Doing Good in Hard Times
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.
- James 1:27
The early church excelled in the practice of caring for widows and orphans. Earlier this year, we studied in Acts 6 the way the Christians in Jerusalem diligently worked out an equitable way to care for all of the widows in their midst who needed support. Some of the very first orphanages in the ancient world were founded by Christians who believed that even children carried value in God’s eyes.
As the church expanded and grew, they continued caring for widows and orphans. Their concern for those who were less fortunate became one of their distinguishing marks. Even those who didn’t know anything about the religious beliefs of these Christians noticed the way they cared for people around them. Emperor Julian famously complained, “These impious Galileans [i.e. Christians] feed not only their own poor, but ours as well.”
If looking after widows and orphans in their distress was already commonly accepted Christian practice, why would James go to such lengths to make sure his readers kept it up?
First, this community was experiencing tremendous trials and suffering. In times of trial, we often feel temptation to withdraw into our protective cocoons. “Charity is a luxury for the comfortable,” we tell ourselves. But James knew better. One of the best things we can do when we’re experiencing trials is to extend care to others. This puts our trials in perspective, protects us from self-pity, and links us to others who can care for us in return.
The second reason James might have shared these words about caring for widows and orphans is because he knew that our tendency to do good work can become a habit and, once it’s a habit, can become disconnected from the purpose behind the habit. He doesn’t want us caring for widows and orphans merely out of a sense of social obligation. He wants us to show care as an overflow from our relationship with God; to do it because this is the sort of religion that God desires from us.
How is your relationship with God connected with your desire to do good? How does serving others shape your experience of trials?