When we think of caring for the vulnerable, James 1:27 is often one of the first verses people think about. James tells us that caring for the widow and orphan is pure and undefiled religion. His powerful language evokes a sense of urgency in caring for the vulnerable. It is probably why many Christians use this verse for ministries and mission trips. We cannot hope to truly live for Christ if caring for the vulnerable is not part of that.
However, there is one portion of the verse that is sometimes overlooked. James tells us that pure religion is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (emphasis added).” Sometimes we may focus so intently on caring for orphans and widows that we completely miss keeping ourselves unstained from the world. Caring for the vulnerable is definitely a vital part of our Christian walk, but it is just as important to make sure we are not losing focus and compromising our faith in any way. In fact, sometimes caring for the vulnerable may be what draws our focus away.
There are so many ways to help those in need. You can look just about anywhere and find an opportunity to serve others. It is really encouraging to see the countless ways people can receive the help they need. It is also encouraging to see so many people wanting to help others. One of the best ways for Christians to show the love of Christ is to be actively involved in caring for the vulnerable. There is something to be said about those who sacrifice their time and resources for others. However, there is also a caution with this. When we are seeking out ways to help others, we need to be careful to guard ourselves from losing our focus on Christ and his gospel. It is helpful for Christ-followers to remember that, ultimately, our good deeds mean nothing if they are separated from the message of the gospel. When we water down the gospel, or eliminate it completely, to help others, we are not remaining unstained from the world. Instead, we are compromising our faith.
Of course, leaving the gospel out is not always blatant or purposeful. How many times have I helped people without explicitly sharing the gospel with them? It is not an intentional thing. We often get busy with whatever we are doing that we do not give it much thought. James’s words may very well be more of a word of caution than anything else. Maybe he knew how easy it was to lose focus on the heart of the gospel message when busy doing good deeds for others. All of us have probably fallen into that at some point in our Christian walk.
In fact, James is not the only one to have mentioned the concept of remaining unstained by the world. Paul also tells us in Romans to not be conformed to the world (12:2). The things of this world can, and often will, cause distractions. We may only think of this in terms of the bad things around us. However, even good things can draw our focus away from the Lord. The good may actually be more likely to do so since we are not as guarded with it. The enemy is very crafty and loves to use the good things in our lives to distract us. He enjoys seeing God’s people move further and further away from their faith. When we allow ourselves to lose focus on the gospel, we slowly start to fall into worldly things. Before we know it, we find ourselves exactly where we should not be- stained by the world.
There is also the danger to be so concerned about compromising our faith that we think the best thing to do is to completely cut ourselves off from the world. However, we must guard ourselves against this thinking, too. All through James 1, James is making the case that the Christian life must have both faith and good works. They go hand in hand. When we have strong faith, our good deeds automatically flow out of it. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, so we are supposed to concern ourselves with the plight of others. The issue is not if we are supposed to be in the world helping others. The issue is if we are staying focused on the Lord while we are out in the world helping others. When Christ is praying to the Father in John 17, he says that he does not want his followers to be taken out of the world, only that they would be protected from falling into evil. He expects us to be out in the world sharing his love and helping those in need.
We need to continue to find ways to care for the widow and orphan. We must never lose this passion to help others. Our desire to care for those in need is a beautiful, God-given desire. However, we must also be sure to guard ourselves against the enemy and his schemes to make us lose focus on the One who gave us the desire in the first place. Only then will we be able to fully live out James’s words to care for the widow and orphan and remain unstained from the world.
Katie Van Dyke is the Assistant Director of Speak for the Unborn. She received an M.A. in Biblical Counseling from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She currently lives in Houston, TX where she teaches 5th and 6th grade girls at Northeast Houston Baptist Church. You can follow her on Twitter: @KatieJoVanDyke.