Reflections on James 1:26-27: What Does Your Life Boil Down To?

I’ve been thinking on James 1:26-27 recently:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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 gives us a statement which boils Christian religion down. First he explains what pure religion is not. It is not a person with an unbridled tongue. People who say things which do not conform to the bridle of God’s Word should not think themselves religious. The Scriptures are meant to rule and guide the speech of men and women the way bridles rule over horses. Horses don’t obey bridles when they feel like it. The bridle is designed to be a constant force guiding and directing. The bridle takes away freedom from the horse for the good of the horse; so the horse can achieve its purpose. In the same way, the Bible bridles the tongue of the religious man.

Next James moves to what pure religion IS. When Christians visit orphans and widows, they are truly embracing religion. Let’s consider what “visiting” orphans and widows really means. Most Christians, if pressed on this verse, might say they serve orphans and widows by give to their local church. “I give to my church and my church helps orphans and widows.” I would suggest this is a cop-out and a misinterpretation of this verse. This verse is about more than providing material provision. James didn’t say “give to orphans and widows,” he said visit them. Visiting people affirms their value as human beings more then financial contribution. James is aware how much more difficult a visit can be then a financial contribution. Giving is good, but visiting, conversing with, and befriending orphans and widows is pure. When religion changes you to the point you are willing to spend time with social outcastes (people who can seemingly offer you very little in terms of money, power, or popularity), your religion is pure.

Secondly, religiously pure people have another peculiar habit. Not only do they visit people no one wants to visit, but they intentionally keep themselves from being stained by the world. This is one of the hardest things about being a Christian. Being stained by the world is usually pretty fun; the world’s stain doesn’t sting: it soothes, it entertains and it delights (or so it would seem). Christians have been wrestling with the implications of this verse since Pentecost. Some have removed themselves completely from the world in order to keep themselves from being stained. Others have embraced the world’s pleasures in order to be around and, hopefully, reach the lost. Neither can be what James really meant.

I believe James calls for believers to live in such a way where the world and its pleasures don’t stain our souls. As the old adage goes, “You are what you eat.” The soul is also a consuming entity and it will become like what it feeds on (or is stained by). A soul which feeds on good things lives, but a soul which feeds on stain will become stained. This doesn’t mean we make lists of good things and lists of bad things and stick to our good lists. That’s legalism. But if you don’t think regularly and pray often about the stain tempting you, it certain you aren’t what James is talking about here. The default life for those perishing is stain, stain, stain: constant consumption of stain. The default life for Christians living in a perishing world is to resist being stained by a world of stain. One thing is certain, if we’re not striving to rid ourselves of stain, we are being stained.

I’m thankful for this verse and a radical call to love the (seemingly) unlovely and keep ourselves from being stained by the world. It’s a high calling, but what will be sweeter then hearing our Savior judge our lives and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You visited my beloved orphans and widows and avoided the stain I died to eradicate.”

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