Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
To James the word ‘religion’ describes neither the Christian faith nor Christian, ‘churchy’, activities. He is talking here about what the Christian faith looks like, as seen in the lives of those who believe in Jesus (2:1).
What God, the Father, wants for his children is character, a quality of life that reflects his father-heart. This, James says, is to be seen in two areas – reaching out to those in need, and practical holiness. These two themes engage his attention throughout his letter (see 2:1-26 and 3:13-5:6).
‘Visit’ those in need, he says – a word that implies making a conscious decision, going out of one’s way: it’s costly of time, of physical and emotional energy. Whether they are people we know about personally, or people who turn for help to organisations that we are involved with, James says: reach out to vulnerable people – the homeless, the elderly, refugees, unemployed or excluded youth. And stand up for their rights.
That’s one side of the coin. The other relates less to what we do than to who we are. Keeping oneself unstained by the world is not simply a matter of avoiding certain kinds of unwholesome behaviour. It springs from single-minded devotion to the Father. The ‘double-minded’ are seduced by the world’s promises and misled by its values – the promises of wealth and success, the values of the marketplace.
But perhaps more relevantly to most of us, the ‘world’ creates busyness. We are so busy at work, at church, ferrying children, going to the gym; our minds are so busy that we are always thinking of plans, of dates, of things that ‘need to be done’. So busy that we have neither time nor creative thought to devote to the needy people around us.
Let’s try to clear the clutter, and live a life that is characterized by simplicity, contentment and generosity.
This is what speaks to the world.