Generosity in the Context of Pure, Biblical Religion
“What if I told you that Jesus came to abolish religion?” These were the opening statements to Jeff Bethke’s poem, Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus. The poem was creatively recorded to film, edited and posted to a variety of social networks online. It was no wonder to me why the video went viral almost immediately.
The poet’s aim was to “highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion.” Though, with today’s modern definition of religion, it sparked a number of heated debates even among Christians just as much as it did other belief groups.
I remember the time when the term “religion” took a turn for the worse. Rather than a reference to something noble and honorable, it trended as a synonym for legalism. Today, you can easily substitute the two words with almost no change in meaning. Religion has become a twin sister of excessive adherence to moral law.
What the Apostle James Taught
Although an ancient writing, the book of James would split a crowd if read openly today: “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). The word “religion” is not the same as what we understand it to mean today. It doesn’t encompass unwarranted, man-made rules and regulations that are used to cultivate spirituality. For James, religion is not a bad thing. Instead, it refers to our worship of God in the virtue of our beliefs and reverence. It can easily be substituted with the word “faith” if we use it to refer to our set of beliefs. So there is a good religion. You can be religious in this sense and be noble before God.
James qualifies “pure” religion as something that motivates both good works and godly living. Both of these subjects, of course, are very broad and include a wide diversity of applications. Visiting orphans and widows with a view to helping them in their distress is emblematic of a significant number of things that we can and should do to assure ourselves of our faith while not neglecting other people and other things. These are prime examples of good things that we should do, but James had in mind something much more grand.
Both orphans and widows were considered to be lower-class citizens in most first-century societies because they generally required assistance and rarely contributed anything of substance to society. They were needy and were often lost in the civil systems. There were no life insurance or adoption plans in the days of the early church. Few people in the societies of that day would find it in their hearts to support orphans and widows since there was no expectation of reciprocation. This is true of our day as well, even with our public welfare systems. Caring for people in need, therefore, required a special kind of love which the church knew could be found in God because it was institutionalized in the systems that God created and legislated for the Israelite nation.
The Israelite Nation
When the Lord instituted the nation’s tithe, he commanded them to provide equally for the orphans and widows. “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). There was also a strong consequence for disobeying this command, “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy. 27:19).
Paul’s Views on Generosity
Building on this scriptural foundation, Paul taught this in the New Testament as well. In his instructions to the church, the apostle told us to “honor widows who are truly widows” (1 Timothy 5:3), and he concluded that and if someone does not fulfill this requirement, “he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). This kind of instruction is in line with the character of God and therefore, a fruit of his Spirit that is manifest by every believer who is truly saved. It is not the specific work of caring for the orphans and widows only that is required, however. It is also the love and care for anyone who is in real need and especially for those who cannot give back. John explained it this way, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).
As somewhat of a sidebar, consider the implications of this biblical truth: we are called to sacrificially give to those who cannot give back. When we give in this manner, we essentially put a value on those who have no inherent value. And the value of our religion (faith) is measured accordingly. What does this say about Jesus who gave of Himself for our benefit? We can give nothing in return since we have nothing to give (Romans 14:23). We have no intrinsic value (Romans 3:9-10), yet we have been valued by God. None of us are valuable in and of ourselves. We only have worth when the Lord chooses us.
Unstained from the World
In connection with the requirement to help those who cannot help themselves and who cannot reciprocate our action, there is yet another virtue that James mentions. It is “to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). This “keeping” is a continuous action. It is an ongoing work of keeping oneself untainted by the world, which is synonymous with being pure and unblemished. It is the word used to describe Jesus when he was being sacrificed as a propitiating lamb, He was spotless (1 Peter 1:19).
The idea here is that those who have a genuine faith will never be content with the reality of their existing sin and their failure to be victorious over it. It is being like Paul, who in distress of spirit confessed, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19).
The person of true faith is one who lives in such a way that he kills sin in his life (Romans 8:13). He is always at war with the flesh and desires to be victorious each time. He seeks to be separate from the fallen world and not conformed by it. Genuine faith, then, is also characterized by its spotless character. True faith is pure.
Believers in today’s church need to learn this important lesson from the ancient roots of our faith. We are required by God to share our resources—our money, our time, and our talents—with those who are less fortunate than we, especially those who have no means or expectation to reciprocate our actions. Then, we are to engage in the continuing battle to keep ourselves unspotted from the evils of the world. This is good religion. This is divine faith on display.
(This article was featured in RESTORE!, a Christian Hebraic roots magazine, and was adapted from Jacob Abshire’s upcoming book entitled, Faith: A Commentary on James.)