Gandalf the Grey
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:26-27).
The beautiful, the special, the extraordinary are found in the ordinary if they are to be found at all, and everywhere, over everything done for Jesus' sake, no matter how small, there hovers a sense of holiness.
Holiness has to do with the small stuff of life-doing good things in secret and in silence. This is the real thing: "to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
Quiet, unpretentious deeds, done out of the way and in quietness, attack our pride, our hunger for power and prestige, our desire for recognition and approval, our determination to be tremendously important. They train us in the practice of humility, which is the essential practice of godliness.
Great acts of virtue, it seems to me, come rarely, and rarely are they hard to do. They have their own reward: the rush and recognition we get from tackling difficult and demanding endeavors, the following we attract by doing them. It's much harder to give ourselves to hidden, unheralded acts that no one sees. But these are the greatest deeds of all, the elements of which are found in no other faith or ethical system. This is what James calls pure religion.
Interesting word, "religion." James uses a word that seldom occurs in the New Testament. It refers to the trappings of worship: liturgy, ceremony and ritual. It is what we think of these days as the worship portion of a church service. "To James real worship did not lie in elaborate vestments, or in noble liturgy or in magnificent music, or in a carefully wrought service: it lay in the practical service of mankind and the purity of one's personal life" (William Barclay). Real worship shows itself in acts of charity and purity.
Some religion is "worthless," to use James' precise word, in that it has no effect on us at all. It does nothing for us; it leaves us unchanged. The one who practices that religion "deceives himself," a phrase that takes us back to verse 22: "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves." We think we're doing well, but we're not.
This is a religion that comes of prattling on about the Word, but not doing it. The Word tries to act upon us, but we will not humbly receive it and so it makes no imprint upon our souls. That religion, says James, is illusory and fanciful because it leaves us unchanged.
Pure religion shows itself in quiet, spontaneous acts of love-looking after "orphans and widows in their distress," caring for the hapless and helpless, the mournful, the friendless, the forsaken, "the wretched of the earth." It gives comfort to those whose lives have been incomprehensibly disrupted and who are at the mercy of the world.
God is on the side of the widow and orphan, perhaps because most people in this world are not: "Leave your orphans (with me)," he says, "I will protect their lives. Your widows too can trust in me" (Jeremiah 49:11). He is "a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows…" (Psalms 68:5). We are most like God when we care for those he cares for.
Perhaps we can do nothing more than have compassion on them-"feel with them," as the etymology of the word "compassion" suggests. Perhaps we cannot fix them, or deal with the problems that broke them, but we can stand with them. Perhaps we can only do small things for them, but, as Mother Teresa reminded us, we can do them with great love.
It occurs to me that one way to test the authenticity of our religion is to ask ourselves to whom we gravitate as we make our way through life: to the power brokers, the shakers and movers, the beautiful people who make us feel so much better about ourselves. Or do we move toward those who have nothing going for them in this world, and who can do nothing for us? Are we willing to befriend and listen to those awkward people others avoid? Can we love them when that love seems useless, when we cannot help them? Can we care about them though they never return our affection? Will we do this in faithful obedience to God, even though no one sees or knows but he?
We can when we remember that God is the Father of all the downtrodden and disenfranchised and that includes us. We too have nothing but our wretchedness to bring to God. Only when we remember his pity for us can we speak or act in pity. Then we have a religion that God can accept.
Further, James writes, pure religion is characterized by a determination to "keep oneself from being polluted by the world." Thus he introduces that most misunderstood and misapplied concept, "the world."
The Bible says, "Love not the world," and who of us can argue with that directive. All good Christian people know that they shouldn't be like the world. But what does it mean to be worldy? When I was growing up worldliness was smoking, drinking, card-playing, gambling and movie-going. (Once at a church camp I was told that mixed bathing was worldly, although I wasn't sure with what I shouldn't be mixed. Later I learned it was girls.)
What ought to bother us about these scruples is that they don't go deep enough: they don't touch the heart. It's possible for me to do, or not do any or all of them and still be polluted.
I can avoid suds and slow dancing and yet harbor rank bitterness and resentment in my soul. I can kick my smoking habit, and yet remain selfishly ambitious. I can go to prayer meetings and Bible studies, and yet gossip and spread rumors that blight and ruin the lives of my neighbors. I can avoid the cinema and all it's impurity, and yet play XXX rated scenarios in my mind and corrupt myself from the inside out. I can stay away from pool halls and poker games, and yet get bent out of shape when I'm not pampered and pandered to.
It doesn't add up and it shouldn't. It shouldn't because these conventions miss the point. The center of worldliness lies elsewhere-in the cold springs of motives and intentions, in the world's attitudes that pollute our souls.
Worldliness is being resentful when we're snubbed or patronized. It is smarting when our contributions are overlooked. It is reacting angrily and defensively to words spoken against us. It is growing bitter when another is preferred before us. It is harboring grudges, nursing grievances, wallowing in self-pity. These are the ways in which we're most polluted by the world.
God has something better for us: "He would have us rid of all grudging, all bitterness in word or thought, all gauging and measuring of ourselves with a different standard from that which we apply to another. He would have no curling of the lip; no indifference to the man whose service we use; no desire to excel another, no contentment at gaining by another's loss. He would not have us receive the smallest service with ingratitude; would not hear from us a tone to jar the heart of another, a word to make it ache, be the ache ever so transient" (George MacDonald). May God fill every nook and cranny of our being with that religion.
But, you say. I'll never have it in me. I'm flawed from my beginnings, cursed by some ancestor, handicapped by my parents' wrong-doing, saddled with insecurities, and sinful predilections. I can't become this sort of person.
Some of us are difficult cases. Flawed by environment and indulgence as well as heredity, our personalities resist change. Yet it does no good to give up. We will only get worse if we do.
No, the only cure is to give our souls to God for his healing. He can then begin to bring about a cure. He discerns the possibilities in the most difficult and damaged life and he can take all that's unworthy in us and gradually turn it into good.
The process is neither swift nor painless. It often seems chaotic and subject to agonizing delay. Progress is made not by quantum leaps and bounds, but by a few tentative steps and a number of hard falls. It's a creeping thing, better seen in retrospect than in prospect. Yet every day God is taking us down the path toward the place he wants us to be. That is our assurance.
Here's another. If you go this way you'll probably not be named or noticed in this world, but your Father, who sees what you've done in secret, will reward you. You will know sweet fellowship with the One who lived to do those lowly things that others scorned and would not do, and someday soon he will sing your praise before the universe. "There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open" (Luke 8:17).