Meditations in James: 16 : Practical Spirituality
Jas 1:27 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.
The Human Race seems, so often, to go in for extremes. In Christian circles, in the past at least, there have been charismatics who have never wanted to touch the world, activists who are only concerned with the world, fundamentalists who huddle in holy corners protecting the truth, and liberals who shy away from dogmatic truth. James isn’t such a person. Scan back over his letter so far and you will see signs of faith and works.
On the ‘spiritual’ side he has spoken about our faith (v.3), asking God for wisdom (v.5), not getting things from the Lord (v.7), the crown of life that God promises (v.12), God not tempting (v.13), all the goodness coming down from God (v.17), the new birth from God (v.18), the righteous life that God desires (v.20).
Yes, very God-centred for there is plenty on the spiritual side, but what about the practical side? Well all along he’s been speaking about the trials of everyday life (v.2), the realities of poverty and riches (v.9,10), falling in temptation (v.14,15), getting rid of anger and evil (v.19-21), and controlling the tongue (v.26). However when you consider these two lists, they overlap or interlink so really it is difficult to distinguish between them. The truth is that James really sees all of life as coming under the spiritual umbrella, everything coming in the ambit of our relationship with God.
Now it is necessary to say these things because James has had a bad press historically. There have been those who say that because he hardly mentions Jesus (twice only in passing) he is not very spiritual. We want to suggest that such people entirely miss the point. James is very much concerned, as we have already noted a number of times, to be a pastoral help to the Christians now scattered far and wide. He wants to help them as they combat the ways of the world, and therefore his letter is, in many ways, very down to earth yet, as we have just noted, his thinking of these things is completely saturated with the recognition that we are God’s children and everything we do comes within the range of our relationship with Him. Our relationship with the Lord is what under-girds everything that James speaks about. If he chides us about anger, it is because anger doesn’t conform to the righteous life God desires for us. If he chides us over the use of the tongue it is because the wrong use of the tongue doesn’t fit with the idea of us being religious, having a relationship with God. No, every practical issue comes back in some way to our relationship with the Lord.
When he talks about ‘religion’ he is meaning the practical expression of our spirituality, the way we express our faith as Christians in our daily lives. Very well, he says, you have a religion, a faith, an expression of your relationship with God being worked out in daily life, then check it against the sort of practical faith that God wants of you. After all, he surely implies, the most important thing is to be doing what God wants. So you want to be religious? OK, he goes on, then express your faith, the love from God you have, His love that He wants to express to His world, by looking after those who are in need, the widows and orphans who are in distress because they have no one looking after them. You want to be real in the expression of your faith? Then reach out and bless those in need.
Before we go any further, can we counteract any tendency you may have that leads you towards extremism, wanting to go out to one or other of the extremes we started off thinking about. Merely because he is saying express your faith towards people, he is not therefore saying, don’t express it towards God. That has already been covered and he will come back to it. Oh no, it’s not one or the other; it is both. God wants us to relate to Him AND to people. God wants us to have a strong spiritual aspect to our lives, reading the Bible, praying, worshipping etc., but He also wants us to have a strong practical faith dimension to our lives as well. He wants to see that we are reaching out, not only to bring the word Gospel to people but the whole Gospel to people, expressed in words and deeds, just like Jesus did. How tragic that we so often divide these two aspects of the spiritual life and then only focus on one.
Perhaps to conclude we would do well to check out both sides of the spiritual equation as it applies to us personally. Do we have a strong spiritual dimension whereby we do read the Bible regularly, pray regularly, worship regularly and fellowship with other Christians regularly? We need all those things. How about the practical dimension to our lives, first as it affects those closest to us? How do we treat our partner, our children, people we encounter in the world, those we work for or work with? Are our emotions under control yet free to be expressed in a good way, do we have our tongues under control – just the issues James has covered so far! But what about the wider practical expression of our faith that James has just been referring to, caring for those in need, for those who have no one else to stand with them – there are a lot of such people. There is a whole world out there to be loved with Jesus’ love and he’s just longing to go to them through you, as you work out your relationship with Him.