Unstained

We live in the world, and it’s hard to keep it from rubbing off on us.

Sometimes it’s tempting just to escape it, isn’t it? Moving to the proverbial deserted island or to a rural mountain in Tibet doesn’t sound bad at all.

Some believers in church history tried that route, retreating to caves, deserts, or monasteries, but it rarely worked well.

But tempting as it might be sometimes, God never called us to retreat from the world.

So here we are. We live and work and play in it, all the while seeing daily reminders that it’s a pretty messed-up place.

Immorality, violence, deceit, corruption . . . it’s everywhere.

And in the middle of all that we hear commands like this one from James:

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).

Keep yourself unstained from the world, he says.

In the world, but not of the world, as it’s sometimes put (cf. John 15:19).

That’s fairly easy to say, but not so easy to practice.

What do we do?

Part of the answer is we’ve got to recognize what’s going on. We’ve got to see the world for what it is.

We need to ask ourselves daily:

  • Are there any significant differences between me and my non-Christian friends?
  • How are my values different from the world’s?
  • Am I becoming more like Jesus or more like the world?
The thing that makes it so tough is that the world stains us slowly, gradually, subtly.

Perhaps you’ve heard the anecdote about boiling a frog. Put it in boiling water, and it’ll jump out. Put it in cold water and gradually heat it up, and it’ll be cooked to death.

I’m not sure if that’s true of frogs, but I’m pretty sure it’s true of us.

The world is all around us, and it affects us without our knowledge. We make small compromises, then at some point we’ve changed without even really knowing.

Let’s pray about this today.

Ask the Lord to make you vigilant. Ask him to help you see the small changes the world is trying to make in your life.

Ask him to work in you through his Spirit to transform you into what he wants you to be, instead of allowing the world to conform you to its image.

Let the Spirit have his way with you.

Religion that’s uncomfortable

Taking the Bible seriously will make you ridiculously uncomfortable.

Not all of it, of course. The parts about love and happiness and heaven are fun to think about.

I don’t even mind the parts about being a good person, because being reasonably good isn’t that hard most of the time.

But you don’t have to look far to see something considerably more difficult than that.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right when he said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” [In Bonhoeffer’s case, his statement was prophetic—he was martyred just before World War II ended.]

Most of us won’t be killed for our faith, but Jesus still calls us to die.

He calls us to die to the easy path, the comfortable life, what he calls the “old self.”

In some ways, our religion can keep us from truly obeying Christ, because it offers us ways to practice faith without really taking it seriously. We all know it’s possible for our relationship to God to consist of not much more than filling a church pew a time or two a week.

And because it’s “religious,” it gives people a false sense of security. “Of course I’m religious,” they say. “I’m a church member, and I go to church all the time.”

But that’s a far cry from discipleship.

As he so often does, James gets our attention by bluntly telling us that pure religion involves something more substantial than the easy path.

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).

My sinful impulse encourages me to fall back on this line (maybe you’ve used this before as well): Well, I give money to the church, and the church sends money to two different children’s homes.

I’m thankful many churches do that, but I’m skeptical of my attempts to care for the needy merely by writing a check.

Truth is, James is talking about orphans and widows, but not merely orphans and widows.

He’s saying that pure religion causes us to look around us and find people who need something, and help them.

It might be an orphan or widow, and God might be calling us to foster or adopt a child, or reach out to a widow who’s struggling.

It might be someone who just divorced, a family whose child has cancer, a homeless man on the corner, or a single mom who’s unemployed.

It’ll probably include doing something inconvenient, something sacrificial, something that hurts.

But when Jesus calls someone, he bids us come and die.

Pure religion isn’t comfortable.

Worthless religion

One of the scariest things about faith for me is the incredible ability most of us have to deceive ourselves.

Occasionally I’ve been appalled at the behavior of someone who called himself a Christian and wondered how he could ever reconcile his behavior with his claim to follow Jesus. What a hypocrite!, I’ve mumbled.

Then it hits me: Where are my blind spots? What sins am I committing but ignoring, or perhaps justifying? Maybe I don’t do what he did, but am I any less guilty?

James helps by pointing out one very real possibility.

Before we read it, answer a quick question: What’s the first thing you think about if you hear someone is religious?

For many of us it’s church attendance.

“Is he religious?” “Absolutely—he goes to church all the time.”

Or maybe it’s avoiding a certain sin.

“Is she religious?” “Yep—she never drinks a drop [or she’s saving herself for marriage or . . .].”

It’s interesting the one James picked (and didn’t pick).

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless (James 1:26).

Never one to mince words, James comes right out and says it: If your religion hasn’t changed the way you talk, you’re a liar whose faith is useless.

Ouch.

But Lord, I’m at church every time they open the doors.

But God, I’ve never committed _____ (put one of those “bad” sins in the blank).

But Father, I’m a daily Bible reader.

I wonder if God might come back with something like this:

But have you been huddling up with other church folks and spreading gossip?

Have you been hypercritical of your spouse or kids or boss or fellow church members?

Have you been using your speech to discourage the people in your life?

This one hits me right in the gut . . . I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at justifying most seemingly harmless sins of speech.

As long as I’m coming to church and avoiding the big bad sins, I feel like my religion is on good ground.

Do James’ words convict you as well?

God deserves better

There’s stuff to joke about, things to be flippant and casual about, to laugh at.

God is not one of those things.

I cringe when I hear someone refer to God as “the Man upstairs.”

I’m sure most of them don’t mean anything disrespectful, but I think they’re missing something important about God.

Several times in the Bible people came into God’s presence in a special, miraculous way. It scared them to death.

Here’s one of those times:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Isaiah found himself completely unprepared for what he saw.

He saw the seraphim, angelic creatures who were themselves overwhelmed with God’s holiness.

He felt the foundations shaking, and he saw the smoke—an indicator of divine presence (and judgment) throughout Scripture.

He got an unsettling glimpse of God, and he was completely awed.

I think A.W. Tozer was right when he wrote about Isaiah 6: “A person who has sensed what Isaiah sensed will never be able to joke about ‘the Man upstairs’ or the ‘Someone up there who likes me’” (Whatever Happened to Worship?, p. 74).

Sometimes I fear that we’re too casual with God.

At the church building we’ll talk politics, clothes, weather, and who’s gonna win the Super Bowl, then we’ll sit down and sing our songs, pray our prayers, and do our worship.

We can do it out of rote habit, with no feeling or emotion or zeal.

It’s been a while since I’ve been overwhelmed by God . . . you?

Perhaps our worship needs to be more God-focused and less me-centered. Maybe we ought to think more about how incredible and holy and righteous and powerful God is, and less about how that song was pitched a little too high or that sermon lasted a little too long or that baby cried a little too loudly.

God is awesome, not in the trivial way that word is used now, but in the sense that he should inspire awe and fear and reverence in us when we come into his presence.

He is holy, holy, holy.

And when we get that—really get that—we’ll cry out “Woe is me” as we recognize our unworthiness to worship him. We’ll fall down and praise him for accepting us through his Son’s blood.

This Sunday we’ll go to church again, maybe for the thousandth time, or more.

But let’s not just go to church.

Let’s worship.

We serve a holy and transcendent God, and he deserves more than our presence in a familiar pew.

He deserves to be worshiped.