christ to be the earthly expression of HIS compassion, mercy, and love.

“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.” (James 1:27)

Let me re-post James 1:27 using what we have learned about these words:

“The viewpoint of God is that the TRUE worshipful lifestyle of those who BELONG to Jesus is that they care enough about those who might have little to give SO MUCH that they take the time to look closely, examine and discern the need of those experiencing the pressure of personal relationship losses…those wandering in the darkness and obscurity…and ADDRESS THOSE NEEDS with mercy and compassion, AND to keep oneself unpolluted by the heartless systems of the world.” (James 1:27)

Why do you think it is that someone will try to help someone in need and only a handful of individual people will step up to help?

The answer is simple.

It is because these relatively few people who sacrifice to help others have “laid aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and have received with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save their souls. (James 1:21)

It has been my observation that these people often have been humbled by loss in their own lives and now share the Lord’s compassion for those who have little value to the organization (in the eyes of corporate leaders).

These become hearers and DOERS of that implanted word (James 1:22-23).

It is my hope that we, as a body, will continually abandon the legalism that we were born into and seek God’s HEART on these matters and not dismiss opportunities to bring the order and compassion of God’s Kingdom into situations and lives just because they don’t fit our definition of words like “orphans” and “widows”.

For instance, in our current church culture the extra “er” at the end of the word “widower” legalistically excludes them from having their needs addressed.

Reading this article, one might ask, “What can we do to “visit orphans and widows?”

First we must practice real relationships with the people with whom God has us in fellowship. When we KNOW people we know when they are down. We SURELY know when they are absent. Why not reach out to them to simply acknowledge that we miss them?

One man I know ministers by having coffee every morning at the café in his town. He KNOWS the men he sits with every day. He can tell when they have forgotten to take their morning medicine or when one has high or low blood sugar. When someone doesn’t show up, he calls him to check on him and offers to help if he can.

He lovingly inquires about these things. He has the right to do this because he practices relationship with those men. They all know he cares about him.

Second, we can’t depend on identified leaders to notice everything or to do everything that needs to be done. Especially in larger fellowships it is nearly impossible for a small group of leaders to know everyone and be received by everyone and often leaders of smaller groups often are bi-vocational which means that their time is limited, so it is important for ALL attendees to watch out for one another.

“…may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people…” (1 Thessalonians 3:12)

In the most basic sense ALL Christians are leaders in some capacity. It is part of our birthright to be able to minister to one another.

Third, spend REAL time with people, sharing your life, when invited to do so. All deep relationships become deep through time spent with others. It’s so worth it.

People are God’s favorite thing. Doing this is actually one of the purest ways to worship God.

Fourth, always keep in mind that when a person receives us they are giving us an incredibly valuable gift. Gratefulness for that spurs us on to great works of love that often don’t seem to burden us at all.

“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

Finally, always thank others for letting you help. It’s often hard for people to let someone else help them. A heartfelt “Thank you” is a wonderful way to express our gratitude.

It is my heart cry that we (and I include myself in this) will care more about what God wants to address than we do about the separate health of our little subsets of the Body of Christ.

May we never have to hear this from Jesus about ourselves:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy (compassion) and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” (Matthew 23:23)

I said earlier that “pure and undefiled religion” has nothing to do with so-called Christian practices and rituals.

“Pure and undefiled religion” is the fruit of the Spirit that flows from a human heart focused on Jesus and a desire to honor Jesus by letting Him live His life out through us.

When we live IN HIM the things that matter to Him will, quite simply, matter to us.

Lord, sanctify us!

Make our thoughts to be like Your thoughts. Make our decisions to be like Your decisions. Make us feel what You feel.

Then we WILL do what You did on the earth.

I would like to close this article with a word on the cost of “visiting orphans and widows.”

“….which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it?” (Luke 14:28)

What will it cost us to serve widows and orphans in this very personal way?

It is really impossible to predict because every situation is different. However, we can expect some costs.

We WILL spend our time and effort and focus doing it. True worship of God ALWAYS involves dedicated time, effort and focus for Him.

We WILL come to love the people we serve and this will often cause us to be vulnerable to emotional pain, disappointment and other strong emotions.

Sometimes, as I alluded to early in this article, it will mean seeing sad things like the disinterest many of the Body of Christ seem to have for the needs of those outside of their own little circles. The disunity satan has brought to the Church is breathtakingly agonizing for us when we see it for what it is and “visiting the orphans and widows” WILL reveal the effects of that disinterest up close and personal.

Why is it that it seems so few people ever help out their brothers and sisters in Christ?

For most of those it is because the Church is so divided that they simply do not know of the needs. There is practically no communication among the members of the entire Body of Christ in any given place. (Imagine if your physical body functioned like that; such a condition is known as disease in one’s nervous system.)

Some were never taught to do so. This is just one of many effects of the lack of true discipleship in the Church today.

For those who DO know…most of those don’t help because they simply do not care about people outside their subset of the Body of Christ (and often about those inside their congregation. Our recognition of that sad fact hurts.

It was never intended by God to be this way. Listen to Paul describe what was the norm in the early church in THE Church in every geographical location:

“Now concerning the collection for the saints (in other places), as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem.” (1 Corinthians 16:1-3)

Paul wanted them to understand and practice the truth that the Christians in Corinth and Galatia were a part of the Christians in Jerusalem…many of whom they would never meet. There was none of the present day territoriality in the first century Church.

Now, we have seen the costs. That’s not the entire story because for every potential cost, though, there is a potential dividend.

The JOY of being a part of the lives or others….of being a part of a brother’s or sister’s restoration…of HELPING someone else that cannot benefit us at all…is LIMITLESS. In other words, IT IS SO WORTH the risks.

I hope this piece has been encouraging to you.

It is in service and obedience to the Lord Jesus that it has been written.

Pastor Mike McInerney

Mike McInerney Ministries, Inc.

Decatur, Texas

© September 7, 2018

(For use with permission)

©2018 by Mike McInerney Ministries