For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and many others, the biblical apostle James’ definition of pure religion is more than a platitude. It is an extremely practical way to approach personal, family and community challenges. James’ understanding of this principle is expressed in this way: “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.”
Latter-day Saints take this interpretation of pure religion very seriously. Being a person of faith is something you do within the context of a world full of suffering, not just what you say or believe. Genuine and frequent charitable acts, though, are not enough on their own. They need to be enacted by individuals who are trying to live morally upright lives, or are striving to keep themselves “unspotted from the world.”
This parallel approach to faith-inspired personal devotion and service to others is not unique to Mormons. People the world over share this philosophy, as is evident in the lives of many Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, Jews and adherents of other religious traditions. The common thread is a respect and love for God that spills over to a respect and love for His children. Such reverence for the Creator and His children motivates many across the faith spectrum to seek to do His will in all things — both personally and interpersonally.
Many Latter-day Saints feel this desire to reach out to the downtrodden — James’ widows and fatherless — and find that the two elements of his pure religion exist in a symbiotic relationship. Learning Christ’s teachings and reading about the way He conducted Himself motivates individuals to look for ways to engage with others the way He did. And serving those in need functions as a refining process — humbling the server, bringing her or him closer to Christ and His example.
This relationship between personal discipleship and communal responsibility is not only brought to life in the experiences of those providing assistance to the poor and the needy. Within the Mormon paradigm, the recipients of charitable service require temporal assistance first and foremost. Once they receive that initial urgent support, they can then be encouraged and helped to acquire skills and confidence to become self-reliant. This then allows them, over time, to not only provide for their own needs and those of their family, but also to become providers of support and hope to yet others. Pure religion, then, is the marriage of inward-looking, soul-searching self-improvement to outward-looking, soul-lifting efforts to improve the situation of others.
There are no proselytizing strings attached to Latter-day Saint charitable and humanitarian outreaches to those in need. Many recipients of service, though, are so inspired by the example of those who reach out to them that they decide to extend their newfound upward temporal momentum to their personal spiritual journeys.