I recently decided to go back through the book of James to refresh myself on the overall themes in preparation for a paper I am writing for a class. I went through the first chapter of James. All of it is very familiar to me. It is full of popular verses that are quoted often. I found myself gravitating towards the last few verses of this chapter today. Specifically verses 22, 26, and 27.
James is laying an important groundwork in this chapter. He will later discuss the importance of a partnership of faith and works. There is an incredible need from James message that pulls for his readers to live out a life worthy of the message they have received. I want to say before moving forward that I struggle with all of these themes. I don’t think it comes easy, and I think the balance that James calls for us is incredibly difficult to achieve, but I did want to share a few thoughts based off of some misconceptions some might have in these verses.
Verse 22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” This is the point where most messages would start to talk about how we need to live out what Scripture says. This is all well and god, and is ultimately the main point James is making in this verse, but I want to pump the breaks here for a second. We need to be in the Word in order to follow its commands. I would also argue that we need to be around others who speak God’s truth to us in order to act on it. People will often tell me that they don’t like “Going to church. Church is not a building where we meet on Sundays.” I completely agree, but a local community of believers that actively worship, and study Scripture provides a necessary refuge for the life of the believer. We need to learn God’s Word together in order to act on it as one body. Not everyone is this way, but I have had people try and use this passage to tell me that living I community is not important. Saying that completely ignores the message and context of this verse. It was never an either/or it is a both/and.
Now we have verses 26 and 27. “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.”
It is popular to beat up on religion. A ridiculous amount of time and energy has gone from both sides writing about why religion is good or bad. Both sides do their absolute best to show why the other side doesn’t really know what they are talking about. I have contemplated over this issue, and this passage specifically in the past. Let’s start with the obvious. At no point does James say religion is bad or evil. He doesn’t say religion is wrong, or that Jesus hated religion without any clarifying statements is irresponsible. What James does say is that some people have a wrong idea of what religion is.
Here is what religion is not. It is not listening to God’s word and ignoring its application in your life. It is not fattening yourself up on church events and doing nothing for those in need. It is not being a hypocrite. It is not merely acting on traditions in order to try and appear religious for others.
Religion is about caring for those in need. We all like to get on board with that part. It is the often quoted element to this passage. It is a part that I think we often miss. The topic of abortion is a great example of this. Many Christians fight for the right of the unborn child, but many don’t stop to think about what they are doing to try and increase the quality of life for that child once it is born. This is not every single believer. Many parts of the Church are doing a fantastic job caring for those children who enter the world in broken homes, and taking the mother under their wing, but I realize that I personally need to do so much more. How am I living out God’s word in a way that makes this world a better place for children to live in?
There is a second half to this. It is the part that the section who dislikes religion often forget. “Keep oneself unstained from the world.” This is not saying we go into hiding. It is not saying that we treat those on the outside like dirt. It does not tell us to be legalistic. It does not tell us to never associate with unbelievers, but it is a blatant call that tells us to be different. Ironically, this second part looks an awful lot like the kind of religion that many people seem to be disagreeing with.
It is another situation of a both/and. I used to give all monasticism a rip for being so separate from the world, but recent personal research has shown me that there were actually some monastic movements that maintained a rigorous personal study of God’s Word and were what we might consider “religious.” They also remained incredible active in their communities by caring for the needy and spreading the Gospel. We should be different. We should be set apart. Sometimes this can be found through what many would call religious traditions. This is not a bad thing so long as those traditions have purpose in reminding us of who we are, where we come from, and what we are called to do. They can rejuvenate us. Those moments can remind us to remain in the world, but standout as something completely different from it as well.