In the first installment of this two part series on the topic of “Pure Religion” we came to grips with the negative admonition of James. Pure religion before the face of God, James told us, consists of keeping ourselves unspotted from the world. We are called to be in the world, but never may we be one in principle and practice with the world. It is our calling not to become defiled with the filth and corruption that belongs to the world because they lie under the power of darkness. As we saw last time, this means that, from a positive point of view, we continually say no to the ways and temptations of sin and walk in the fear of God. Yet, James is not satisfied with our treatment so far. His treatment in James 1:27 demands that we add yet another dimension to the explanation of pure religion. You see, so far we have elucidated the principle of pure religion; but as we said at the outset of the last article, James is interested in uniting theory or principle and practice. So we, with James must turn to practical application of the principle of non-defilement and true religion.
We must visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction. Before we continue, let us remind ourselves of the viewpoint here. James is not stating for us a sort of eleventh commandment. There is a danger of so approaching this text and missing the point. We must not consider the visitation of the fatherless and widows as the totality of the positive aspect of nondefilement. There is more to pure religion than visiting. And simply doing this does not put one beyond reproach as far as religion is concerned. That’s not James’s point at all. Rather, James desires to take one small aspect of our life, place it under the scrutiny of the criterion of pure religion and so illustrate how we must function in every sphere of our Christian life. In other words, he singles out one example to illustrate his point.
This is a very fitting example! Orphans and widows must be visited. It is in this very example that the antithesis between ourselves and the world is pointed out. They who are the objects of our visiting are by and large despised by the world. The fatherless and the widows are the outcast ones in society. They are the so-called nonproductive members and can only be a burden or liability. Whereas in the communion of the saints these are the recipients of the joyful distribution of the mercies of Jesus Christ, they are the problems to the world. Add to this the fact that they are orphans and widows “in their affliction.” These are certainly the ones that the world could do without but grudgingly tolerates. This is understandable, because the friendship of the world is based upon carnal considerations. One who can bolster someone’s position, influence, and wealth is an ideal friend in the eyes of the world. But we who are the children of God do not use this worldly and carnal criterion to determine our friendship. We know that principally that which unites us to each other as saints is our common lot of being hated by the world. And it is the affection of this friendship and not carnal advancement that motivates our visiting. We would rather visit a lonely widow and experience Christian kinship than participate in the revellings of the ungodly, though it bring us carnal and earthly advancement! For we would rather lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven than to amass unto ourselves the things that must needs perish.
Such activity is an inherent part of pure religion. We ought to make this a point of emphasis. Let us for a moment consider the example James chooses to use, in order that the principle which ought to govern the whole of our life in every sphere be understood. All of us, young and old, participate in the communion of the saints in our particular congregation. There are in the midst of all of these churches “the orphans and widows in their affliction.” Now we must not quickly begin to find excuse ‘in the word “affliction.” It is true that sometimes, due to physical-material lack, the affliction of some is especially great and difficult. But apart from this, it must be realized that simply being a widow, widower, or orphan is suffering. Loneliness makes hours and days seem as if they last forever, and being parentless makes growing up difficult and frightening. James says, visit them! This is clearly our Christian responsibility. Officebearers and pastors must be exemplary in this; yet they must never be the only ones who do the visiting. To make the point of James clear, we must connect this thought with the non-defilement of which we spoke previously. Then we are admonished never to let worldly friendship stand in the way of visiting the orphans and lonely. Sometimes I fear that we have our priorities mixed up. We are ever so busy, there are scarcely enough hours in the day. Yet, how many are not the visits that are spent with those who are not of the household of faith! And the hours we spend on various business appointments pressure our lives to excess. But we have to admit that all these visits and appointments are times that further only material goals. Business appointments render only new accounts! It is true, of course, that we have to run our businesses and must fulfill the obligation of our various callings; but these may not crowd out this chief and vital characteristic of pure religion. Though there is nothing carnal to be gained by visiting the indigent and afflicted ones, it is our calling to cast our lot with them in their affliction by perhaps giving up a few wage-earning hours for the spiritual benefit of the. body of Jesus Christ. “Pure religion and undefiled . . . is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.”
The example illustrates the principle. The essence and character of religion is found in the idea of the covenant—especially as this idea has been beautifully and particularly developed in our churches as the idea of friendship between God and His people. As we abide in that friendship with God, we stand in hatred against the world and its carnal drives and values. And as we, by the grace of God, stand in such covenant friendship, we live a sanctified life of non-defilement in fulfilling our part of God’s covenant with us. One small but not so insignificant part of such a sanctified life consists in visiting the orphans and widows in their affliction. The well-being of God’s covenant and kingdom ought not be infringed upon by the lusts of the flesh and the things of this world which are designated only as a means toward the fulfillment of the kingdom and covenant of God.
The apostle John makes somewhat the same point, but from a slightly different viewpoint. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar.” (I John 4:20) If we confess that we abide in the love of God and are comprehended in His covenant, yet this love does not penetrate the activities of my daily life, then I had better reevaluate my confession. I may be a very pious Christian. I may even be considered a model as I sit in the pew from Sunday to Sunday. But if I consider not the brother, nor care about the indigent and lonely, then my Christianity is vain. Then my life is defiled by the values of this world, and its filth has made obscure my care for the body of Jesus Christ, the Church. In the words of James, we must be more than just hearers of God’s Word who soon forget that Word and find no application for it in their life! Theory or, if you will, the doctrine we confess, finds its expression in practice!
It is only in the combining of theory and practice, confession and life, that we are pleasing before the face of God. As we stated previously, this is the only criterion that we ought to regard. It is of no import what men may think. To be esteemed in the eyes of men as a good Christian hardly assures one a place in heaven. Men may be impressed by philanthropy, Sunday Christianity, etc. But God demands truth in the inward parts. That which He has given in our hearts must come to expression in our conduct. What does God, Who is our Father, think of us His sons and daughters? Do we reflect His love to those round about us, especially those of the household of faith who are His chosen? He rejoices in His children when the friendship of the world does not stand in the way of the friendship of the communion of the saints, and when the oneness and mutual concern of the body of Christ becomes manifest in deed. Let us visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, remaining unspotted from the world, and so live in His fear.