I’ve always liked the New Testament book of James. Yes, James is my first name, so that’s a point in his favor, but it’s more than that. James knows how to marry compassion and purity. Take for instance James 1:27 (NIV):
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: To look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Some emphasize purity, contained in the last phrase of the verse, “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This is an essential part of the Christian ethic and is as old as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Commandments 6-10 are all phrased negatively:
6) “You shall not murder.”
7) “You shall not commit adultery.”
8) “You shall not steal.”
9) “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”
10) “You shall not covet…”
Jesus himself ratified the Ten Commandments as still in effect (Matthew 19:16-22). How many of the cases that clog our court system can be traced back to a non-respect of these basic principles of conduct? Eighty percent of divorce lawyers would be out of business if the seventh commandment was obeyed. Likewise, the corruption so rampant in many countries reflects a fundamental disregard of the tenth commandment, where the “little guy” is the victim of extortion, the prey of government bureaucrats determined to fleece the public. As for the sixth commandment, if followed by all, debate over the death penalty would be unnecessary since murders would be no more.
I am part of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. We have been quite comfortable with the Ten Commandments and other Scriptures that apply to personal morality. As for preaching, the importance of being “saved” and “sanctified” is our stock-in-trade. While this has sometimes morphed into legalism – a piling up of rules not clearly taught in Scripture – more often there has been a positive note of the transformation God the Holy Spirit makes in our lives. That’s an outcome we can celebrate!
Where we have done less well is applying the earlier part of James 1:27, i.e. the looking after orphans and widows in their distress. This phrase symbolizes the positive aspect of holiness, that righteousness is more than what we don’t do; it is what we do. The order of the phrases is important. James calls us to positive action before he calls us to purity. The proverb affirms: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” It’s not enough to outline the things from which the believer should abstain. Rather, when we pour our lives compassionately into others, we may very well be too busy to be distracted by the “sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1a, NIV).
The old debate over whether we should emphasize compassion or purity is a false one. James 1:27 shows that the two go hand-in-glove. May the Lord show us opportunities to put our faith into loving action!
Photo credit: Truth Endures