“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 1:27 ESV).
People find it hard to grasp that Jesus Christ was killed by religious people for religious reasons. It obviously follows that just because something is “religious” in one sense or another, it is not necessarily good. Religion, like anything else in this world, can be corrupted. Not all religion is pure.
Before he became the Apostle Paul, Saul of Tarsus was a persecutor of Christians and responsible for many deaths.
He thought he was doing God a favor by killing Christians, just as Jesus predicted: “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2 ESV). Saul was trying to earn points with his religion as he later disclosed: “I punished them often…and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:11 ESV).
This kind of “religion” is quite common today, but it is not pure. Pure religion is defined in the verse above “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
This simple summary is true religion. James says, if you miss this, you miss the mark, and your religion is in vain. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26 ESV).
Comforting and “covering” (protecting) people who can’t fend or fight for themselves is what qualifies. I am talking about widows, fatherless children, seniors in nursing homes, singles who have no friends, etc. God declared long ago “it is not good that a man is alone” (Genesis 2:18 NKJV). Visiting and encouraging people who are struggling with life is the very essence of true and pure religion.
Further, it doesn’t take a wise man to see that the status of this present world is corruption. Keeping yourself “unstained” from this environment is the other side of pure religion. However, this cannot be accomplished by “trying to be good,” whatever that means.
Comparing yourself with other people is not wise and leads to self-righteous hypocrisy (2 Corinthians 10:12). Only a personal relationship with the Living God can keep us from turning too far to the right or the left. When I encounter His presence in prayer and the Word of God, it corrects, directs, and protects me from the world and myself. Following His words and example purifies my life and keeps me from many a potential pitfall.
Jesus of Nazareth is the model of pure religion. While he was dying on the cross, he made sure his mother (a widow) was taken care of (John 19:26-27). His last words were a prayer for the religious persecutors: “Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 ESV). He didn’t hate them as they hated him. Believe me, a personal relationship with the Living Son of God will help keep you when you can’t keep yourself.
Pure religion has a price, but so does everything else. There is nothing “free” in this world. But just as sure as death and taxes, pure religion put into practice will bring God’s blessing to you in this world and the world to come.
Rev. John Butler is pastor of Wings of Love Community Church, South Williamsport