I’ll be totally frank – Standing in the gap is costly, but it turns out it is the only kind of religion that God ever wants from us.
James 1:19-27 (The Voice) – Listen, open your ears, harness your desire to speak, and don’t get worked up into a rage so easily, my brothers and sisters. Human anger is a futile exercise that will never produce God’s kind of justice in this world. So walk out on your corrupt liaison with smut and depraved living, and humbly welcome the word of truth that will blossom like the seed of salvation planted in your souls. Put the word into action. If you think hearing is what matters most, you are going to find you have been deceived.
If some fail to do what God requires, it’s as if they forget the word as soon as they hear it. One minute they look in the mirror, and the next they forget who they are and what they look like. However, it is possible to open your eyes and take in the beautiful, perfect truth found in God’s law of liberty and live by it. If you pursue that path and actually do what God has commanded, then you will avoid the many distractions that lead to an amnesia of all true things and you will be blessed. If you put yourself on a pedestal, thinking you have become a role model in all things religious, but you can’t control your mouth, then think again. Your mouth exposes your heart, and your religion is useless. Real, true religion from God the Father’s perspective is about caring for the orphans and widows who suffer needlessly and resisting the evil influence of the world
We see that in this text, James is urging the church to move beyond hearing the word, and into a place of action. James is tasking the church with talking less, and doing more. James is reminding the church that there are people in the margins and that they are afflicted.
How are they afflicted? Widows and orphans in the 1st century had a lack of standing, no real source of income, and no protection. Add to that the biological function of living in survival mode – where cortisol continually floods the nervous system and neurological pathways breakdown – that is no way to live.
They were also afflicted because of their disconnect from society. It is in that disconnect, in that gap that Satan’s lie takes root. That lie of “you don’t matter” – “you are worth less” – “you are unloved” blooms.
So why would James have focused on this ministry as a marker of pure religion? Let’s take a brief look at the setting of this text. James was the president of the church at Jerusalem and known as the Lord’s brother. The bulk of the book can be traced directly back to the teachings of Jesus – it seems clear that James sat at the feet of Jesus. It is important to note that James wrote this epistle in a Jewish context. He did not see Christianity as a separate thing, but instead as a continuation, a re-development and perfection of the old.
Keeping that in mind will help us as we ask ourselves, from where does James draw a clear focus on the Oppressed and Marginalized at the end of this passage?
1) God’s historical heart for orphans and widows:
- Deuteronomy 10:18-19
- Psalm 10:14 (But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand), Psalm 68:5, Psalm 146:9
- Hosea 14:1-3
2) Now, let’s look at some warnings and guidance about how to treat the marginalized:
- Exodus 22:22-24
- Deuteronomy 14:29, Deuteronomy 24:17-18, Deuteronomy 24:19-22
- Psalm 82:3-5 – (Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked)
- Proverbs 23:10-11
- Isaiah 1:17 – (Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow)
- Jeremiah 7:5-7, Jeremiah 22:3 (This is what the lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place)
- Zechariah 7:9-10
3) What about those who don’t:
- Deuteronomy 27:19 (“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”)
- Isaiah 1:23
- Jeremiah 5:27-28
- Malachi 3:5 (“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the lord Almighty).
I remember the first time that I read this verse in Malachi about 10 years ago – I almost fell off my seat. Wait a minute…here we are at the end of the Old Testament and one of the parting thoughts is something that I had somehow put almost entirely in the purview of the New Testament. Reading this made me go back into the text and realize that God had continually been tasking God’s people with the mission of justice.
So what does this mean for us in this day and age today? It means that we, as God’s people continue to be called into the mission of standing in the gap for people outside of society. It is our job to combat the lie of the Evil One.
Now I know that the traditional idea of an orphan is almost obsolete in our country. But what we have now is Foster Children. There are approximately 430,000 of them in the United States today. They come from all different backgrounds and situations and they are generally in care because of neglect in one form or another.
Let me tell you a quick story about one of my children who came to us from the foster care system of Los Angeles County. The reality of their existence is that the worst of humanity has been done to these children and even though we have provided a loving, safe, warm, Christ-centered home for them, the scar of their identity as foster kids has imprinted on their souls.
My eldest was having a particularly rough day and at the end of several struggles my husband found her hiding underneath her desk and he asked her, “Sweetheart, I know you are having a rough day and that doing what you are supposed to do seems impossible today. Are you okay?”
She quietly looked up at him and said, “I’m just a foster kid.” What she was telling him at that moment is that she felt to her very core that she couldn’t belong, she couldn’t make good choices, she wasn’t worthy of love, she was just plain not worthy. She was just a foster kid.
Church, here is the reality we live in – at least 50% of homeless are former Foster Kids that have aged out of the system. They have been told and shown their whole lives, that they have not place in a family, that they have no place in society. So they grow up and they struggle to ever fit in.
The trauma that they have endured starting with the rupture of their primary biological relationship continued in the traumatization of trying to reconcile that the source of safety is not available to them, and when needs continued to be unmet, a sometimes violent disconnect from the community that should be surrounding them.
When we are callous to their trauma and pain, telling them to get over it, giving gifts instead of relationship, allowing ourselves to be fearful of their “issues,” we are re-traumatizing them over and over, ultimately communicating that they are less than full members of our communities.
So what about the widows?
Who are the widows? Well, to start with, the Single moms. The teen mother who was ostracized for getting pregnant. The woman whose husband abandoned the family. The woman whose husband went away to war and never came back. And many more.
While we may not think of contemporary single moms as vulnerable of a population as they were during the time of James’ writing, these moms will tell you that they are very often overlooked and seem to be invisible to others. Not to mention that in some Christian communities, even if their single status was not a choice, they are deemed as unqualified to lead or minister in the congregation or to fully participate in community life.
I have another story for you. In 2010, I went to Sundance with Fuller and was thrilled to find out that several of my classmates were from city and state where a relative of mine lives. She suffers from rapid-cycling bipolar disorder and also happens to be wiccan and pagan, which makes her feel distant from our Christian family. She has buried both fathers of her children. Because of her internal struggles, some might say that she is not fun to be around, but she kind of thinks the same of us Christians. It is my understanding that she pretty much feels that God’s people have let her down and betrayed her, and we have in many ways.
There is distance between her and me because I cannot effectively support her when my deep emotional/relational presence is required in my healing work with my children, and she struggles to find safe relationship within our family, for many reasons. In the past, she has been open to other people reaching out to her and her youngest child.
So I was excited to hear there were these people in ministry who could stop in and be tangibly present in the midst of her need – to be the face of God to her when she couldn’t see it from her own family. But you should have seen the faces of the people change from “eager to help” to “closed and distant” as I asked them to help me find someone to minister on the ground to her. Each of them said, “Well, we can arrange for someone to pick up her child for Sunday school.”
No one was willing to get messy enough to visit the “crazy” widow.
Thankfully, eventually, one of my family members sold her house and everything she had and moved across the country to be the face of God.
Corrupted by the world
I want to clarify that when I speak of “the world” I am not speaking about the people of the world. I am referring to the broken world systems that have been fueled by the Evil One’s desire to separate humanity from God.
We are surrounded by social conditions that promote the dehumanization of people and commodification of the person, which allows us to be hardened against the sufferings of others and separate our existence from theirs.
The world will tell you:
- It’s okay to objectify people
- We can’t help everyone, besides, God helps those who helps themselves
- The strong will survive – “you have a strong back”
- Don’t make connections – you need to stay mobile to be marketable
- The ends justify the means
Church, when we buy into these world systems, we turn away from the things that God has told us to be and do in this world. When we allow ourselves and others to marginalize people, we interrupt our relationship with God.
When we stand by and ignore the insidious presence of systemic racism, classism, and sexism, we have allowed ourselves to be corrupted into thinking that the systems are “just the way it is” and the truth of God is powerless to right injustice.
We are supposed to be the face of God to the world. We can talk about it and hear sermons about it but we need to remember that we humans experience God through people first – What about those who grew up on families with a twisted form of love? What about those who are isolated and avoided by the world?
God says – stand in the gap. I am the protector, THROUGH you. True religion does not merely give something for the relief of the distressed, but it visits them, it takes the oversight of them, it takes them under its care; so that is what επισκεπτεσθαι (episkeptesthai) means. It comes from skopos – a watchman. It goes to their houses, and speaks to their hearts; it relieves their wants, sympathizes with them in their distresses, instructs them in Divine things and recommends them to God.
Standing in the gap does not allow for our fear of getting messy and taking risks to keep us from engaging the marginalized. Standing in the gap is costly, but it is in direct opposition to how the world tried to pollute and corrupt us – by convincing us that our money, stuff and comfort is more important than human life.
Here is my challenge to you today.
First: Allow your heart to be broken. There is this great hymn called “Let Your Heart Be Broken For a world in need” and its point is that we have to engage our hearts and then ourselves. That our religion is based on a heart response AND an active response. Here is the second verse
Add to your believing deeds that prove it true,
Knowing Christ as Savior, Make Him Master too.
Follow in His footsteps, go where he has trod;
In the world’s great trouble risk yourself for God.
Second: Engage. Not everyone is called to Foster or Adopt. Not everyone is called to sell all of their possessions and move across the country to minister to a widow. However, we ARE called to be in a posture of being willing to do that if God asked it of us. We ARE called to get involved. We are called to go out to the afflicted and traumatized and love them. Not to fix them, but to be part of their healing journey by using our love and lives to speak truth against the lies of the Evil One.
Here is a practical example Church – we love those don’t we? There are about 430,000 Foster Children in the United States. There are about 450,000 churches in the United States. Do you see where I am going here, people? What if we could stop paying lip service and start coming around the families that are falling apart in our communities and love them? How else are those who feel unseen, unknown, and unsafe going to know the truth of who they really are – valid, heard, and precious?
We saw this in my eldest daughter when she was eight years old and we were starting to see how she was filled with the trauma of the things that have been done to her; they have shaped her and she is full of pain inside. She, through no fault of her own, will often get stuck in a cycle where she is desperate and hopeless and her response is heart-wrenching. One day, as she was in crisis, she screamed, “Just kill me and put me out of my misery. I am miserable.” As my husband and I worked to help her calm down, I started to sing her. She loves what she calls “church music” and it can give her peace and something to focus on.
On that day, as I sang to her, she started screaming and covering her ears and she said, “No, STOP! He doesn’t love me either.”
We cannot let the afflicted souls around us be filled with this lie. We must not buy into the world systems that let us pass them by.
The Voice Bible Copyright © 2012 Thomas Nelson, Inc. The Voice™ translation © 2012 Ecclesia Bible Society All rights reserved.