Religious or Spiritual?


James 1:27 “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.”

Religion is out. “Spirituality” is in. More than one family has excused themselves from my invitation to attend worship this way: “We’re just not very religious people, but we are spiritual.”

Movie stars claim to be spiritual. The Christian Science website is “” Christian colleges are appointing chairs of the “spiritual theology” department. A book I like about Lutheranism is titled The Spirituality of the Cross.

But what does it mean to be spiritual? Tom Schaefer wrote a scathing commentary on modern spirituality for the Wichita, KS Eagle, several years ago. He sets it up as a lampoon of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” This game show is called “Who Wants to Be a Spiritual Person.” The contestant describes himself this way. “I’m a businessman who’s never quite found a religion that suits me. Besides, Sunday is my golfing day. I’m looking for a ready made, easy-to-follow spirituality that doesn’t make too many taxing demands and fits with my lifestyle.”

Christian writer Eugene Peterson sees the same thing infecting Christians. Spirituality has little to do with repenting of sins, receiving forgiveness, believing the gospel, and serving my neighbor. It has much to do with getting more out of life. It’s all about me. “With Christ, you are better, stronger, more likeable, you enjoy some ecstasy.”

If that is spirituality, maybe religion deserves a second look. The Apostle James uses a word for religion that deals with the external practice of your faith. The kind of religious practice our heavenly Father desires reflects two of the great concerns in the commandments: a life of unselfish love for our neighbor, and an unselfish life of personal purity before God. Looking after widows and orphans is a practical example of the first. Keeping oneself from being polluted by the world is a general exhortation to the latter.

We Christians tend to emphasize one to the exclusion of the other. Some of us immerse ourselves in lives of good works. We are “activists.” Raising funds for a food bank or shelter, volunteering at an inner city youth center, building homes for the poor, mission trips to third world countries-this stands in line with concern for widows and orphans. But do we excuse ourselves for satisfying every sinful craving? Ignoring personal purity, neglecting the practice of self control, is another kind of selfishness. Real spiritual harm comes from being polluted by the world.

Conservative Christians may have more trouble in the other direction. We still believe and preach what God has to say about sex and marriage. We talk about materialism and greed, though it has a greater hold on us than we like to admit. But we excuse ourselves for overlooking the plight of the less fortunate. We forget that Jesus does not summarize the commandments by saying “Be good.” He summarizes them by saying, “Love.” Go find someone to whom you can show your love. God has put us here to help the widows, and the orphans, and anyone else who needs what we can give.

Jesus lived both sides of this style of religion. No one’s life was ever purer. He was tempted in every way just as we are, yet was without sin. He loved the widow of Nain and all the needy people who came to him for healing or help. He looked after an entire world of spiritual beggars when he gave his life to remove our debt of sin.

That was not merely a great example of pure and faultless religion. That is the redemption that sets us free from our less than pure, and fault-filled, religion. That is the reason that God accepts you and me as pure and faultless.

Whether we call it “religion” or “spirituality” or “sanctification” or  simply “Christian life,” let’s live our lives for him who lived this way for us.

First Picture: By Andreas Praefcke – Own work (own photograph), CC BY 3.0,
Second Picture:By Tom Corser, CC BY-SA 2.0 uk,


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