Pure religion is very kind because it is an expression of brotherly love. James tells us that this true religion is an expression of the life of the Christian family – it takes place before the Father. This means that he is the Spectator of what we are doing as his people. He delights to observe the different ways in which his children engage in brotherly love. At the same time, we recall that the Father is holy and wants his children to live holy lives. Both these emphases are made here by James.
The expression of brotherly love that James mentions is caring for orphans and widows. It may be that he has in mind families that had been affected by the recent persecution they had gone through and we can easily imagine how an increase in the number of orphans and widows could have happened. Yet even if that is the initial case with James, it does not mean that the church should only care about such in times of persecution. Instead they should be a priority all the time. It would be a sad church that did not care for its members that were in such straits. God wants his people to care about the most vulnerable among them.
Pure religion enables a person ‘to keep oneself unstained from the world’. This may seem like a daunting target and impossible to attain. Of course, by the world James does not mean the created world in which we can see the power and wisdom of God. Instead he means the idolatry that puts someone or something above Jesus, the sinful behaviour and wrong goals of society that is pursued instead of obedience to God’s commands, and the outlook that is never satisfied with what it has, but which is marked by covetousness.
So how do we stop the world influencing us? One way is by doing what the Bible says instead of ignoring what it commands. A second way is to pray for cleansing constantly by the blood of Jesus. A third way is to ask God for the Spirit’s power to work in our hearts when we sense the drawing power of the world. A fourth way is for us to be encouraging one another by mentioning spiritual things to one another.
Pure religion is social (helping others) and sacred (conscious of the eyes of God), or as put elsewhere it involves love for our neighbour and love for God. It can be practised in any set of circumstances, whether in times of persecution or in times of peace. But we have to ask ourselves repeatedly if we have true religion.