We are excited to be able to host a Together for Adoption Conference here in South Africa on March 1 and 2nd. It is a great deal of work putting on a conference and is requiring a great deal of faith as well, trusting that God will make His name look great through our feeble efforts. Over the next several posts, I thought I might share some reasons why we believe the way we respond to the orphan crisis in our midst is such an important topic for us to consider.
If you wanted to test the reality of a person’s religious activity, I wonder what kind of question you would ask?
This is important for us to consider. It is important for us to think about whether or not our religious activity is real is because we know both biblically and historically that there is a lot of supposed worship that is not. There is a great deal of religious activity that is both foolish and pointless.
Fortunately, we don’t have to come up with tests on our own. The writers of Scripture were concerned about this very issue and in fact give us a number of different ways to evaluate whether or not religious activity is sincere.
I don’t know which particular passage of Scripture your mind runs to when you think of ways the authors of scripture give us to evaluate the reality of a person’s religion. But I want to highlight one of the tests that has struck me as very significant. It’s a test that I think that has often been overlooked.
It’s found in James chapter one, verse twenty seven.
He writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this, to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.”
James is writing to a group of people who are, as you know, fairly active spiritually. They for one thing are reading this letter. He describes them as hearers of the word. They enjoy listening to God’s word. He tells us that they thought of themselves as fairly religious. Some in fact, had a desire to be teachers. They even seemed to think of themselves as fairly wise and understanding. But in spite of all of that it seems pretty clear as you read throughout James that he has some concern that their religious activity, their religion, at least for some of them, it’s not the real thing.
He says in verse 16 of chapter 1, “Do not be deceived my brothers.” He says in verse 22, “But be doers of the word and not hearers only deceiving yourselves.” He speaks of someone deceiving his own heart in verse 26. In chapter two verses 14‑16 he speaks of a dead faith, a faith that does not in fact save. In chapter three, in verses 13 and 14 he speaks of a wisdom that comes from the Devil, demonic wisdom. He speaks of boasting and being false to the truth, thinking that you’re wise when in fact you’re not, which is why one of the main things James does in this letter is give us tests.
“You say you have faith?”
It is as if James comes to us and says, “Let’s look at that faith more closely to see if your faith is in fact genuine.”
And here in verses 26 and 27 of chapter one, he’s giving a series of these tests to help us evaluate the reality of our religious activity.
Is it the real thing?
He speaks about the way we rule over our tongue. That’s one of the tests.
He speaks about our relationship to the world. That’s another test.
And he speaks about our response to the hurting around us. Our response to the hurting around us is one of the ways James test the reality of our religion. And this test is important to James.
We know it is important because of the way James frames this statement.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before or, you might say, in the sight of God, is this. Pure meaning clean in the Old Testament sense of the word. Undefiled meaning something similar to holy. It is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction. Visit meaning something much more than simply showing up and saying hello. The word, one Greek dictionary defines it like this, “It is to take care of, to seek out someone, to tend. This term is frequently used for nursing the sick.” That’s why the New International Version translates it to look after. One author writes, “It never implies merely to visit in the usual sense, but instead it is always to be concerned about with a sense of responsibility for others.” Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the father is this, to visit orphans and widows. We know what they are, orphans and widows. But the fact is, they may represent a class, and they often do throughout scripture, a class of the most vulnerable in society, those who are in a position where they have a very difficult time taking care of themselves.
We might summarize what James is saying like this, “Religious activity that God himself looks at as pleasing is taking care of hurting orphans and widows and the vulnerable when they are in trouble, showing radical sacrificial mercy to those who need it most.”
This is a big thing to say, isn’t it? I mean step back. This is God speaking on religion.
This is God the Father, the one we come to worship, and He is giving a test, a way to evaluate the reality of our religion, and He looks at the way we respond to the hurting around us!
And it got me searching around in my Bible, to figure out why James put so much weight on this. Why James can say it like this. Why does James put so much weight on the way we reach out to widows, to orphans, and other vulnerable people in our world? Why does he put such an emphasis on mercy? Why is this a test of the reality of our religion?
What I want to do is give you a number of reasons, James’ definition, of pure and undefiled religion begins with the way we relate to orphans and widows and the needy.
This is not the only test in James, but I want you to think about why it’s an important test because we tend to minimize it. I want to help you think about the Biblical evidence that this is a serious issue to God. Mercy is a serious issue, mercy to the vulnerable. I want you to go away examining your life as to whether or not you truly are a person whose life is characterized by mercy to the hurting, because of what the Bible says.
I’ll start with the simple and obvious, why this is such an important test of the reality of our religious activity. The first reason has to do with the character of God. The first reason we know this is a good test, we find in James, and an important one of the reality of our religion. It’s because of what we know to be true about God. That’s where we start.
If we’re religious, we’re saying that we are concerned about God. That we’re concerned about what He’s concerned about. When we look to the Scripture, we see that we serve a God who is concerned about mercy, and specifically about orphans and widows, you know this. In Psalm 10:14, God actually describes himself as a helper of the orphan.
This is one of the titles He gives to himself. In Psalm 68:5, He describes himself as a father to the fatherless. Again in Psalm 146:9, he says, “The Lord watches over the refugee. He upholds the widow and the fatherless.” In Isaiah 25:4 Isaiah says, “You have been a refuge for the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress.”
I begin with the character of God, stressing that the reason this is important has to do with the character of God because I’ve found as we talk about these kinds of things, sometimes people think of care for orphans, and then more broadly compassion, as just like a personality trait. You’re just, like, into this. Some people are, some people aren’t. While it’s true that someone may be more gifted, obviously, when it comes to showing mercy, and personality may affect that we show mercy, this is not so much about personality.
Please hear that. It is about having a God‑centered way of looking at the world. We need to be interested in what God is interested in. God is definitely interested in mercy. When I look to the scriptures I find that God is very interested in the good of orphans, the good of widows, the good of vulnerable people.
Whether or not I’m interested in it, that’s not the end of the story, is it? What matters to me is that at the end of my life, I’m interested in what God is interested in. If I’m not interested in what God’s interested in, the problem’s not with God, the problem’s with me, and I need to repent.
This is a good test of the reality of our religion because those of us who say that God is the center of our world need to prove that to be true, not just with words but by actually caring about what God cares about and one of the things the Scripture’s clear about is that God cares about orphans, widows, and the vulnerable.