What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘religion’? Someone summarized religion with this phrase “rites, robes, bells and smells”. The word is often associated with irrelevant traditions, legalistic rules, hypocritical clergy, dreary routine, a crutch for comfort, judgement and the list goes on. As a result I have attempted to remove myself from ‘religions’ influence on my life by using clichéd phrases like “Well I’m not religious, I have a relationship with God” to validate my position when defending the reason why I am not religious. Jefferson Bethke wrote a poem called “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus.” This poem has been an inspiration and encouragement to millions of people. It contains much truth but unfortunately, I think in his attempt to highlight the difference between religion and faith, religion has been painted as irrelevant and unimportant before God and people. Yet religion, despite being misrepresented by a few, still has an important role to play in the world that we live in. The reason is because the Bible speaks of religion that is acceptable to God.
James 1:26-27 says, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 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.”
It seems clear from this Scripture that religion is something ordained by God for His creation to practice. So despite all the negative stigma attached to the word, religion in and of itself is not the problem. The problem is that God condemns the practice of false or worthless religion. God will teach us through his servant James that religion is not a dead formality but a living faith and something that is relevantly woven into every aspect of our lives. True religion should affect every aspect of our lives: our communication, our conduct, and our character.
In the previous four verses James warned his readers of the danger of only listening to the word of God but not doing what it says. James is so concerned about this issue that he now goes on to expose and condemn such worthless religion in three specific ways:
1.A lack of reality
“If anyone considers himself religious…he deceives himself.” Do you consider yourself to be religious? Perhaps you attend church a few times a year, read your Bible every now and again when the busyness of life allows you to, offer up a prayer to the Lord before you eat and when you find yourself in a difficult situation, you give tithes to the church, contribute to a charity to help others or live a relatively moral lifestyle. James warns us that it is possible to think that we’re religious but in reality we are terribly deceived. “Deceives” means to “mislead or seduce by the heart”. My friend could your heart be misled about the true nature of your religious practice before God? Perhaps James could be speaking about you? The very person he is warning is the person who thinks that they are on the right path! If deception were so easy to detect James would not have to issue this warning for us to examine our hearts before God. How do we know if we are being deceived?
2. A lack of restraint
“and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue”.James exposes one of the clearest ways in which men and women reveal the falsity of their religious profession and that is by the words that they speak. Jesus taught that in Matthew 12:34 “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Try as they may the deceived person will eventually be betrayed by their own mouth. The particular fault that James diagnoses is that there is a lack of restraint with the tongue. He sees the tongue as a powerful animal, needing to be restrained, held on a tight rein, kept in check. As far as James is concerned, a tongue uncontrolled by the speaker is a sign of a heart uncontrolled by the savior. How are you fairing in this area? Do the words that you speak to others reveal a heart that is being controlled and governed by God or being misled?
3. A lack of results “and his religion is worthless.”
An uncontrolled tongue is a symptom that the heart is still in need of change and as a result this religion is worthless. “Worthless” means “fruitless or useless or vain”. It is worthless in two ways: Firstly a man or woman with unchecked speech will not be respected by others and as a result their ability to influence people towards a righteous life will be made invalid. Secondly a man or woman’s religion will prove worthless before God. They will not bear fruit of eternal significance and all their empty words will be burned up by the fire of judgement.
James now turns from condemning worthless religion to commending true religion and he does this by giving two illustrations of the kind of outward service that is acceptable to God. I think it is important to mention that James is not giving us a definitive description of religion that offers forgiveness of sins. Instead he is illustrating the kind of things he expects to see when a person’s religion is real, when his faith is genuine. Perhaps it is also necessary to clarify what James means when he says “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this…” Is James saying that salvation that God accepts is doing good works? Not at all! Salvation has always been by faith alone in Christ alone. James seems to have a genuine concern that faith in Christ should lead to a right life demonstrated by good works. James provides us with two examples:
1.Practical helpfulness “To visit orphans and widows in their affliction…”
God is a Father to the fatherless and a defender of the widow (Psalm 68:5). What a picture of the heart of God. “To visit” carries with it the idea that we are to care for people and to have a heart of compassion just as God has a heart of compassion for orphans and widows. “Affliction” has as its primary meaning “suffering brought about by the pressure of circumstances.” Does this not describe most people around us today? Is not that word “pressure” one of the most commonly felt pains in our culture today? People are under severe pressure- Financially, mentally, emotionally and relationally. James is saying that true religion will show itself in this kind of situation by the Christian going to the help of the person in need , doing all that they can to alleviate the pressure and care for the person.
2. Personal holiness “and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
James has addressed how true religion affects a person’s communication and conduct towards others. Now he turns to how true religion must affect the character of a person. The Christian is to ensure that he is not polluted by the world. John described a Christians character duty like this “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). In other words, the world system is directly opposed to the practice of true religion. It will entice the Christian to pursue pleasures, possessions, and power instead of practicing God’s love. Christians are in the world but they must seek to keep themselves from these things and live holy lives before God.