An Ethic That Epitomizes Love for God and Neighbor

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When James 1:27 was written, James wasn’t resorting to hyperbole for mere effect.  He meant what he said, which is: “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 didn’t choose his example haphazardly and he didn’t make such a strong statement just as a nice sentiment for a Hallmark card.  But what does he mean?

Because Jesus said that to love God and to love your neighbor were the greatest commandments, the highest form of religion, James is probably using “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” as the purest, most undefiled form of love.  In James’ time, these were the people genuinely unloved by the world – the ones who fell through the cracks of society.  Not only were they without a husband or parents, but society was not providing for them either and they were truly abandoned “in their affliction.”  Anyone caring for them would get no credit or recognition for it.  Therefore, the only motive for visiting them is love for them.  Pure love, with no impurity or stain from a desire to get something in return.

James specifically refers to “God the Father,” who has always taken His own, and His peoples, responsibility to widows and orphans seriously.  He wants to take care of them, but Psalm 94:6-7 says about the rulers of the nations, including Israel: “They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless; and they say, ‘The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.’”  They preyed on those nobody cared about, and also boasted that not even God cared.

When any group of people – even[1] one with God’s institutions of His law, temple, priests, prophets, and kings ruling the promised land – neglects the oppressed, their religion is impure and defiled.  All institutions – including ones provided by God – are useless outside of God’s purpose for them.  The temple was a way to approach God by sacrifice, foreshadowing Jesus’ death on the cross, but Judah used it as a way to appease Him so they could do their own thing.  Jeremiah criticized the religious leaders of his day, who thought they were free from judgement because “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD,”[2] treating the temple as more important than God Himself and a reason God would always bless them.  However, God doesn’t want us to follow a checklist of religious observance – He wants us to be His loving family.

Because they replaced love with empty religion, Israel was cast into exile under the Babylonians, and Jeremiah cries in Lamentations 5:3 that “We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows.”  Perhaps God would teach compassion to His people through painful discipline and experience, living like those they ignored.

Unstained
Visiting widows and orphans keeps one unstained from the world when it thinks that it’s ok to leave some behind.  That it’s ok to think we can’t do any better and that God doesn’t see, and that He doesn’t have an answer for it.  That if we follow the letter of the law, or rely on institutions, but not on the spirit of love, God will just look the other way because we tried our best.

Therefore, don’t visit widows and orphans because its popular, because a law tells you to, or for any reason besides Godly love, because when we mix in worldly motives, we risk loving only those who are popular to love or who our government and culture have put in favored positions.  Maybe we even reduce love to a comment about distant people trending on social media at the time, and not those individuals who are actually suffering the most.  These people are often right in front of us.

Heaven is for people who

love when there’s nothing

more at stake than

the person being loved.

It is by ministering to specific widows and orphans in their need that the Christian retains the preservative power of salt and the illuminating power of light to the world.[3]  It’s not the idea, but the actual visiting that is pure and undefiled.  Me writing this and you reading this is only an idea.  But it is a beginning.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Heaven is for people who love when there’s nothing more at stake than the person being loved.  Only Jesus has met this standard, but He has made a Way to Life for those willing to accept His Truth.  Jesus willingly takes our stain on the cross, and gives us His righteousness as a free gift, but only if we actually want His righteousness more than we want our stained world.  In Christ, the Father will change His people into people who care for widows and orphans.  People like that don’t need anything else to make a perfect society.  It’s loving people that make a perfect society, not rules and institutions, and certainly not good intentions that leave people behind.  Paradise will be a society that is pure, undefiled, and unstained, and where the only Institution needed is Jesus, our Prophet, Priest, and King.

No better solution exists than God the Father’s plan to build a family where everyone loves Him and loves their neighbor as themselves, and when we visit widows and orphans, we illustrate the truth that God sees them and cares for them, even when nobody else does.

Visiting widows and orphans is an ethic that epitomizes love for God and neighbor.


Look for more posts based on James 1:27 in the coming Saturdays.  The more I think about the verse, the more implications of it I see.  Next Up: An Ethic That Applies in all Places and Times.  There are always widows and orphans. Also, this series is part of the ongoing Beatitudes series but this one skips to Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.


[1] Perhaps especially.
[2] Jeremiah 7:4
[3] Matthew 5:13-16

Forgiveness and Its Alternatives: A Quint of Quotes #6

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Dear fellow travelers,

Today’s Rewind Wednesday takes a quote I posted last year (do you know which one?), adds four more, and creates another “Quint of Quotes.”  These quints are five quotes somewhat related to each other, but not exactly in agreement.  Hope you find them interesting and thought-provoking.  Enjoy!

“You can have vengeance, or peace, but you can’t have both” – Herbert Hoover, after World War II

“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” -Malachy McCourt, Irish-American actor, writer and politician

“Forgiveness is the greatest miracle that Jesus ever performs. It meets the greatest need; it costs the greatest price; and it brings the greatest blessing and the most lasting results.”  – Warren Wiersbe

“In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.” – Francis Bacon

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” – Jesus, in Luke 6:32-33

See previous Quints and other posts on quotes here.

Don’t Leave Love Letters Unopened

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An old friend used to encourage me to read the Bible every day, and his reasoning was: “The Bible is 66 love letters from God.  If you got a love letter from any other person, would you put off reading it?”  It took many years before I really took this to heart, but I always remembered it. 

Dear fellow travelers,

I pass along that story, but I’ll also add more to it.  The best times are not when we just read these letters.  Devotions aren’t just lessons, memorization exercises, a disciplinary action, or a time to pay your dues so you can get on with your day.  They are time spent with Someone who loves you more than anything, and who wants you to love and trust Him more than anything.  Treat Him as you would treat an honored guest, because He is really there with you.

Think of it this way – How often do you get to spend time with someone who fulfills 1 Cor 13:4-7 perfectly?

Someone who is patient and kind; who does not envy or boast; is not arrogant or rude. Who does not insist on His own way; is not irritable or resentful; does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. [1]

Nobody else we see today will be nearly as good to us.

We all miss days, even weeks or longer, but He is patient and kind.  We can try again tomorrow or later today, and He will be there.


[1] This paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 was suggested in a devotional I read last year: “August 30.” James Montgomery Boice and Marion Clark. Come to the Waters: Daily Bible Devotions for Spiritual Refreshment.  (2017).  It was also the basis of a prior post, Jesus is Patient and Kind Even When I am Not

Doctrine in Action

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In C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters, senior demon Screwtape writes fictional letters to Wormwood, a junior demon, on how to defeat his “patient.”  In one of these letters, Screwtape advises: “As long as [man] does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance… Wallow in it… Write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilising the seeds which [Heavenly Father] plants in a human soul… Do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm [the cause of evil] if [it is kept] out of his will… The more often he feels without acting, the less he will ever be able to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”

Christianity is not a soul-less doctrine, but a restoration of the right relationships between souls and their Creator, which should lead to action.  Teaching should lead to love.  In 1 Timothy 1:3-4 Paul writes to Timothy: “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.”  In his commentary on the verse, John Calvin says that Paul “judges of doctrine by the fruit; for every tiling that does not edify ought to be rejected, although it has no other fault; and everything that is of no avail but for raising contentions, ought to be doubly condemned.”

Calvin’s note and Screwtape’s fictional letter remind me of the linked Monty Python video of philosophers philosophizing about soccer while simultaneously “playing” soccer.

Every doctrine and institution of the church should empower His people to live for Him.  Are we playing the right game, and are we playing to win?

What Was the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ Really About? – History Bit for July 21

Some events in history bring a faint glimmer of memory to many people, but what they remember may not be the most relevant point. One such event was the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” decided on July 21 in 1925. What actually was this trial? Wikipedia’s summary[1] is that “a high school teacher, John T. Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. The trial was deliberately staged in order to attract publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, where it was held.” The trial descended into theatrics and was covered by national news organizations. Time magazine called the trial a “fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war.” Each side had a famous lawyer seeking publicity: the Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president three times, was the prosecuting attorney, and the agnostic Clarence Darrow defended Scopes.

The immediate result of the trial was that Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a small fine, but years later, that’s not what people remember.  For some, the lesson of the Scopes trial is simple: “science good; religious fundamentalism bad.”  Another group of people might think the lesson was: “religious fundamentalism good; science bad.”  But did the case conclude either of these things?  It didn’t, so what’s the real issue?

The Culture Behind the Scopes Trial
In the background issues were simmering which still linger today – whether religion should have a voice in how science is used and taught.  Tim Keller notes that “Few people remember…that the textbook Scopes used, Civic Biology by George Hunter, taught not only evolution but also argued that science dictated we should sterilize or even kill those classes of people who weakened the human gene pool by spreading ‘disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country.’ This was typical of scientific textbooks of the time.”[2]  Wikipedia notes that “Scopes was unsure whether he had ever actually taught evolution, but he incriminated himself deliberately so the case could have a defendant.”  So, the trial did not hinge on Scopes’ teaching, this textbook, or even eugenics, but the subject of eugenics sheds some light on how over-simplified the take-away of “science good; religious fundamentalism bad” really is.

Geneticist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, popularized the term “eugenics” from the Greek, meaning “good birth,” to describe ways humans could use evolutionary science to improve their condition.  He usually left unspoken that he meant not specific humans, but some abstract sense of humans in aggregate, and also that he meant to improve the condition of those humans in charge, or those humans with a voice among the humans in charge.   These beliefs were not rare, but quite mainstream.  Joseph Loconte, writing of the culture J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis lived in[3], notes: “In Britain, the Eugenics Education Society was founded in 1907 to take up the cause.  By 1913, the American Genetic Association was established in the United States to promote the doctrines of racial purity.”  The United States was actually the first country where compulsory sterilization was legalized, and some practices implemented by Nazi Germany were lifted right out of laws used by U.S. States.  U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “Three generations of imbeciles is enough” in defense of Virginia’s sterilization law.

The church was not entirely immune from the eugenics movement either.  According to Loconte, “Ministers in the Church of England held a Church Congress in 1910 in Cambridge, inviting several members of the Royal Commission on the Feeble-Minded to participate.”  Also, “By the 1920s, hundreds of American churches participated in a national eugenics sermon contest.  As the Rev. Kenneth McArthur, a winner from Sterling, Massachusetts, put it in his sermon: ‘If we take seriously the Christian purpose of realizing on earth the ideal divine society, we shall welcome every help which science affords.’”

This background to the Scopes Trial, often simplified to a “science” vs “fundamentalism” debate, makes us ask: which science and which fundamentalism?  Was eugenics, for a moment, part of “religious fundamentalism” for some of the church?  And is perfecting society on earth truly a fundamental Christian belief?  With a rule of thumb of “science good; religious fundamentalism bad,” or the opposite, what do you do if a scientific idea becomes also central to religious belief?

Also, if you take away science and religion from the equation altogether, which is better: “all humans have dignity and are worthy of care and love” or “some people deserve to be neutered like an ordinary animal”?  If science is the only source of our “fundamentalism,” where do we turn when it insists on destruction for the less favored?  Tim Keller argues that “Secular, scientific reason is a great good, but if taken as the sole basis for human life, it will be discovered that there are too many things we need that it is missing.”  What is missing is a meaningful reason to love your neighbor, regardless of their scientific knowledge, religious belief, disability, economic impact, level of intelligence, or any other characteristic.

It’s Not (Entirely) a Fantasy
Loconte says that although Tolkien and Lewis wrote of fantasy worlds populated not only by men, but also by elves, dwarves, orcs, and many other races, the topics of eugenics and other Progressive Era ideas served as background.  In Tolkien’s epic The Lord of The Rings, the solution to conflict between the races was not for one race to rule the others, or (even worse) to eliminate them.  Instead, the answer is to utterly destroy the Ring of Power, representing the desire of any tribe to use power to rule others “for their own good,” as some say.  While Tolkien insists his story is not a direct allegory, he may have been thinking of the centuries of tribal conflict between the English, Irish, Scots, and Welsh.  Or the conflict between any group of conquerors and the conquered.  By using fictional races, Tolkien was arguing that this lesson applies to everyone, in all places and at all times.

Therefore, when scientific fundamentalism says it’s OK not to love some people, Christians need to respond without exception that every person is a creation of God with innate dignity and should be loved as Christ loved us.  However, as shown on the cross, power is not the answer.  As Jesus told his disciples in Mark 10:42-45 – “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

God does not expect us to understand every issue of history, or even in our daily news feed, which is increasingly a “fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war,” but when we all meet our Lord in heaven, He will say “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” – Matthew 25:40


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial
[2] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  This post draws from pages 12-13.
[3] Loconte, Joseph.  A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918 (2015).  This post draws on pages 15-19.