God’s Heart for The Poor – James

Today we continue in looking at various Scriptures that point to God’s heart for the poor as well as His desire His followers demonstrate His heart.  Today we will look at James.

James contains one of the most frequently quoted passages when it comes to ministry among those on the fringe – especially when it comes to ministering to orphans.  James 1:27 reads, “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.”  What a powerful passage in what kind of religious practice The Father calls us to in response to His grace.

To look after orphans and widows in their distress is the part of the passage that most who call the church to a position of social justice latch onto, but what should we do with the rest of this passage?  The “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” part of the passage can be hard to figure out, almost as if James is changing subjects mid-sentence.  This part of the verse has been used for everything from separation from society to a focus on morality to creating rules about what we should or shouldn’t watch, where is appropriate for a Christian to visit and what “true” worship looks like.

Now, while I do believe that we need to pay attention to morality, I am not convinced that is what James is pointing to in this passage.  What if James is pointing towards an extension of the first part of his sentence?  What if the caution to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world pertains to the issues that would hold us back from serving the widows and orphans and others who live on the fringe?  What if those forces have less to do with “sin management” as Dallas Willard calls it and more to do with greed, pride, self-absorption, power, success and control.  I am struck by how many of us who would talk about the effects of the world on our moral issues such as promiscuity, chemical addictions, marriages and abortion avoid issues such as materialism, the quest for success and power at all costs, the continuing disempowering of those who are vulnerable and disregard for the innocent.   We try to read James as a balancing act, when in fact I wonder if he might have been further explaining the position of caring for the widow and the orphan.   Could it be that James is calling us to a very radical stand rather than a simple morality focus that would say, “I don’t smoke, I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls that do?”

Of course in asking the question, it kind of gives away my perspective.  I tend to believe that James is calling us to look deeper at the forces of the world that pollute us.  I tend to think that there are very subversive forces that we are to be on the lookout for.  While I believe that moral issues are in here as well, I do think that the issues of power, control, pride, prosperity, self-serving and materialism are perhaps even more destructive forces of this world that keep us from being about what God has called us to.  These forces keep us wrapped up as Jesus followers and hold our churches back from fully proclaiming and practicing what Jesus has called us to.  We like the quest for security, control and power that subversively grabs ahold of us.  And we stay on this quest without questioning whether it may be keeping us from God’s heart for the poor.  We long to have “enough” and to be the dominant voice and force in all arenas of our society and on this quest it is easy to lose sight of God’s heart for us to act on behalf of the voiceless and the powerless.

Consider a family who in their quest for security buys a large home (so that everyone has enough room), has ample stuff (to make sure we are comfortable), has an exorbitant food bill (because we all need to eat good stuff), has kids in all kinds of activities (because if they aren’t well rounded then they aren’t going to get into college), drives a new car (for security because an older car might break down), has expensive hobbies (as an expression of God’s desire for me to have an outlet), etc.  I could go on.  Now, of course none of these things are evil or bad in and of themselves.  However, could it be that the forces of this world pollute us in this quest?   Could it be that this pollution keeps us from really making our lives count as an expression of gratitude to God and as a responsive action back to Him?  Could it be that part of that pollution is when safety, security, comfort and success in this world take the place of what trust in God for safety, security, comfort and success really looks like?

I love what author Ann Voskamp points to in her book “One Thousand Gifts” as she writes,”Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what He gives.  We hunger for something more, something other.”  The sin of ingratitude (Voskamp’s phrase) keeps us bound up in trying to get more for ourselves while ignoring what God has offered and the response that we then make towards Him through others.

While James 1 has become the cornerstone for much mercy and compassion ministry around the world today, it may be worth also listening to some of the rest of what James has to say.  These writings also draw us to God and His call to us to respond to Him as His followers by caring for those in greatest need – the voiceless and vulnerable.  Perhaps as we do so, we’ll also fight the good fight against those subversive forces that so easily draw us to continued pollution by the world rather than expressing His Kingdom in a more fully orbed way.

While I am going to list some more of what James says on this topic at the end of this post, in closing I draw your attention to James 5.  Consider James words…and how his words call out to those of us who live in affluence in The West today,

“1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” James 5

Below are some more passages from James:

“1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. 12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2


“14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” James 2


1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

4 You adulterous people,[a] don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us[b]? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:“God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” James 4


“13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James 4

3 Comments on “God’s Heart for The Poor – James

  1. Jerry…this is so spot on. I resonate with everything you said…especially regarding the latter part of James 1:27. I’ve often thought myself that caring for the orphan and the widow is actually an effective way to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world! The more we are immersed in loving others and bringing the kingdom to earth, the less time we have to get hung up by the world. Really compelling thoughts here…thanks for sharing.

  2. thank you for sharing this jerry, it really hits home as this has been on my heart since we brought our twins home. when we heard you speak in rochester, you said something to the effect of not being able to truly see what it meant to help until you were out of america or something along those lines. that has really stuck with me, but now i cannot remember your exact words when i want to share with others what you said. for this seems to be a constant topic when we meet as the church. do you remember what it was you said, and if so, could you refresh my memory? it just really made sense to me at the time. thanks.

  3. Hi Karrie. It was great to hear from you and to get to meet you a couple of months ago. hmm. I am wondering what it might be that I said in Rochester? Here is what I am thinking you are referring to. I believe that for many of us in the church there is the desire to help and it comes as a response to needs which we see around us. Sometimes we want to give money to someone or somehow minimize their suffering by providing material resource. What is possible, however is that we act out of a “god complex” where we see ourselves as the ones with the capacity to rescue and in a superior sort of way we give to those who are poor. This is not done consciously, but sometimes we give out of pity. We want to give as God leads us to and we want to meet material needs, but I do think we need to be careful that we are not simply doing an activity that makes us feel good and feeds a need within us. This can feel like hair splitting, but I think its worth checking our hearts in.

    What we have noticed in our time in Addis is that the giving of resource sometimes can lead to a dependency on a person or to a misperception of our place. At times we can be seen as the providers or the rescuers which then gets in the way of people seeing God as the only true source of rescue. We want to be caught doing good…but in essence it can lead to a dehumanizing of the person we are trying to help. Ethiopia has areas which have been thoroughly NGOized which leads to an already great misperception before foreigners ever set foot in the area. The perception is that the foreigners have a lot of money (which they often do) and therefore they are there to rescue people out of their pain by providing resource…and sometimes an endless supply of resource. However, this kind of “aid” can actually further erode someone’s dignity as they start to depend on the foreigner for aid and as the foreigner misses out on the richness that is present within the person to (with a little support) regain dignity and share what God has placed within them with the foreigner.

    There are no easy answers here, but I do feel as if we have to tread lightly in these waters always being extra vigilant to the voice of The Holy Spirit and be slow to give an emotional reaction to need when we see it. I am more and more convinced that ongoing, deepening, significant relationship which includes mutual respect and mutual accountability is the way that we can make a difference when we are providing resources…however outside of these relationships I believe there is great ongoing harm that can be done. I’m not sure if this is what you were referring to…if it’s not, please let me know. These are some quick off the cuff remarks that deserve a much longer blog post someday. For now, I’d recommend reading “When Helping Hurts” by Brian Fikkert – an incredible read. Much love to you guys!

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