The book of James has convincingly argues that good works prove the authenticity of our faith. But then we start to realize– James also prescribes a priority to which good works the Christian does.
James 1:27 says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
When the Bible describes so many ways that faith produces fruit, we might wonder how James can so narrowly define what real religion is. He claims caring for the vulnerable is the way to know that our religion is pure and undefiled before God. How can he be so sure? Can we really say that the sum of religion is to give relief to the afflicted?
Well James does. And we suggest that he can confidently make this case for two reasons: one, the very nature of God himself, and two, the commands that God has given his people to obey.
God Cares for the Vulnerable
First, we as Christians are compelled to visit the vulnerable in their distress because we mirror a God who meets physical, immediate needs. Like a child mimicking the mannerisms of his father, we grow into Christian maturity by taking on the traits of God. Visiting the widow and the orphan in their distress is ultimately about joining in our own, small way the greater work that God is already doing.
The testimony of Scripture is adamantly clear: our God has compassion on human suffering. Think about it– He is completely unbound by time, and yet he cares about the temporal and the fleeting. He is moved by the immediate needs of people even though our “days are like a passing shadow” to him (Ps. 144:4).
Before James ever defined true religion as visiting the orphan and the widow, Deuteronomy 10:18 proclaimed that God “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner, giving him food and clothing.” The Psalms promise that he will strengthen the afflicted and avenge their cause, and that he hears the cries of the fatherless and the oppressed (Ps. 10:17-18; 140:12). The Old Testament foretold that justice work would identify the promised Messiah. Israel would recognize him as the one bringing good news to the poor and the oppressed (Is. 61:1-2). And in the Gospels, we see Jesus feed hungry crowds, heal unclean women, restore sight to the blind, cleanse lepers, and weep over death.
Scripture proclaims that God knows the world is broken, and he is not ambivalent towards its suffering. He sees every plight, understands the intricacies of each, and meets the needs of the disadvantaged. In fact, God’s first act after the fall of mankind was to physically provide for the needy. And these weren’t just any needy people; they were enemies of his creation who had declared open rebellion against their Creator. The first man and woman had catalyzed the inauguration of evil, sickness, and death into paradise. Their sin ushered in brokenness that would mar thousands of years in the world God created. They were solely culpable for their sin and had earned every effect of the Fall. So they hid in the garden, ashamed and afraid they would die for their trespass.
Yet, Gen. 3:21 says, “The LORD God made clothing out of skins for Adam and his wife, and He clothed them.” God’s first action towards sinners was to meet their present need. Just imagine– their newfound nakedness acted as a tangible sign of their rebellion. And yet, God didn’t leave them naked; he made clothes for the people who betrayed him. He made clothes to remedy the very vulnerability their sin had earned.
Meeting Adam and Eve’s need in the garden only foreshadowed how our God would remedy suffering on the cross. God saw all of our sin-bought brokenness, and he avenged our cause. We identify with the needs of the vulnerable because in our sin we were the needy, hopeless to secure salvation for ourselves. We were justly impoverished, deserving the full weight of our consequences, and yet God paid our debt with his own blood. To place faith in Jesus Christ is to join him in both caring about human suffering and fighting to alleviate it.
God Commands Us to Care for the Vulnerable
Second, the Scriptures command the restored to go and do like our God. The Psalms tell us to defend the weak, represent the cause of the poor, and rescue the needy (82:3-4). When God gave the law to Moses, he repeatedly instructed Israel to care for the sojourner and the impoverished among them. He commanded them to leave behind gleanings of the harvest and fallen grapes in the vineyard for the hungry (Lev. 19:9-11). Through Isaiah he compelled them to “Learn to do what is good. Seek justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause” (Is. 1:17). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commanded his disciples to care for others as they wished to be cared for (Matt. 7:12). Then, after sharing the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus told the listeners to “go and do the same” as the man who had compassion on the robbery victim (Lk. 10:37).
Jesus meets our vulnerability with the offer of himself. In Christ, we have gained union with God and an indestructible inheritance as children in his family. Now, we who have reaped the benefits of his care have the opportunity to be like him. He cares about the hungry and about the spiritually malnourished. He defends the cause of the refugee and has welcomed people who were alienated from him. He heals the diseased and has brought the spiritually dead to life. And now he commissions his church to join the cause.
When we follow Jesus, we have no choice but to care about justice and spend our lives advocating for the cause of the orphan, the widow, and the vulnerable. In doing so, we proclaim, like Jesus’ earthly ministry, that the coming kingdom will have no suffering. One day our God will right every wrong, and he will wipe away every tear, including that of the fatherless and the husbandless.