true religion

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
The word “religion” appears only a handful of times in the New Testament, almost always in reference to Judaism, and often with the negative connotation of being composed of merely man-made rules (e.g. Colossians 2:23, Acts 26:5). In no other verse besides this one from James is the word used to describe the Christian faith.
James 1:27, in a unique way, asks and answers the question: what is true religion? James answers this question as every biblical author answers it, though in every other case without the actual word “religion”: true religion is attending to the afflicted, helping the helpless, defending the weak.

Because the heart of Christian belief is the person and work of Jesus Christ – who he is and what he has done – the heart of Christian practice is the imitation of Jesus and the living out of the Bible’s teachings. Therefore, any person convinced of the power and grace of Jesus is compelled to ask: how did Jesus live and what did he value? How does the Bible depict love for him in action? What is true religion for a follower of Jesus?

The Bible’s resounding answer from start to finish is summed up in something Jesus said when he quoted the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6). “Sacrifice” here refers to the ritual slaughter of animals at the Jerusalem temple for the atonement of sin and thanksgiving to God, a practice constantly being perverted by legalistic Jews who tried to use it to earn God’s grace (which is a contradiction in terms) and to impress fellow religious people, all at the cost of the kind of “sacrifice” God wanted most from his people: mercy to the needy.

Perhaps Jesus had Isaiah chapter 58 in the back of his mind when he quoted this verse from Hosea. Isaiah 58 is another passage of the Bible which highlights the difference between showy religion and true service to God. It is a lyrical and powerful chapter, and I encourage you to read the entire thing.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Isaiah 58:6-7
What good is fasting if it just a day for “a man to bow his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him” (Isaiah 58:5) – and nothing else?
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. 58:3-4
Impure, defiled religion fasts occasionally, says “why don’t you notice everything I do for you, God?” (58:3), then goes on to do what it wants and maintain the status quo. Perverted religion obsesses itself with religion’s trappings and never asks, “Is this what you really want from me, God?”
Pure, beautiful, Christ-like “religion” overflows with compassion. It cares less and less about its own possessions and rights, and more and more about easing the suffering of others. Pure religion values mercy above “sacrifice,” serving God above “looking Christian,” helping others above satisfying its own desires.
You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24
We ought to consider our lives, and our churches, soberly. Are our lives typical, affluent, American lives and our churches typical, affluent, American churches? In our churches’ budgets, what gets more attention: the air conditioning and pastors’ salaries, or the addicts, victims, and homeless of the community? What do our own budgets show about our hearts? Where is our true treasure (Matthew 6:21)?
True religion means not only giving money, but giving time, and entering the dark corners of our world, and the dark corners of people’s lives, with hands-on love. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.
Jesus said that whatever is done for suffering people in his name is done for him. This was his mission statement:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2

it’s a relationship

Yes. I first saw the slogan “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” on a bumper sticker…

To realize the dramatic difference between God as an idea, or an ideal, and God as a Person, however, is life-changing. To discover Christianity as, above all, a relationship with this God, the living God, and not as a system – of morality or even belief – is staggering. It’s like the difference of knowing things about someone and knowing the person intimately, personally. The kingdom of heaven really is like finding a treasure in a field.

And, as in the parable, once you discover the treasure, it becomes worth it to give up all you have to make the treasure your own.

Everything Christians do is, in the end, a quest for deeper intimacy with this God. Scripture teaches us of his character, of what matters to him, of how to think of him and approach him. Prayer is the means by which we speak to and entreat him. Communion is just that: communion – intimate, spiritual communication – with God by participating in the Son’s death through the physical presentations of his blood and body, the wine and bread. Joining a local church means joining up with other people on the same quest for the purpose of helping each other “press on to know the Lord.”

Other things Christians do as they progress in their understanding of the faith, such as: researching, sorting out, and taking sides on thorny doctrinal issues; cultivating habits of personal holiness, discipline, and devotion, such as fasting and memorizing scripture; serving and exhorting other people with greater self-abandonment; teaching, leading, and counseling; recognizing and confessing sin more specifically and more often; all these things and many others ultimately serve to advance the one underlying purpose of the Christian life: to deepen and more fully express the relationship between human and Creator, child and Father, sheep and Shepherd, subject and Author of salvation.

Lose sight of the end, and the means become empty. Worse, they become idolatrous, replacing the living God with ritualized observances, meaningless exercises, and mere habits of lifestyle. “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”

Christians treasure the Bible’s teaching that Jesus Christ, the Man who is God, is the clearest revelation of who God is. He is the “exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3). In him, we see God manifested and played out in our grimy, physical, human world.

19th century preacher C. H. Spurgeon said this:

Our faith is a person; the gospel that we have to preach is a person; and go wherever we may, we have something solid and tangible to preach, for our gospel is a person. If you had asked the twelve Apostles in their day, ‘What do you believe in?’ they would not have stopped to go round about with a long sermon, but they would have pointed to their Master and they would have said, ‘We believe him.’ ‘But what are your doctrines?’ ‘There they stand incarnate.’ ‘But what is your practice?’ ‘There stands our practice. He is our example.’ ‘What then do you believe?’ Hear the glorious answer of the Apostle Paul, ‘We preach Christ crucified.’ Our creed, our body of divinity, our whole theology is summed up in the person of Christ Jesus.

-C. H. Spurgeon, in Lectures Delivered before the Young Men’s Christian Association in Exeter Hall 1858-1859 

John said this:

Indeed, our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:3

Paul said this:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Philippians 3:8

The Lord Jesus himself prayed this:

This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3

Many writers and thinkers have long pointed out that the most effective people on earth – horizontally – are those most caught up with heaven – vertically. There is absolutely nothing like encountering a person whose relationship with God is so profound and extensive that every thing they do and say smells of him. I remember a handful of momentary introductions with people like that, which, years later, I still think about and long to imitate. “God, help me to begin to begin.” Abandonment to God is the single most crucial element of any person’s spiritual growth, any ministry, any church’s effectiveness within its community.

Why? Because our faith is a Person. Therefore, our life is a relationship.

“the beginning of wisdom is: get wisdom”

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Proverbs 4:7
Wisdom is something everyone wants, at some level; to understand oneself, to give something to the world, to live life well, to come to end of it satisfied. Too often we pervert the meaning of wisdom by making it all about our own distorted visions of happiness, at others’ expense and at the expense of our own real happiness. But even people stuck in obviously self-destructive ruts are, in a twisted way, pursuing “wisdom” in perhaps the only way they know how: to make the hurt go away, to prove they are their own person, whatever.
The Bible paints a picture of real wisdom. In his epistle James describes it like this:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18 (ESV)
Other translations make different choices for some of the adjectives in verse 17, such as “submissive” (NIV), “easy to be entreated” (KJV), and “willing to yield to others” (NLT) for “open to reason.” That quality of wisdom – the willingness to hear what others have to say, and not only hear, but eagerly submit when others are closer to the truth than oneself – is one of the defining qualities of wisdom, and the book of Proverbs speaks of it repeatedly. For example:
  • Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you. 9:8
  • The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. 12:15
  • A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. 13:1
  • The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. 15:31
  • Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. 15:32
  • Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. 18:1
  • A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his own opinion. 18:2
  • Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. 26:12
  • Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered. 28:26
A wise person is someone who seeks correction and instruction, who wants to learn, to be led and shepherded, who recognizes the limitations of his or her own understanding, who welcomes rebuke and the input of others. As James said, meekness, peace, gentleness, and willingness to submit to the truth, even when it proves you wrong, characterize heavenly wisdom.
Meanwhile, a fool is not an unintelligent, stupid, or ignorant person. In biblical terminology, a fool is someone who refuses to learn, to be corrected by a higher authority. Morally, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, their only authority is their own opinion and their own carnality. Fools are already “wise in their own eyes” and are therefore dismissive of wisdom itself, even when it – literally or figuratively – shouts in their face (Proverbs 8:1).

“The beginning of wisdom is: get wisdom.” The beginning is to begin. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). The Bible defines wise people as those who seek wisdom, who endeavour to submit their entire lives to the truth, even if that means reversing their entire paradigm or giving up all they hold dear – not as those who have already attained all the answers.

Wisdom belongs to God, and seeking wisdom ultimately means seeking God himself. “Seek his face” – seek him, personally, and he will not hide from you, nor will he withhold wisdom from you, if you will simply ask.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. James 1:5
For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. Proverbs 2:6

prayers for the pilgrimage

Christians have long thought of the life of faith as a journey, a pilgrimage. “Walking with God” is one of the Bible’s most frequent metaphors for living in a relationship with him. This walk, the “ancient path” (Jeremiah 6:16), is difficult (Matthew 7:14) but blessed (Psalm 119:1). It is a walk in “newness of life,” opened to us by the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4).

This journey, like any other, includes a lot of ups and downs. At some of its stages, even putting one foot in front of the other (metaphorically speaking) feels like too much. Sometimes, the detours and byways look so tantalizingly easy and pleasant, and the road of carrying crosses (Luke 9:23) so steep and dark, that to make it through even one day without straying is a battle. Some days it takes everything we’ve got not to give up and turn back.

On those days, or during those seasons, the Word of God truly is the “lamp for our feet,” “the light for our path” that we so desperately need (Psalm 119:105). Seasoned travelers often know the scriptures that have brought them through life’s highs and lows in the past, the ones to which they have returned again and again for reassurance and guidance. These are the scriptures they have prayed so often that the phrases now spring up naturally in their prayers.

I’m at the beginning of my journey, but I know of a few prayers from the “guidebook” to which I repeatedly turn on those days when temptation, trouble, and doubt threaten so fiercely. Perhaps they can help you too.

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24

In this story from Mark’s Gospel, a father of a mute, convulsive, demon-possessed boy brings his son to Jesus seeking healing, saying, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus replies by saying, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes,” to which the father gives the memorable answer above. The footnote in my Bible says that some manuscripts add that he cried out “with tears,” in his desperation. Jesus responds by healing the man’s son in front a large crowd, making the point of his power in spite of weak faith exceedingly clear.

“I believe, help my unbelief” is my prayer too. Jesus’ promise about faith the size of a mustard seed is a promise I must claim (Luke 13:18-19, Luke 17:5-6). I am like this father, desperate, hard pressed for faith but turning to Jesus because I know no one and nothing can help me like he can.

[A Canaanite woman] came and knelt before [Jesus], saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15:25-27

In this story, a Canaanite woman pushes through the cultural barriers of race and sex, ignores the ignorance of Jesus’ disciples, and challenges even the apparent reluctance of Jesus himself in her insistence that Jesus heal her daughter. She does not entitle herself to Jesus’ mercy, accepting her status as really being like that of a dog begging for scraps. Instead, she bravely, relentlessly asserts that Jesus’ grace is wide enough even for her. Jesus labels her assertion “great faith.”

When my sin or circumstances make my life look like that of a dog looking for scraps, “Lord, even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” is my prayer. I will not give up on the grace that has not given up on me. Like this woman, crying out after Jesus, and like Jacob, “wrestling with God,” even when God wounds me, I must simply cling to him and claim the promise of his blessing, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:25-28).

And [Jesus] said to them, “When you pray, say… ‘Give us each day our daily bread…’” Luke 11:2-3

“Give us each day our daily bread” is the line at the center of the Lord’s Prayer. It is not a prayer for a lifetime of bread, or even for tomorrow’s bread, but simply for the bread needed today. It is a prayer for grace one day at a time. “Father, give me today’s grace” is my prayer each morning, and I mean it the most when I know what kind of difficulty to expect from the day.

These prayers from the Bible, along with being expressions of what we need, are promises to us from God.

  • “I believe, help my unbelief” is a promise that his power is greater than our doubt.
  • “Even the dogs eat the scraps from your table” is a promise that his mercy is bigger than our mess.
  • “Give us each day our daily bread” is a promise that his grace is enough to get us through each day, one day at a time.

Praying these prayers simply means claiming his promises as our own.

Jesus goes before us on this pilgrimage. He opened the gate, he paved the way, he carried the cross. He will bring us to the finish.

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:24

love is:

  • the reason Jesus came into the world
[Jesus said,] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
  • the reason for salvation
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:4-7
  • the great commandment
And one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40
  • the fulfillment of the law
Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13:8-10

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14

  • a new commandment
[Jesus said,] “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 1 John 2:7-10

  • the character of God
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:7-10
  • the greatest of these
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13