It’s become cliché to say social media brings out the worst of people, since they can hide from consequences behind internet anonymity and distance. Mike Tyson, one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time, said “Social media made y’all way too comfortable with disrespecting people and not getting punched in the face for it.” But disrespect and wanting to punch people in the face who disagree with us is nothing new. Just one generation after Adam and Eve were made in the image of God and living in perfect love, their son Cain killed his brother Abel for uncertain reasons. Genesis also doesn’t tell us exactly how Cain killed Abel, but we can be sure social media wasn’t involved. Hate doesn’t require an internet connection or working Wi-Fi, only one person deciding that another person is a thing to be defeated, not as a person made in God’s image. Sometimes by focusing on what we are disagreeing about, we can lose sight of the fact that the person disagreeing with us is inherently valuable.
Today, after months away, we return to a series on James 1:27, which says: “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 gave careful thought to this phrase, not as hyperbole, but as an example of what perfect religion – worship of God the Father – looks like. Eternal life is for people who love when there’s nothing more at stake than the person being loved, but putting issues above people is one way we get stained by the world and fail to represent Christ. Note that I didn’t say ignore the issues – it’s a question of priority.
The Singular Person
Psalm 113 is a Psalm about praising God and making Him known throughout the world, and ends with a very specific praise:
“He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the LORD!”
To me, what’s most striking here is that this is a singular barren woman, not barren women as a group. It doesn’t say that God ends all barrenness (although He might). The Psalmist chose as a climactic ending to this poem about the heart of God and how He wants to be known a praise to God for giving a home and family to one barren woman. This means that the sovereign God of all the universe is concerned about individuals, their specific circumstances, and their specific need for salvation. He does not respond to an “issue” of the barrenness of women but responds in a way that satisfies the needs of individual people. People are not statistics to Him, to be counted and divided into opposing sides until one prevails over the other. Each person’s needs and path to redemption are unique in God’s eyes, and only He can provide for all. He is the only way to a perfect world.
Similar to the “barren woman”, James 1:27 is about visiting specific “orphans and widows,” not fighting for the end of all afflictions for all widows and orphans. He is fighting for people, not total victory in an argument. While this might seem obvious to some, it’s so easy to exalt issues over people that we don’t always notice when we do it.
The Issue of Family
A common issue today is “family,” which I put in quotes because as an issue it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. A lot of time and energy is put into fighting for “family values,” defined many different ways, and James 1:27, “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,” is relevant in multiple ways.
First, an earlier post of this series, said “whatever its source, civil law is a provision for a fallen world, not a pathway to a perfect world.” In both the Old and New Testaments, God tells us there will always be poor in the land and that every civil law is inherently limited in a broken world. Christians should “defend the family,” but in what way? James 1:27 says to stand for individuals for whom the institution of family has already failed – widows and orphans. “Pure and undefiled religion” succeeds where law fails, filling the gap with the heart of God, who cares for the specific “barren woman” of Psalm 113:9. There is no perfect law that solves the issue of “family values,” therefore “visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” Affliction comes in many forms and is too complex and diverse for any government to deal with entirely.
Second, when we fight for perfection in our laws, taking absolute stands on either side of an “issue,” we risk elevating law to a level it’s not possible of achieving, and we also may justify hurting people in the process, thinking the end result will be worth it somehow. Once we see the world in fully black/white, either/or terms, it becomes easy to think that if only the right side came out ahead, the issue would be resolved, any collateral damage can be explained, and everyone would be happy. However, consider the extreme example of violence around both abortion clinics and crisis pregnancy centers. In that case and many smaller ones, when we cause harm to opponents, we prove that there are cracks in our own system, creating new victims on top of the existing ones. Those left behind haven’t been helped, but new affliction has been added by those hoping it will be somehow worth it to win the “issue” battle.
Third, ministering to widows and orphans keeps us from the pollution of the world which insists that our salvation is political and based on power. James 1:27 encourages us to reject a world that wants to put laws, culture, even hashtags above actual people. The world too often believes the ends justify the means because belief in worldly utopia depends on a 100% solution, but also believes it’s ok to ignore concrete problems while fighting for a solution that will never arrive. Salvation comes from only one source: the cross.
In the start of this post, I wrote that it’s become cliché to say social media brings out the worst of people, and its cliché because massive amounts of time and energy go into fighting over abstract issues and dividing into groups of “us” and “them”. James 1:27 says that we are not defined by which side of an issue we support, and what we’re willing to do to achieve victory for our side, but by how we love those individuals for whom this world has failed.
It is better to minister to the ones who have been punched by this world than to add another punch to the damage.
Therefore, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:23-25
And what are “good works”? “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.”
If you want to start the series from the beginning, the first post is at this link. The next post, “An Ethic That Prioritizes the Gospel” is here.