My wife and I currently have a four-year-old, ninety-pound golden retriever, Teddy. We’ve had dogs, often more than one, for nearly twenty years. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to us that vinyl flooring with a random pattern of brown dog paw prints on it would be a wonderful thing. Anyone who has ever owned a dog that went outside knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Anyway, for those non-dog owners out there, the reason this floor idea is so attractive to a dog owner is because when your dog comes in from the backyard on a rainy day, he almost certainly will track muddy brown paw prints all over your kitchen floor. Of course, you try to wipe them up, but it’s almost impossible to keep up with them.
With my dog paw pattern flooring, the dog tracks that you miss wiping up would just sort of blend into the pattern that was already on the flooring. It’s true that this wouldn’t make the floor any cleaner. But at least it might not look as dirty as it was. The paw stains might still be there, but you won’t be able to see them so easily. Don’t judge me! You grab for what you can get.
One of the facts that we’ve learned over all these years of dog ownership is that you can have a dog or you can have a really clean house, but you can’t have both. We’ve decided to have dogs. We work hard at keeping our house clean. But if you just look around my house, you’ll always be able to find dog hair in some corner or other, and you’ll always be able to find a dirty paw print somewhere on the floor. Especially on these snowy, wet winter days. You make your choices and decide what kind of stains you’ll tolerate.
And that thought leads me into our Bible passage, James 1:27. Here’s what James says there: “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their adversity and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” [NET]
So, maybe you can see why I began this post by talking about stains. James talks about not being stained by the world. This idea of being stained by the world is one that is a lot trickier than most of us recognize. We can all become pretty selective with regard to the kinds of stains we notice and, more important, the kinds of stains we don’t notice.
In the New Testament, the term “world” is used in several different ways. Sometimes when New Testament writers use the word “world,” they just mean the created world. You know, the place where we all live. When it’s used that way, the term “world” isn’t negative or bad. An example of that is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world.” There “world” doesn’t refer to something bad. There “world” just means the place that God created and loves.
But other times, New Testament writers use the term “world” to refer to the environment where sin and evil reign and oppose God’s redeeming work. Of course, that fallen environment is all around us. And it isn’t just “out there.” It’s inside of all of us too. We can’t get away from it. We can’t just avoid it. We carry evil and opposition to God with us.
But, of course, Jesus doesn’t want us to try to avoid the world anyway. Here’s what he prays for us in John 17:18: “Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.” [NET] But while Jesus sends us into the world, he also wants us to remain holy in the process. Here’s how his John 17 prayer goes on: “And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth.” [NLT] So, Jesus means us to holy, to be unstained by the evil of the fallen world where he sends us.
All of this, I think, is exactly what James has in mind when he writes this verse about our remaining “unstained” by the world. James understands the mission that Jesus has given us. We are to go into the world and change it for God. We are not supposed to go into the world and allow the world to change us. That’s what he means by remaining unstained by the world. He means that we are not to allow the world to influence us.
But as I said a moment ago, we can be very selective when it comes to the kinds of worldly influences that we consider to be stains. The part of the church that I come from tends to be super concerned about sex and sexual influences from the world. And in our hyper-sexualized world of today, they aren’t wrong about that. But we can sometimes become all too tolerant of—even oblivious to—other ways the world stains us.
Consumerism and materialism have deeply stained the American church, and mostly the American church doesn’t seem to care much about that stain at all. In fact, we often even celebrate it. We love our rich and famous churches and our rich and famous preachers. That’s because we have become badly stained by the consumerism and materialism of the world.
We are also stained by the world’s hard-heartedness and lack of concern for the suffering of others. As long as we ourselves aren’t suffering, we can be very tolerant of the suffering and struggling of others, especially if those suffering others don’t look like us or don’t talk like us or don’t live like us. That’s because we’ve become badly stained by the self-centeredness and nationalism and tribalism and ethnocentrism of the world.
What kinds of worldly stains are you tolerating in your life?
© 2022 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.