“I’m not religious; I just have a personal relationship with Jesus.” Is that really possible? While it is certainly important to know and experience a personal relationship with God, if we ignore others and isolate ourselves like hermits, aren’t we more selfish and worse off than before? Our faith can’t just be “me and Jesus”; if we are not religious, then we are not Christians.
Religion is not a bad word. Unfortunately some words have become associated with religion so as to make it seem as if it is. Who would want to be a “religious fanatic”? Who in their right mind would want to be a “religious nut” or a “religious extremist”? Yet we let those who judge us and brand us as lunatics define what religion is.
Being religious is not any more extremist or nutty than the guy that wears cheese on his head, paints his face and chest, and doesn’t wear a shirt in sub-zero weather to support his favorite team. That guy is a Packers fan (short for fanatic). The guy wearing a paper bag over his head is a Detroit Lions fan. And if we love God, we are religious fans.
Religion has nothing to do with words. Your behavior is the true indicator of whether you are religious or not. If I tell you I am a Yankees fan, but I never watch any of the games, I never wear any of the apparel, I don’t get excited when they win, and I think pinstripes make you look fat, then I am not a real Yankees fan. And if I tell you I am religious, but the only thing I do is go to church and read my Bible and pray before I eat or sleep, then I am not religious. My religion would be meaningless words.
James 2:16-17 is another example of religious people who are not really religious.
Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17)
Religion is not about you. Going to church is a good deed, but it doesn’t really help anyone. A good deed that only benefits you is not that good. True religion benefits others too.
It is difficult to define religion. You really only know it when you see it in action. And that is the point James makes that still rings true today.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
Pure religion is faith in action. It is helping those in need instead of waiting for the government to do it for us. James reminds us that God is our father and because He looks after all of us, we should especially look after those who have no earthly father or husband who are “in distress” or “afflicted.” James is not talking about rich widows in beautiful homes with loving families, but poor widows and orphans forgotten by society and placed in crowded convalescent homes and orphanages that do their best to meet their physical needs, but do not have the time necessary to truly tend to their emotional needs for love and acceptance.
Orphans and widows are just two examples. True religion is visiting the lady with Alzheimer’s who thinks her family never comes to visit because she can’t remember the last time they came. Real religion is opening up your home and heart to a foster child. Genuine religion is feeding a homeless person. Because pure religion is found in those moments of bitter loneliness when we can come and ease their affliction. It is when we act on God’s behalf to be His presence in that moment to someone in their time of need. What a privilege we have for when we visit the hurting and helpless, God visits them.
It is not about numbers. God is not calling all of us to start million dollar non-profit charity organizations so we can feed the world and adopt all of the orphans around the globe. Mother Teresa said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”
An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
“Young lady,” he asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”
“But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves,saying, “It made a difference for that one.”
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40)
May we see the face of Jesus in every one who is afflicted so that we feel compelled to help one of the least of these in their moment of need.