James 1:26-27

January 23, 2011 | Brian Bill

Since there was no school on Monday and Mondays are my day off, our family went ice skating in Bloomington.  I’m still sore almost one week later.  When we arrived we quickly realized that hundreds of others had the same idea as the place was packed.  Have you ever noticed that ice is slippery?  Thankfully I didn’t fall but had some close calls.

After going around for a couple times I got off the ice and looked for a place to recuperate.  I figured it was best to sit down before I fell down.  It was then that I noticed two big posters of Martin Luther King, Jr. that were attached to the cash registers.  It then hit me that Monday was not just a break from school or a day for family fun, it was a day set aside to remember and reflect upon the work and words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is a special day for two reasons.  First, it’s a day that we set aside to worship our Creator God as we remember His works and respond to His Words.  And second, it’s a day that we recognize that as the Creator, God has declared that all of life, from the preborn to the elderly is of great value and worthy of protection.

On this Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, we affirm, along with thousands of other churches, that every human being, from conception on, is an image bearer of God, stamped with divine dignity. Our nation recognizes the incredible impact that Martin Luther King, Jr. had in establishing the dignity of every person, regardless of skin color. Someday I hope that our country will gain the conviction to stand up on behalf of the preborn.  Proverbs 31:8-9 challenges us to advocate for those who have no voice: “Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” 

Before I go much further, I recognize that some of you are struggling with the after-effects of abortion.  I hurt with you and want you to know that no one is cut off from the cleansing power of the Cross.  No sin is too big to be forgiven by the grace of God.  We can put you in touch with others who have had abortions and they can help you find healing. I also want to recognize that while the focus is often on females, and rightly so, there are some men here today who either feel guilty for their part in terminating a pregnancy or they feel a sadness that won’t go away because their child was aborted against their will.

I don’t know if you saw the story this past November about a couple from Minnesota who touched off a frenzy on the Internet with their “birth or not” website.  The wife was 17 weeks pregnant at the time and they decided to conduct an online poll to give people a chance to vote on whether or not they should have an abortion.  When I first came across this I printed out the comments and put it in a folder.  I was curious about what their decision finally was but didn’t check back until this week.  Thankfully, they decided to keep their baby!  In one of their posts, they referred to her as “Baby Wiggles,” because of the ultrasound images that they saw.

Let me just make some quick comments.  First, when the poll opened, the votes were overwhelmingly in favor of birth but then it swung way to the other side.  It shows that people in our country are all over the map on this.  Second, this shouldn’t be a matter of polling because God has declared all life sacred and worthy of protection.  Third, when the poll started favoring abortion, a number of concerned citizens sent emails offering to adopt the baby.  Fourth, and most powerfully, when the couple started posting pictures of “Baby Wiggles” in the womb, the vitriolic comments slowed way down because people have a hard time arguing for abortion when they see images of life inside the womb.

Since Jesus values the most vulnerable, I must value the most vulnerable

It’s common to think we’re doing OK religiously when we’re really not.  James is saying that if we’re not “doers,” then we can end up deceiving ourselves.  This passage reminds me that if I say I value Christ, than I must value what He values.  To say it another way: Since Jesus values the most vulnerable, I must value the most vulnerable.  And that would include the preborn, orphans and widows.

Have you noticed that biblical values are under attack in our culture today?  That begs the question.  How do we respond to this?  Do we counter attack?  Do we protest at funerals?  Do we lash out at those who think differently?  This passage from James gives a jarring answer.  The word “religious” here does not refer to what gets us into heaven but rather the external outworking of our faith.  The word is often associated with a religious service.

I like how Martin Luther put it: “The world does not need a definition of religion but a demonstration of religion.”  Religion is often associated with rituals but God reframes this so that we think in terms of the requirements of religion.  If we claim to be religious, then we better live what we say we believe.  Our beliefs must ultimately affect our behavior.  1 John 3:18: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

Religious Requirements

I spent some time this week contemplating the difference between morals and ethics.  One website says this: “Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied.”  It’s interesting that in this passage, there are two requirements that have to do with my personal morals and sandwiched between is a call to a social ethic.  After we went ice skating we ate at Jimmy Johns, which is one of our favorite places to get a sandwich.  My favorite is a Turkey Tom but we could call James 1:26-27 a spiritual sandwich of sorts – the two pieces of bread are having controlled mouths and clean hearts and all the good stuff in the middle is having compassionate hands. 

1. Controlled mouths. 

A person who spouts off a lot of words is in danger of having a worthless religion. Let’s look more closely at verse 26: “…and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”  There are many references to our speech in the Book of James (James 1:19; 2:12; 3:1-3, 14-18; 4:11-12).

Proverbs 10:19: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”  Some of us could benefit greatly by memorizing Psalm 39:1: “I said, ‘I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth…’”  I like this prayer: “Lord, please keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth.”  It’s always good to take cover when someone says, “I just speak my mind” because it’s usually an excuse to say whatever they think.

It’s so easy to deceive ourselves, isn’t it?  In fact, we can do so by talking incessantly about the evils of abortion and whining about the ways of the world while forgetting that lost people are in need of love and forgiveness.  One of the quickest ways to make our religion worthless is by using way too many words in way too many unhelpful ways.  The word “worthless” also means “profitless, of no purpose.”  If you don’t control your mouth, your religion isn’t worth half a hallelujah.  

2. Compassionate hands. 

True religion puts a muffler on the mouth and it also provides compassionate care as seen in the first part of verse 27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”  The word “accepts” literally means “beside.”  God defines what it is that He comes beside in our ethics – to look after orphans and widows.  The word “pure” is from the root “catharsis” or cleansing.  

The phrase “look after” is also translated as “visit” in some versions.  This is more than just a “meet and greet” kind of deal.  It’s in the present tense, meaning we’re to have “the habit of helping” or “continual and persistent ministry.”  It’s the idea of examining closely and implies concern which leads to contact which leads to caring and is used of how God cares for us.  Here’s how the word is used in some other passages:

  • Matthew 25:36: “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
  • Luke 1:68: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.”

To “look after” means to give, to get close and to give care.  It should cost us something when God uses our hands to show compassion.  We’re to invest our lives in people who can’t reciprocate.  We’re to help the helpless and care for the little and the least.  The word “distress” refers to stress, pressure and affliction.  I haven’t done so well in this whole area but I want to do better.

It’s very interesting that there is no connecting conjunction in the original between “orphans” and “widows.”  This shows that in one sense there is no separation between the two because they are two of the most vulnerable groups of people.  Orphans and widows are often linked together in the Bible.  Here are two:

  • Deuteronomy 22:22-24: “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.  If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.  My anger will be aroused…”  If you want to make the Almighty angry, then oppress or ignore orphans and widows.
  • Psalm 68:5: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” God’s heart is for every widow to have someone to watch over her and every orphan to have a guardian.  

Someone has said it like this: “We are never closer to the heart of God then when we care for orphans and widows.”  Conversely, you can learn a lot about someone by the way they treat children and the elderly.  James is saying you can tell if Jesus is first in someone’s life by whether or not they care for orphans and widows.  If I say I value Christ, than I must value what He values.  And Since Jesus values the most vulnerable, I must value the most vulnerable.  

Before we leave this point, let me remind you of a great theological truth that has tremendous implications and application as it relates to orphan care.  The Bible says that at one point all of us were spiritual orphans.  And then God redeems us and adopts us into His family when we respond and receive the free gift of salvation.  Ephesians 1:5: “In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”

Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”  Once we understand our own adoption as children of God, it will change the way we see orphans today.

This past Monday on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, Robert Bentley, the new governor of Alabama, gave a speech from the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King once preached from.  An evangelical Christian, the governor made a statement that touched off a national firestorm.  It might not make for the best politics but his theology is right on: “So anybody here today who has not accepted Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”  Are you part of God’s family?  Have you allowed Him to adopt you?  If so, you are my brother or sister.

3. Clean hearts. 

It’s not enough to have compassionate hands; we must make sure our hearts stay clean and our mouths are magnifying the Lord.  God wants ethical practice and inward purity: “…and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”  Notice the word “and” which shows us that we’re to care about the most vulnerable around us and the most vulnerable areas within us.  We’re to “keep on keeping ourselves unspotted” which means it’s a continual battle.  Notice that it’s a reflexive pronoun meaning that it’s our individual responsibility to not become polluted by the world.

Charles Spurgeon put it like this: “Charity and purity are the two great garments of Christianity.”  We should strive to live “unspotted and unpolluted” lives.  It’s really tough to not become polluted by the world around us.  When we lived in Mexico City, the air pollution was terrible and it affected us awfully.  We’d get headaches, feel lethargic and at times were told to just stay inside.  The only thing that helped was having air purifiers in our rooms.  We had to work at this though because if we didn’t the bad air would eventually infiltrate our home.  Likewise, we must work at keeping the ways of the world out of our homes.

If I say I value Christ, than I must value what He values.  And Since Jesus values the most vulnerable, I must value the most vulnerable.  In summary, let’s make sure we have…

  • Controlled mouths
  • Compassionate hands
  • Clean hearts

Let’s think about some ways that we can apply this message.

Valuing the Valuable and Vulnerable

  1. Talk less and cultivate your heart more.
  2. Minister to the orphans and widows in your own family.  Do you have any relatives who are in need of some help raising a child?  Are there any widows in your immediate family?  1 Timothy 5:3-4: “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.   But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.”
  3. Visit widows. 
  4. Volunteer at the Caring Pregnancy Center.
  5. Prepare the paperwork to become a foster parent.
  6. Prioritize your schedule to care for orphans and widows.  If you hear of a need and the individual is a widow or has no parent, respond immediately.
  7. Sponsor a child.
  8. Consider adoption.

After skating for awhile, the ice became filled with ruts and divots and dangerous spots where people had fallen.  At a set time, the ice guards blew their whistles and everyone had to go and sit down (I was already doing that).  And then, in what is no doubt one of the best jobs around, a man came out driving the Zamboni.  This machine shaved the ice and laid down some more water in order to get rid of the ruts and crevices and cracks.  When he was all done, the skaters were allowed back on the rink but we all had to go in a different direction.

it’s time for us to get out of our religious ruts and go in a different direction, no matter how slippery our society becomes

Friends, it’s time for us to get out of our religious ruts and go in a different direction, no matter how slippery our society becomes.

In the early church, God’s people became family to those who had no family.  The Romans had a custom that when a baby was born he or she was set at the feet of the father.  If he picked up the child, the baby was legitimized and became part of the family.  Babies that were not picked up were often taken outside the city to designated areas where they would die from exposure or from wild animals.  The Christians reversed this terrible practice by going in a different direction.  They would bring the babies back and adopt them into their own families, which eventually put pressure on the government to outlaw the practice.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?