Do you consider yourself to be a religious person?
Here’s a quick test to find out: Do you engage in the following activities on a regular basis: prayer; Bible reading; church services in which you sing hymns, contribute financially, and take communion. If so, you are what the Bible calls “religious.”
Perhaps you object to that label. “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship”, you say. And certainly Christianity is more than the external observance of certain rituals and ceremonies — much more. But it does include these activities, which should be the outward manifestation of sincere, heartfelt devotion to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Without the right motive of the glory of God, prayer and Bible study and singing and communion can become lifeless and meaningless. And may God keep us from wandering down the path of hypocrisy.
James, the half-brother of Jesus, addresses the issue of fake religion vs. real religion in his letter:
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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.”
Note the distinction between two types of religion: pure (v.27) vs. worthless (v. 26). So one’s religion can be good or bad, genuine or hypocritical, meaningless before God or acceptable to God.
Which kind of religion do you have?
And how do we know whether we have the real thing? James tells us, in no uncertain terms, how to evaluate your religion. He gives us three tests of true Christianity: 1) control of the tongue; 2) meeting the needs of the needy; and 3) moral purity.
Of course, the Bible is full of such tests. This is one of the main themes of Scripture: how to know if you are a true believer. Paul cuts right to the chase in 2 Corinthians 13:5 – “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you-unless, of course, you fail the test?”
We are commanded here to examine ourselves and to test ourselves to determine whether we are in the faith. Have you done that lately? Have you ever done that?
And if you want to “take the test”, how do you go about doing that?
Let’s go back to James 1:26-27 and look at this passage in the light of 2 Corinthians 13:5. We should regularly take a spiritual inventory, asking ourselves questions like “How did I talk to people today? Did I make encouraging, uplifting comments, or was I mostly negative and critical? And how is my thought life? Did I have a day of lustful, greedy, prideful thinking, or was my mind focused on God’s Word throughout the day?
And how are you doing when it comes to meeting the needs of the needy? Are you personally involved in the lives of those less fortunate than yourself? Or have you created a lifestyle of comfort and ease that maintains a safe distance from people who have little if any hope to experience the kind of physical security you may take for granted?
James mentions two particular types of needy people: orphans and widows. For the rest of this article, let’s focus our attention on the orphans.
Here are some statistics to help you understand just how many children need a family in the United States. According to a recent report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are 400,540 children living without a permanent family in the foster care system. “115,000 of these children are eligible for adoption, but nearly 40% of these children will wait over three years in foster care before being adopted.”
Obviously, in the U.S., the need is great. In other countries, the need is even greater. According to one report: “Around the world, there are an estimated 153 million orphans who have lost one parent. There are 17,800,000 million orphans who have lost both parents and are living in orphanages or on the streets.”
These numbers are staggering, aren’t they?
And many Christians have the financial resources to help alleviate the physical and spiritual suffering of these children. Isn’t this the point of James 1:27 – Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.”
James says we are to “visit orphans… in their affliction”. What does that mean? The word “visit” can mean to simply spend a short period of time with another person. But it can also mean much more than that.
For example, Jesus used the word “visit” three times in Matthew 25:31-46, His well-known yet terrifying description of Judgment Day. All people will be separated into two groups (the sheep and the goats). The sheep receive eternal life – “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v.34). And the goats receive eternal punishment – “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v.41).
These two groups are characterized by certain behaviors. The sheep exhibited compassion on the hungry (by feeding them), the thirsty (by giving them a drink), the stranger (by welcoming them), the naked (by clothing them), the prisoners (by coming to see them), and the sick (by visiting them).
In contrast, the goats did not do any of these acts of kindness, which Jesus summarizes with the word “minister“, which can also be translated as “take care of” or “serve”.
Jesus is saying that true believers meet the physical needs of the needy. We reach out to them and provide food, drink, clothing and a place to live. This, then, is the meaning of the word “visit” in James 1:27, which the New International Version translates as “to look after” and the New Revised Standard Version as “to care for.”
As you examine your own life, please consider how God wants you to “visit” orphans in their distress. If you were raised by loving parents, try to imagine what your life would have been like without them.
Opportunities abound today for Christians to minister to the fatherless. Organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters are always in need of volunteers to spend quality time with children in need of adult mentoring.
And should God be calling you to welcome the fatherless into your home, the need for both foster parents and adoptive parents has never been greater. Please allow God to speak to your heart through these shocking statistics and the compelling words of Scripture.