Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. [James 1:27 (NLT)]
Nowadays, we tend to think of “religion” as the institutionalized system of religious principles, beliefs, ceremonies, and practices to which we’re committed. The religion of which James spoke, however, isn’t limited to things like denomination or synod, liturgy, traditions, rituals, or special observances. Religion, as used by James, is the belief in, service to, and worship of God and encompasses our entire being. The ERV’s translation as “worship,” the NIRV’s as “beliefs and way of life,” the NTE’s and CEB’s of “devotion,” and even the Passion’s translation as “true spirituality” better capture James’ meaning. He is telling us that real religion is our way of life—the way we express our devotion to God hour after hour, day after day, in all that we think, speak, and do.
Rather than setting a formal requirement with his words, James was describing two ways this “pure and genuine” religion is recognizable. The first way we show our faith in and reverence for God is through our beneficence—the qualities of mercy, kindness, generosity, and charity found in our lives. Simply put, it is our unselfish regard for others. An attitude of the heart, it isn’t limited to orphans and widows but applies to any who are marginalized, in distress, overlooked, suffering, wounded, victimized, in crisis, or in need. The second way this “pure and genuine religion” is shown is by personal purity—by our refusal to become soiled or corrupted by the polluted world in which we live.
As a Jew, James was used to a long list of dos and don’ts but he wasn’t giving an all-inclusive list of what a Christ follower’s religion should look like to the world. Instead, he gave us clear examples of what “pure and genuine religion” looks like to God. God expects more from us than just showing up or going through the motions; He expects our love for Him to be evident in all that we do!
Once upon a time, there was a small general store with a clerk named Bill. Instead of helping customers from behind the counter, Bill spent most of the day sitting in a chair by the pot-bellied stove while sipping coffee. When Bill did move, he was slower than molasses and yet the man managed to disappear in an instant whenever a task needed to be done. One day, a customer noticed that Bill’s chair was empty and asked the store’s owner his whereabouts. When told that Bill had passed away, he asked who would fill his vacancy. “No one,” replied the man while adding, “Bill didn’t leave a vacancy!”
Bill didn’t leave a vacancy because, in actuality, while he filled a spot, he never fulfilled his purpose. Bill figured he just had to show up to collect a paycheck. Are we that sort of believer? Does our idea of religion mean all we have to do is show up and fill a pew to collect that eternal paycheck? Or is religion something more? James’ words should cause us to question the kind of “religion” we have while Bill’s story should encourage us to ask ourselves, “What kind of vacancy will I leave?”
The world does not need a definition of religion as much as it needs a demonstration. [Martin Luther]