Religion gets a bad rap these days. The word has a negative connotation, even in the church. It brings to mind robot-like duties performed because someone told us to once, or meaningless rituals our grandparents did. Phrases like, “oh, she thinks she is so religious,” and “are you one of those religious types?” come to mind. Then, of course, we have religious zealots, who are considered full-fledge nutballs. The last thing we want anyone thinking about us, is that we are religious, often correcting people that we are spiritual but not religious, or retorting, “it’s about relationship, not religion.”
Naturally, definitions of the word, like these, don’t help us come to terms with the word either:
a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
Conformity? Institutionalized systems or practices? Eeesh! It’s no wonder we cringe at the word! Yet, the Bible talks about pure and undefiled religion as caring for those who are unable to care for themselves, the widows and orphans of the world, along with keeping ourselves undefiled. And, that sounds a lot different than meaningless ritual, to me. In fact, it sounds so starkly different that it forced me to look up the original Greek word we translate as religion. I don’t know Greek, but we are blessed to have access to a plethora of Biblical knowledge on the Internet, so I thought this was a fitting reason to make use of those resources.
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 1:27
What I found is that the word which is translated as religion is thrēskeia, and can be translated two different ways: religion and worship. Worship! Now, that’s a long way from meaningless ritual performed by mindless, conformist drones.
So, if we read that verse and replace the word, religion, with the word, worship, it sounds a lot different, doesn’t it? Pure and undefiled WORSHIP is this… yes! Caring for orphans and widows and other destitute, helpless, hopeless, and hurting people of our day is pure religion, that God the Father will accept.
So what do we do?
When James was written, widows and orphans had no privileges, no rights, no income, and no way to care for themselves. It was a really bad thing to end up as a widow or orphan. Today, it is much different, particularly in the modern Western world. There’s social services, humanitarian organizations, foster care, and any number of programs to help underprivileged populations, but that doesn’t mean we are off the hook. Now, we must look for ways these individuals require different care and support, and to find new ways to help emerging groups of underprivileged people, for whom social services hasn’t caught up.
Today, in modern Western America, we should be finding new and better ways to helping victims of trafficking, the disabled, children in foster care, the homeless, our veterans, refugees, and any sort of person who requires assistance to survive. We must look beyond our own borders, to the needs of women and children struggling under the weight of poverty, who just need a chance, an opportunity to work and thereby change their lives, their children’s lives, and their communities.
We must stop shirking at the word, “religion” and understand it to be worship. The ways we help the poor, the destitute, the needy, the fatherless… the way we determine our steps to follow Christ and keep His commandments, to keep ourselves unstained from the world, THIS is worship! And this is Pure Religion.
The point of this true worship and pure religion is to look beyond ourselves, to share God’s love with those who need us, because we in America are rich, and to share the good news of Jesus from pure hearts changed by Christ’s love.
This is an area my family is currently continuing to evaluate and constantly tweak. Are we really caring for others or do our values better reflect consumerist America? What are we doing to care for women who are trafficked, children surrendered to orphanages due to poverty? How do we care for the widow up the road whose husband passed and left her lonely or without help clearing snow from her driveway?
God calls us to look to the needs of others, to be known by our love, by His love radiating from our own lives; not to be known by our tidy homes with picket fences, overabundance of toys and clothes and shoes, and the size of the envelope we slip into the offering plate on Sunday.
Perhaps Religion gets a bad rap because of us! Perhaps it’s misunderstood by the world, because we’ve been doing it wrong. Perhaps it’s up to us to change the meaning of the word after all, and not to reject it along with the rest of the world.
The next time someone calls me religious, I think I will just ask them what they mean by that, and tell them that I aspire to be truly religious, to have that character quality visible to others, as I walk out as the hands and feet of Jesus, as I spread His love, as I serve others and as I aim to live my life unstained by this world, in obedience to His word.
How about you? Do you think we can change the meaning of the word? How do you suppose we should begin? Comment below.