These are my notes from a sermon series. It has not been proofed for spelling or grammatical errors. I present it to you as-is.
If you have a Bible, turn to James 1. We are in a series of lessons that is helping us to understand what genuine faith in God looks like. Here is what we have learned so far…
- In James 1:19-21 we learned that genuine faith feels the pain and suffering that life can cause while trusting God’s Word and letting God’s truth guide our emotions and actions.
- In James 1:22-25 we learned that genuine faith does what God’s Word says and experiences the blessings from it.
- In James 1:26 we learned that genuine faith speaks in such a way that it demonstrates a trust in God, a love for God, and a respect for people.
James is trying to help us understand what genuine faith looks like in our life. He tells us that if you have real faith you should begin to see some changes in your life over time.
- You will begin to see a change in how you respond to your personal pain and suffering.
- You will begin to see how your obedience to God produces blessings for you and those in your life.
- You will begin to see a change in what you say and how you say it.
Today, God’s Word is going to show you how our relationship with God should produce more compassion and concern for others in our lives. So let’s take a look at James 1 beginning at verse 19, “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. 20 Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. 21 So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. 22 But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. 23 For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. 24 You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. 25 But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. 26 If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. 27 Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (NLT). Whatever this “pure and genuine religion in the sight of God” is, that’s what we want. That’s where the blessings of God are and that’s where the power of godly influence is. Let’s unpack this thing one phrase at a time.
“Pure and genuine religion”
James begins by saying, “Pure and genuine religion.” Here James is talking about a “religion” that is good, the kind that God likes. He is referring to a relationship with God that is based on forgiveness, love, and spiritual intimacy. He is also making a contrast between the “religion that is worthless” in verse 26 and the “pure and genuine religion” in verse 27. So, what is this “pure and genuine religion”?
- “Pure and genuine religion” is loving God and others with right motives. Specifically, it is loving God and others without guilt. This is NOT worshiping God because you feel guilty for how you lived. This is NOT serving others because you feel guilty for how you treated them. Pure and genuine religion is worshipping God and serving others because you love them. You are motivated and inspired to honor God and others because you love them, you care for them, and you want to be a blessing to them because you are committed to them. You are loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul and you are loving your neighbor as yourself. This is pure and genuine religion. It’s having a relationship with God and others that is guilt free based on God’s forgiveness.
- “Pure and genuine religion” is also a process. It’s difficult to get there overnight. The word “pure” (katharos) is used to describe a cleansing process. For example, it was used to describe the cleaning of a wound in order to get rid of any dirt and thereby making pure so it can heal. It’s also used to today in psychology to describe the cleansing of the mind or emotions. Getting rid of any harmful thoughts or emotions that are hindering the person’s wellbeing. So when we are talking about a pure religion we are cleaning it by removing impure motives and wrong thoughts about our relationship with God and with others.
“in the sight of God the Father”
James goes on to say, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father….” Let’s stop right there. The only opinion that matters when it comes to what “pure and genuine religion” really is, is God. What does God say is “pure and genuine religion”? What does He say is true religion that is not dominated by selfishness or motived by guilt or consumed with religious legalism and self-righteousness? To understand how God sees pure and genuine religion we need to get into His Word. In order to see it the way God sees it we need to know what He says.
When James uses this phrase “in the sight of God the Father” James is not talking about what may seem best to us, best to the world, or even best to fellow believers, but what is best “in the sight of God the Father.” What is God’s opinion about this? What does He say? That takes us to the next part of this verse.
James goes on to say, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring….” Let’s stop one more time. If your “religion” – your relationship with God – is not producing concern, compassion, sensitivity and thoughtfulness toward others then your religion is empty and worthless. On the other hand, if your “religion” – your relationship with God – is producing kindness, forgiveness, concern, compassion, and acts of generosity toward others then it is pleasing in the sight of God. Pure and genuine religion not only changes your perspective about God, but it also changes your perspective about others. You care more, you love more, and you want to help more.
The word “caring” is a fascinating word. It literally means “to look after someone” with the idea of seeking them out to bless them and help them. “Caring” is not waiting for an opportunity to come along to bless someone, but to search out opportunities to bless someone. Caring is both reactive compassion and proactive compassion.
Jesus told a parable to help us understand what the kingdom of heaven is like and within that parable Jesus said, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ 37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing?39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” (Matthew 25:34-40, NLT). James is telling us the same thing Jesus said here. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring…. Caring about others that the world normally doesn’t care about.
At this point, James gets very specific in who he has in mind about who we care for and have compassion for.
“for orphans and widows in their distress”
Take a look at James 1:27 again, which says, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress” (NLT). James does not mean only orphans and widows. These two groups are representative in nature. During the time James wrote this “orphans and widows” were some of the neediest people in town. There was no life insurance for the widow to claim when her husband died, there was no welfare programs to support either one of them, and for widows it would be very difficult to find a job since most of the jobs were taken by men. If they had no close family or someone to help them they both would be in real trouble.
James uses them as representative of all who are in need. Religious observances, no matter how perfectly observed and appropriately reverent, are empty if there is no concern for the needy… but if we ignore the needy our worship is ashes on the altar!
The emphasis here relies heavily on the phrase “in their distress.” The word “distress” (thlipsis) has its primary meaning from the idea of suffering brought about by the pressure of circumstances. To be distressed is to be crushed, press together, compressed, or squeezed. This is not referring to minor inconveniences, but to real hardships. This word was used to describe the pressing of grapes to get the juice out.
There are people in your life who are at this very moment under severe pressure of one kind or another. Perhaps it is the pressures that come from a divorce, being a single parent with low income, the pressure of chronic illness or sudden death, the pressure of unkind discrimination or a fractured relationship, the pressure of mental illness or unemployment.
The bottom line, James is telling us that a genuine relationship with God produces a desire to help others “in their distress.” One of the signs of being a genuine follower of Jesus is that your compassion for others is growing and you are wanting to honor God in how you love people.
Look at Isaiah 1:11-17 and listen carefully to what God says about worthless religion and genuine religion, “What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?” says the Lord. “I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? 13 Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me! As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath and your special days for fasting— they are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings. 14 I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! 15 When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims. 16 Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. 17 Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows” (NLT). Pure and genuine religion – genuine faith – means caring. Followers of Jesus will demonstrate compassion for others.
Later in 1 John 3:16-20 we hear something very similar again, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? 18 Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. 19 Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. 20 Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything” (NLT). Pure and genuine religion – genuine faith – means caring. Followers of Jesus will demonstrate compassion for others.
Genuine faith cares for others experiencing hardships. Martin Luther once said, “Religion: the word does not need a definition, but a demonstration.”