There may be no more shocking juxtaposition in all of religious literature the world over.
Deuteronomy 10:17 describes God’s utter transcendence this way. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.”
If humans were to feel even a fraction of the power and purity these words imply, we would hardly be able to breathe. Yet the very next sentence may be even more breathtaking, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner…”
The One who is utterly above is also intimately alongside. The most mighty is near to the most vulnerable. God’s unalloyed heart is shot through with feelings for the downtrodden — caring deeply, drawing close, and acting on their behalf.
All of Scripture conveys this jarring combination. Evil can’t survive near God any more than a virus on the surface of the sun. He is clean as glowing coals. “Our God,” says the book of Hebrews, “is a consuming fire.” (12:29). Totally holy, totally pure. And yet, this purity is not like white gloves that daintily avoid dirt and grime. God, in all His holiness, plunges down, into the manure of a stable. As a lowly baby born in obscurity and a humble man rejected on the Cross, He does His best work amidst the muck of human misery and strife. He moves towards, and not away from, those places where suffering is most acute.
God calls His children to do the same — holding together this seemingly-opposite pairing. On the one hand, as James 1:27 puts it, pure religion is a life unstained by the world’s dyes. It is untainted, set apart, and utterly clean; it transcends all debasement, corruption, and falseness.
And yet…this is not a detached rectitude or delicate piety. Pure religion, James tells us, moves towards. Like God himself, it wades into the mire. It mirrors the Incarnation, opening itself to sorrow and strain in order to give hands-on care to the most vulnerable, particularly the orphan and the widow, and to any others amidst their distressing need.
This pure religion is never standoffish or shrinking. It’s not the never-to-be-touched teacup display, set on a shelf. Rather, it is the spotless steel of a scalpel that’s been purified by flame, prepared to cut so that it might heal. It is an upright judge, one never corrupted by bribes and so trusted to speak only what is fair and just. It is sparkling droplets of water — once polluted, now purified — spilling life to parched humanity and thirsty ground.
Pure religion is untainted that it might be useful. It is set apart not merely to be preserved but for special application. It is both holy and helpful. It is full purity and full purpose, joined together.
These two goals, of course, come together. The former fuels the latter, and the latter the former. Only those free from the world’s grasping desires can give themselves in service to others who may never repay. And we grow deeper and purer in that distinctiveness as we reflect our Father’s heart in serving the most vulnerable.
This is, at its essence, the work of discipleship. It is about growing steadily to be more like Jesus Christ each day — aiding others in this growth and leaning into it ourselves.
It begins first in the small, unseen paths of one’s thought life and small daily choices — prayer, thanksgiving, yielding to others. From these hidden places, it rises into visible actions and, eventually, forms our habits and dispositions. Day by day, our longings and loves come to mirror more fully the heart and character of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, this steady-growing inner character springs up in good fruit for all around us to taste and see: love and joy and peace, work of justice and mercy and other service that brings good to others, glory to God, and pleasure to us as we participate in His good work on earth.
What is the Pure Religion Project?
The Pure Religion Project is an initiative from the members of the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) working together. Simply put, the Project aims to inspire and equip God’s people to live the “pure religion” described in the book of James and invited throughout Scripture. We want to help Christians to live in ways that are decisively different and set apart and embody self-giving service for the orphan, widow, and others in distress. Holy, and helpful.
We want to help Christians to live in ways that are decisively different and set apart and embody self-giving service for the orphan, widow, and others in distress. Holy, and helpful.
We seek especially to help local churches live this vision together as a community. Our goal is not recruitment or activism. It is Christian discipleship, ultimately to see the people of God overflowing with the love of God.
This is the earnest aim of the Pure Religion Project. We long to help God’s people grow in this character, reflecting both the holiness of God and His merciful, near-coming care. We aim especially to help local churches live this out together — growing as communities that are both unpolluted by the priorities and patterns of the world and caring sacrificially for orphans and widows in their distress.
How does the Pure Religion Project help churches?
CAFO’s Pure Religion Project provides tools and resources, teaching, and more to help pastors and lay leaders build effective foster, adoption, orphan care, family support and community development ministries in their church. This includes practical guidance for the nuts-and-bolts of building ministry programs with an “everyone can do something” approach to wrap-around support for foster, adoptive, and struggling biological families. It also encompasses guidance and resources for wise, effective and sustainable engagement in a cross-cultural global context. At the same time, all Project Resources are grounded in a rich vision for whole-life discipleship, centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We wish to be in the world but not of it: not grasping for the things that our neighbors prize, yet living gladly at their side and laboring for their good. Not constantly immersed in the songs and stories and distractions of our day, and so able to offer wisdom from beyond our time. Not dyed by the values and vision of our culture, and so able to give precious gifts that it badly needs.
Unpolluted that we might be useful. Set apart for special utility. Holiness and helpfulness, intertwined. Purity with great purpose.
This is the pure religion we desire to cultivate … and, especially, to live.
We look forward to introducing more about the Pure Religion Project in the coming months, including new videos and resources leading up to Orphan Sunday and Stand Sunday this November 12th! In the meantime, we invite you to check out the new Pure Religion Project Guide and shareable resources for churches, and to pray for God’s heart for pure religion to take root in all of us.
Director of Church Engagement and Mobilization, CAFO