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. (ESV)
James continues defining true religion for us. James moves from dealing with the genuineness of our talk (verse 26) to the genuineness of our walk. True religion visits orphans and widows in their affliction. This visitation is not just showing up and walking away, but bringing relief to them. In our world, there is a tendency to do things only if there is a benefit for us. Even churches can fall into a terrible practice of only reaching out to those who can support the church in some way.
We can go out of our way to help someone, because we realize they are a large contributor to the work of the Church. That is not true religion. That is true hypocrisy. James is describing a ministry to those who were completely incapable of giving anything back in return. We need to not only reach out compassionately to those in need, but we need to do so, expecting nothing in return. We need to have compassionate hands that reach out to the hurting, without judgment, without expecting reward.
James tells us that not only should we have compassionate hands, but clean hearts. Scripture continually uses the imagery of a clean heart before God. It is easy for that heart, cleansed by God, to get stained again with the filth of the world that we live in. Now, when James refers to “the world,” what is he talking about? It is not the physical sphere that we live on. Rather, it is a system of belief and action that is against God and his perfection. Chuck Swindoll describes it this way:
“The world system is committed to at least four major objectives, which I can summarize in four words: fortune, fame, power, pleasure. First and foremost: Fortune, money. The world system is driven by money; it feeds on materialism. Second: Fame. That is another word for popularity. Fame is the longing to be known, to be somebody in someone else's eyes. Third: Power. This is having influence, maintaining control over individuals or groups or companies or whatever. It is the desire to manipulate and maneuver others to do something for one's own benefit. Fourth: Pleasure. At its basic level, pleasure has to do with fulfilling one's sensual desires. It's the same mindset that's behind the slogan: "If it feels good, do it."
- Charles Swindoll, Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, p.219.
I get so disgusted when I hear of choices that my government has made. I feel hopeless sometimes. I even act surprised when the world around me displays such a strong desire to rebel against God. How silly. I should expect the world to act in rebellion. I should expect the sinful world system to act in accordance with Satan. My job is to not be stained by the world. That is true religion. We cannot always change the world around us, but we can refuse to allow it to change us.