“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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.”
We’re all religious. We are. Let’s stop lying about it. Whether you go to church or not, you’re religious. But religion has become a dirty word in our world today. Most people, even Christian people, are quick to to self identify as people who are “not religious but (insert some other adjective).” They’ll say “I’m spiritual” or “relationship focused” instead of being religious. Our culture rejects this idea of being “religious” because we think it equates to rigidity, rules, regulations and restrictions (do I get extra credit for that kind of alliteration?). But the Western world’s poster child of “religious” texts, the Bible, seems to call religion a good thing BUT not all the time.
Religion, real religion, is pure and its dirty. Its about having purity of heart. “keep yourself spotless from the world.” Often, people refer to it as piety or holiness and a host of other words but if you ask most anyone – people of faith or not – they’ll tell you that to be a “religious” person in some sense means that you have to live in an ethical way. Some will cite the 10 Commandments while others will cite Sermon on the Mount as the primary basis for the pious behavioral center of Christianity but most people equate good religion with good behavior in the form of piety. There’s a segment (a large one) that seems to center its attention on this form of religious expression. Those segments are often seen as “conservative” and they deem themselves as the true purveyors of what it means to be “religious.” While they have an emphasis on rules, their main aim is a good one: they want to be pure.
Meanwhile, many will look at this “conservative” group as a too religious and call them names like “holy rollers.” They are seen by others as out of touch because, while they keep a high focus on “keeping themselves unstained from the world” they often neglect the service to poor, orphan, widow and social needs (with the primary exception being abortion. They’re big on fighting that one). So the other group swings the pendulum and focuses nearly exclusively on the social aspects the scriptures call us too. They are very active in areas of social ethics (but unlike the “conservatives” though, they tend to handle the issue of abortion much more lightly. Generally speaking, its an area of “political” focus, not social), but they scripture is more of a motivation for activism and comfort for those they are active for but much less emphasis is on the purity of the soul on basis of piety. This segment is typically referred to as “liberal” and conservatives like the deride this group by saying they are guilty of believing a “social gospel.” The aim of these so-called “liberals” is to get their hands dirty by serving the lower parts of the social order.
But to emphasize purity of heart through piety over having dirty hands through serving is to have a lopsided and broken religion. And remember, we’re all religious.
Scripture doesn’t ask us to choose between pure hearts and dirty hands. Rather, it calls us to BOTH. To ignore one at the expense of the other is bad religion. We need pure hearts that are unstained by the worldliness of sin as we live for and represent the purity of a Holy God in this broken world. “Be holy as I am holy” – God. As I heard NT scholar Scot Mcnight say “regardless of your definition of holiness, the troubling word in this isn’t “holy,” its “as.” We are to be “as holy” as He is. Whatever this holiness is, we are to strive to reflect it in a way that looks like God’s holiness.” We are ALSO to called to get our hands dirty by serving the widow, the orphan, the poor, the disenfranchised, the rejected and other social outcasts. That’s pure religion. Pure hearts and dirty hands.
May our souls be cleansed by the work of the Gospel in hearts and sanctified by the Word of God and our pious deeds. My our hands be dirty by touching the least, lost and lonely in our broken world with our works.