James 1 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world
I saw a picture recently of a mother and her young son walking through Tiananmen Square, Beijing China, wearing surgical masks over their mouth and nose. The title of the news story was “Face Masks Provide False Hope against Pollution”. On the day this picture was taken the levels of pollution were spiking at above 750 micrograms per cubic meter, a number 16 times the World Health Organization’s recommended upper limit.
It turns out that these surgical masks do almost nothing to prevent harmful air pollutants from contaminating their bodies. As one of the experts rightly suggested, surgical masks were created to decrease the risk of the wearer spreading disease, not to protect them from pollutants. For athletes in pollution-ridden cities, this is a far worse problem. In fact a Hong-Kong based ultra-runner ended up in the hospital after a 6 hour training run. He was diagnosed with exercise-induced bronchitis, given an inhaler and prescribed heavy antibiotics to expel fine particulate matter trapped in his lungs.
Experts agree that the most effective and obvious solution to the problems is to decrease the pollution, caused by excessive coal burning. The next would obviously be to move. Since an athlete in these cities likely has little effect on the environment they are training in and moving may not be a realistic option, many have turned to medical experts’ next recommendation which would be to more effectively protect oneself with N95 masks. These masks have industrial type filters, which protect athletes from the damaging effects of pollutants – often more damaging than smoking cigarettes. How ironic that those who exercise to keep themselves healthy are actually damaging their bodies.
While the issue of air pollution may not have been relevant in Biblical times, the theme of impurity and defiling is a frequent one. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for polluted is niddah and means impurity, especially from a personal perspective. In the New Testament one of the equivalent Greek words is aspilos, meaning unspotted, unblemished, pure, or clean. This word aspilos is the one used in today’s key verse in James 1 where we are admonished “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. In Greek they would have said that we are to keep ourselves “unspotted by the world”.
So how do we as Christians keep ourselves from being polluted or spotted by the world? As a Christian Athlete you will need to be a part of the world if you are going to compete. Do we do as the medical experts suggest and remove ourselves from the situation, or the world in this context? Perhaps we can create a commune somewhere in a remote area of the countryside with fellow believers to keep ourselves pure. Jesus clearly contradicted this suggestion when he came to this earth being very much in the world. In John 17:15-16 Jesus prays for his disciples and says “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”
So if removing ourselves from the world isn’t the answer for us as Christians, what is? I believe we can do two very effective things to keep ourselves pure in an impure world. One is that we can limit the amount of impurities that we are exposing ourselves to. In this media age, we can inundate our minds with messages that are contrary to God’s principles. The messages in secular movies, television shows, in media, in music are typically hostile to God’s nature and therefore hostile to “He who lives in us” if we are believers. A German, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, wrote in 1863 “Der Mensch ist, was er Isst.”, meaning “A man is what he eats”. This pertains to spiritual matters as well. If we fill our minds with messages contrary to God, then we should not be surprised if we become impure and if we struggle in areas of godliness and sin.
A second effective answer for Christians is to fit ourselves with a spiritual mask. I believe that mask is fitted with the filters of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures. If we spend time communing with Jesus, if we spend time reading the Bible, if we listen to Godly music filled with scripture, the Holy Spirit will be finely tuned and we will be able to filter the pollutants of the world. As we are exposed to things in the world, we will know what is of God and what is not and we will be able to “keep ourselves from being polluted by the world”. Are you running with an effective spiritual mask, or are you risking your spiritual life by running in a polluted world without protection?