“What is fanaticism today is the fashionable creed tomorrow, and trite as the multiplication table a week after.”
– Wendell Phillips
I hate platitudes. Anytime someone offers an easy-to-memorize (but often meaningless) soundbite as though eternal wisdom lies therein, I find myself losing patience with the conversation. It may be true that there are a lot of fish in the sea. So what? There’s always next year. Says who? Everything happens for a reason…. Sure. But is that fact at all comforting? (I should point out that I love trite phrases when misapplied. “Walk it off!” is often the best piece of advice you could ever offer someone, especially when they haven’t suffered a sports injury.)
In my mind, the worst of the bunch is, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.”
The heart of that has some truth to it, like any of the above entries. But I think it leads us to forget who Jesus Christ really is. We hear that, and we think not of an eternal creator and judge who is well within His rights to cut you down where you stand. We think not of the glorious patience and kindness and humility He embodies, or His perfect submission to the will of the Father. We forget the miracle of the fact that He offers first salvation, then sanctification, and finally a relationship. That we even have the opportunity to have friendship with our creator without an intercessor is one of the most radical and absurd concepts we could hold in our minds. To give ourselves an easy defense to (legitimate) charges against organized religion, we exchange the supremacy of Christ for a caricature. We no longer see Christ as a Savior, but as a Buddy Jesus who desperately wants us to come to his wine and cheese get-together.
And more important than all that, it’s unbiblical. When James talks about a religion pure and undefiled before God, he’s talking about something we have to take seriously. We cannot dismiss what the Holy Spirit has seen fit to record because of a contemporary impulse to be apologetic.
But this begs an important question. Here, James instructs us to visit widows and orphans in their affliction. This merits some elaboration. At the time, widows and orphans were on the margins of society. Widows were not seen as fit for remarriage and often had no means to provide for themselves and were sometimes forced into a life of prostitution. Orphans likewise had nothing. Today, though, widows aren’t forced to the bottom rung. They are welcome to remarry and often do, and they have avenues for income unimaginable two thousand years ago. Orphans likewise have a system in place designed to ensure their needs are met. Who, then, are the modern equivalents of widows and orphans?
I don’t have a good, concrete answer. But I think it’s the people who have been pushed to the fringes, who have been marginalized, or told they are valueless. Maybe it’s the poor in general, or the homeless, or the mentally ill. Maybe it’s those who have found themselves forced to strip or prostitute themselves because that’s the only thing they’ve found someone to pay them to do. Maybe it’s the diner waitress in the same situation. Maybe it’s the gay man or women – made in the image of God – desperate to know love. It could be the anxious or depressed, longing to be free of the weight pressing down on them. It’s all these people, and many more. Religion pure and undefiled before God includes finding someone who needs love and provision and giving it to them. That is an important calling, Christian. Find someone who can’t fill their own need, and offer a hand.