Pure Religion, Undefiled
So what is “pure religion”? That question has been on my mind ever since I left the mission field in South Africa. In the New Testament, James tells us, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself spotted from the world.” (James 1:27)
I absolutely loved my mission. I would be hard-pressed to name anything, outside of my family, I have ever loved more. I served among some of the most humble, strong-spirited, hardworking, and God-fearing individuals that I have ever had the privilege of being associated with. After working my hardest around these saints–who I felt possessed the true spirit of Christ–I realized I hadn’t understood my religion at all! After this eye-opening experience, I was forced to acknowledge my life had been all letter and not enough spirit (which leads me to a blog post about the letter of the law vs. spirit of the law soon!).
I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t thoroughly disappointed to come back from my mission and experience an alarmingly potent dullness to religion I had never felt before. Church started to feel slow, contrived, and procedural. It was stale in comparison to the culture of saints I had left behind. What went wrong? Why didn’t religion feel…pure to me?
First of all, I had to identify what really changed when I stepped back on American soil: The Church or the people? It was definitely the people.
Second, I had to identify what it was about the African people I loved so much: Their love and zeal for Christ, boundless service, and enthusiastic spirit for the work of God.
Third, I had to identify how to make where I am, right now, a place that practices pure religion. Why can’t I take what I learned from my African friends and implement them here? Wasn’t that one of the key points of my mission? Not too surprisingly I learned that if I wanted to experience pure religion, it had to start with me.
LDS Apostle Marvin J. Ashton said:
Certainly one of our God-given privileges is the right to choose what our attitude will be in any given set of circumstances. We can let the events that surround us determine our actions—or we can personally take charge and rule our lives, using as guidelines the principles of pure religion. Pure religion is learning the gospel of Jesus Christ and then putting it into action. Nothing will ever be of real benefit to us until it is incorporated into our own lives.
Elder Ashton continued by saying:
This religion is not to retaliate, or to exchange in evil actions or unkind statements. Pure religion encompasses the ability to cherish, to build up, and to turn the other cheek in place of destroying and tearing down. (1)
Although the transition between a mission and normal life was (and still continues to be) a difficult procedure, I’ve come to find that faith alone is not pure. James reminds us, “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:20). Indeed, service and love are the two major purifiers of religion (Matthew 22:37-40).
Has Church suddenly become mindbogglingly exciting after recognizing how to practice pure religion? No. In fact, I find my eyes still get heavier than they ought to during Sunday School. But it’s OK to have weaknesses. Jesus spent the entirety of His mortal life with people who had weaknesses. So whether or not you’ve ever nodded off in Church is not a measure of pure religion. Like Elder Ashton said, pure religion is learning+action. It is building up, not tearing down. It is cherishing, not crushing. It is turning the other cheek, not slapping it.
I’m not the best at practicing pure religion, but I suppose no one is. Pure religion is different than true religion. True religion is a personal, individual quest. Pure religion is not a denomination so much as it is a lifestyle. I have some evangelical Christian friends that have practiced pure religion better than some of my LDS friends. I have seen Christ-like love and service from individuals who don’t even believe in Christ. I have witnessed people from many faiths express pure religion, and I have come to find out that we all essentially desire the same thing, whether consciously or subconsciously: To serve God by serving His children.
This is a natural desire. We all want to be happy and see happiness in others. This is James 1:27 in a nutshell: If we practice charity and obedience in all things, we will come to find pure religion, which will naturally lead us to find true religion.
(1) Elder Marvin J. Ashton’s talk, Pure Religion, can be found by clicking here.