Helping the Needy

A positive test of true religion

In the last verse, James confronts a professing Christian who cannot control his tongue and brands his religion as vain. Now, after exposing hypocrisy, he goes on in verse 27 to give the two marks of genuine religion.

As we remarked in our introductory lesson, verse 27 provides the term "godliness" with a formal definition. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." In other words, the positive side of pure religion has two components. It consists of good works together with personal separation from the world.

As we said before, James obviously did not mean to limit charitable works to the one he chose as an example. Rather, he meant that one mark of authentic Christianity is a life devoted to helping the needy, whether they be widows or orphans or anyone else. But lest we think that charitable works alone are genuine religion, James added the requirement to remain unsoiled by the world. Good works without personal separation are pointless. Separation means separation from worldly sin. So, the practice of good works in the absence of separation leads to a church that may seem prosperous, but that lacks the power of God to gain eternal results. God will not pour power and blessing on a church that fails to draw its spiritual babes out of sin's bondage.

Yet, although personal separation is the second mark of true religion, the first mark is to practice good works. A religion bearing the second mark but not the first is sterile, because good works are a visible expression of love for those who receive the benefit. Therefore, neglect of good works on behalf of fellow believers suppresses an atmosphere of love within the church, and neglect of good works on behalf of unbelievers chokes off a vibrant testimony of the love that can only be found among God's people (John 13:34–35). A church void of this unique love soon becomes a dead church, for a loveless religion is not the religion of Christ.

Widows and orphans

As chief examples of the needy, James mentions widows and orphans. In Bible times, a widow was helpless to support herself. She could not take a job. Unless she was a trained craftsman she could not make anything to sell. As a result, she was completely dependent on relatives. Since relatives can be stingy, it was common for widows to be extremely poor. Likewise, orphans had no means of support apart from relatives, who might give them very little or neglect them completely. James’s own concern for these bereaved members of society won him the admiration of the poorer class in Jerusalem. Touched by that concern, James says that our duty as believers to widows and orphans is to "visit" them. No doubt the word "visit" is referring mainly to visits for the purpose of taking them material assistance. Yet also within the compass of this phrase are visits for the purpose of showing sympathy and relieving loneliness.

The poor brother

Yet if we are animated by the kind of compassion that pleases God, we will not restrict our charity to widows and orphans. We will help anyone who is going through difficulties. One common case is a brother trapped in poverty. Throughout the Bible we are commanded to supply his needs (James 2:15-6; 1 John 3:17; Acts 20:35; Rom. 12:13; Gal. 6:10; Eph. 4:28; 1 Tim. 6:18; Heb. 13:16; Matt. 5:42; Lev. 25:35). From these texts we learn three principles:

  1. Charity of this kind is the most basic and indispensable obligation of brotherly love.
  2. Charity is a special obligation of the rich.
  3. Brothers in Christ have first claim upon charity. In other words, they should always be the first to receive it.

Giving to the poor does not exhaust our duty to help others. The Bible urges us also to visit the sick and those in prison (Matt. 25:34-36), to bear one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2), and to share the sorrow of any who are grieving (Rom. 12:15). Such forms of charity may involve material assistance, but the greater need is usually emotional support. Of course, the greatest need wherever trouble strikes is prayer, but true Christian love always combines prayer with down-to-earth ways of giving help.


The following questions will search out whether you are meeting your obligation to show compassion for the needy.

1. As I think about widows and orphans in my field of acquaintance, can I say that I have inquired about their needs, and if I have discovered any needs, have I offered help?

In our society, where life expectancy far exceeds what it was in Bible times, there are hardly any orphanages, and few orphans are left without care. But since women tend to outlive men, there are many widows. Perhaps you say, "In our society they need no money from me. They have social security and Medicare." But many enter retirement without adequate social security and medical coverage. And many who start off with enough support find themselves unable to keep up with inflation, which is a great evil upon the backs of the elderly. The small increases in social security designed to offset inflation may keep pace with some rising costs, such as food, but they may lag woefully behind many others: for one, medical care; for another, property taxes. If an elderly person has the misfortune of owning property in a desirable location, he will soon be taxed out of house and home.

As they cope with financial pressures, the elderly may rapidly deplete their resources and end up on Medicaid and other welfare programs. These hardly provide a decent way of life. Yet some of the elderly are too proud or too debilitated even to apply, and they languish in deepening poverty.

Who should carry the burden of helping the elderly, especially widows? Paul provides a clear answer. They should be cared for by their own families, and he defines the responsible family as younger relatives, especially children and grandchildren (1 Tim. 5:4, 8, 16; the world translated "nephews" in v. 4 means "descendants"). He does not wish to make life even harder for elderly sisters and brothers. If someone in his declining years has no family to meet his needs, then it is the obligation of the church to fill the gap (1 Tim. 5:3, 5-7, 9–10, 16).

2. What am I doing to help the elderly whose lives have been reduced to the confines of a nursing home?

Within the body of Christ, they are perhaps the poorest of all. Their lives have been reduced to a bed, a chair, and a bathroom. They may be attended by people who view them as mere objects, with no real value. They may be granted little privacy and modesty. Their calls for help may be ignored. In some of the cheapest establishments they may even be subjected to abuse. The least we can do is to let them know they are not forgotten and to give them a sense of our love.

When in her seventies, my mother started a nursing home ministry that continued over ten years. Toward the end, she was older than most of the people she visited. She was appreciated not only by the nursing home residents, but also by the care-givers and administrators, who gave her special recognition in the form of awards and plaques and publicity. In every respect her outreach to the elderly was an effective testimony for Christ.

3. Am I helping others who are poor?

But you say, "In America there are no poor people apart from those who have allowed laziness or some other vice to overmaster them and drag them down into degradation." Yes, sin may be the reason for poverty in some cases, and certainly we would not question that the poor are sinners. They are sinners because they belong to a race consisting entirely of sinners except for Jesus. But we can rejoice that God offers all humanity His mercy. Are you not a sinner? Has His mercy not come to you? Why, then, should you decline to show mercy to another sinner like yourself? Your helping hand to that single welfare mom living in squalor with her seven kids, or to that derelict on the street corner, or to that druggie and his freakish looking girlfriend is the hand of God’s mercy. You may not see any good result, but God will repay you. And occasionally your effort may snatch a soul from the brink of hell.

4. What am I doing to help brethren who are not exactly poor, but who have far less financial power than I have and who, as a result, are deprived of privileges that I take for granted?

One family can afford to give their children a good Christian education. Another cannot. This kind of inequality does not belong in the body of Christ, for one child is as valuable in God’s eyes as another.

The more prosperous should always sacrifice luxuries to provide the less prosperous with necessities. What the more prosperous lose through generosity may not be good for them anyway. The luxuries they set aside may have fostered carnality rather than spirituality, leaving them more in love with this world than with the world to come.

Sharing among believers has a strong precedent in the practice of the early church, a church filled with the Holy Spirit and submitted to His leadership to a degree never seen again in church history. As a result, "Neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common" (Acts 4:32).

5. What am I doing to help poor brethren around the world?

Many of God’s people live in societies far less prosperous than our own. Paul expected the gentile Christians in Greece and Asia Minor to help their much poorer Jewish brethren in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:25-27; 2 Cor. 8:13-14; 9:1-4, 7, 12). So likewise, we should help our poorer brethren in other nations. How may we do this?

In years past, some mission organizations offered food and other assistance to converts in the churches they were planting, but this kind of help proved to be unwise. It produced too many false converts, who remained on the fringes of the church in good times, then disappeared in times of persecution.

Still, there is a place for sending material assistance to foreign believers. Especially helpful is money to provide medical services, school facilities and staffing, or church buildings. Relief in a time of famine or natural disaster is always of critical importance. Both as individual believers and as church bodies, we should be alert to such ways of helping our brethren abroad.

6. Am I helping believers with other kinds of needs?

Do you show concern for the sick and seek ways of easing their burden? Do you mourn with the bereaved as much as you rejoice with the blessed? Do you give encouragement to the despondent and guidance to the confused? When a family goes through crisis as a result of strained relationships, do you enter the spiritual fray on their behalf, wielding the weapons of counsel and prayer? Do you notice new people in the church and respond to their needs? Their primary need is to feel welcome, and you meet it by showing hospitality. Do you notice new believers? What they need, of course, is discipling. Do you make time for any one-on-one ministry?

Study Questions

  1. What are the two positive marks of genuine religion?
  2. Is helping widows and orphans enough of a good work to achieve pure religion?
  3. Why are good works pointless if there is no personal separation?
  4. Why is personal separation sterile if there are no good works?
  5. Why in James’s day were widows and orphans especially needy?
  6. What does James mean when he tells us to visit them?
  7. Who else should receive our help?
  8. Giving help is a sign of what basic virtue?
  9. Who has a special obligation to help the poor?
  10. Who has first claim upon our help?
  11. What other forms of charity does Scripture recommend besides material assistance?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.