READ : James 1:26-27
What, in God’s eyes, is genuine religion? Is it in us?
What Is “Religion”?
I’d like to think with you now about religion. I wonder what that term means to you. I’ve heard people talk about it as though it were something mysterious that you catch. “So and so has been a different man,” they say, “since he got religion.” Sometimes a person will decline to participate in a certain activity because, he says, “it’s against my religion.” Religion, together with politics, is said by many to be one of those touchy issues you should never discuss. And to hard-line communists, we remember, it was the opiate of the people. So there’s the spectrum: Religion can be viewed as something that hits you, something that restricts behavior, something that breeds violent arguments, or something that puts you to sleep. Quite a spread, wouldn’t you say?
If we speak of “the Christian religion,” or “the Jewish religion,” or of some other kind, we usually mean the body of beliefs, principles, and ceremonies which go together to make these world faiths what they are. But when we speak of an individual’s “religion,” we usually mean not what he (or she) believes, but how that person expresses that belief, the total way in which they live out the conviction. That, at least, is how James, the brother of Jesus, understood the term when he wrote this: “If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:26-27).
Who Seems to Be Religious?
The great question here is: What kind of worship, what kind of outward expression of faith, is pleasing to God? What would mark out a person in God’s eyes as genuinely religious?
Think now about various people you know. Some of them you would perhaps describe as “very religious,” others as “fairly” so, still others as “not at all.” By what standards, by what criteria do you make that judgment? What to you distinguishes a person as being religious? See if some of these characteristics come into the picture.
For one, regular churchgoing. When you observe someone consistently gathering with those of the same faith, conscientiously attending services of worship in spite of the weather or the season, you probably conclude: “There is a religious man (or woman, or family).” Also, if you find a person after some acquaintance to have clearly defined beliefs and strongly held convictions about God, that would certainly be a relevant factor, wouldn’t it? Further, suppose a person shows great strictness in his personal habits. He doesn’t frequent questionable places of amusement. He gives himself to times of fasting. Wouldn’t that suggest to you a markedly religious nature? And what if this person were constantly denouncing social evils, calling attention to the decay and degradation of the culture around him, warning of God’s judgment upon these wrongs? That would certainly strengthen the impression that his was a deeply religious approach to life. And suppose finally that he was so earnest about his faith that he went to great lengths to secure proselytes, showing the most intense zeal to communicate his views to others and win them over.
Now I dare say that if you knew someone who behaved like that, you would classify him or her as “very religious.” And they would probably think of themselves in the same way.
But according to James, that estimate might be wide of the mark. We might be quite wrong about those persons, and they might be deceiving themselves. James, of course, isn’t arguing against any of their specific behaviors. All of those might be found in truly religious people. But such traits in themselves do not guarantee the presence of genuine religion. In fact, if they’re not accompanied by something else, something more, they may be just a facade, a mask. Can you believe that a person could attend church regularly, eliminate objectionable habits, have strong convictions, denounce social evils, labor to secure converts, and still not be genuinely religious? What more, we wonder, could a person do?
But now think of this: there were people whom Jesus encountered during his ministry who answered fully the description I’ve just given. They were regular in worship at temple and synagogue, firm and dogmatic in their beliefs, careful in personal habits, quick to point out the evils in society, and ready to travel to the ends of the earth to gain one proselyte. They considered themselves highly religious and enjoyed that reputation among others. But Jesus said that they were “whited sepulchres, blind guides!” Instead of commending them for their devotion, Jesus warned them of their great danger. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matt. 23:29).
Do you wonder that these people were scandalized? Do you wonder that Jesus’ hearers gasped with amazement when he said these things? Who could be more religious than those Pharisees?
The Real Thing
James apparently encountered people in the early days of the Christian church who manifested many of the same traits. But their supposed religion also he was as hollow and unreal. And James, like his Lord and brother before him, wanted to cut through all sham and get at the heart of what it really is to be a religious person. He sets forth three marks: one, that you bridle your tongue. Does that surprise you? Many people act as though what we say is of relatively minor significance. But Jesus and his apostles taught otherwise. He spoke of the judgment that hangs over those who speak scornfully or contemptuously to their fellow human beings. He warned against false oaths, against words that make others stumble. Jesus even said that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account for in the judgment. “By your words,” he went on, “you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37).
James views human speech with the same seriousness. No matter what anyone professes about his or her religious life, if he or she doesn’t bridle the tongue, their religion is vain. If their words are bitter, harsh, deceptive, insinuating; if they boast, browbeat, and cut people down, they raise serious questions about those who speak them.
The tongue, for Jesus and his apostles, is such an important member because it reveals what is in the heart. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). Our speech betrays us, reveals what we are in the depths of life.
Now James doesn’t mean to say that religious people never offend in their speech. In fact, he says that if anyone never sinned with the tongue, he would be perfect. James isn’t condemning those who occasionally say things that they regret. He’s talking about the normal pattern of speech. How do we relate to, how do we speak to, our fellow human beings? Do our words tear down or build up? Do they encourage fellowship or do they alienate? Do they spew forth venom or minister healing? To have your heart full of love and your tongue expressing it, that is pure religion.
Here’s the second mark: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction. If the first is gracious speech, the second is active compassion. That word visit doesn’t mean simply to pay a call on someone. It means “to look after, to care for, to defend the interests of” people in affliction. It means to have a heart for those in need and extend ourselves for their help.
The widows and orphans here stand for all who are weak, vulnerable, and without a defender. Some of the Pharisees pretended to care for such people but went right on exploiting them. Jesus called attention to the way they “devoured widow’s houses” and “for a pretense made long prayers” (Matt. 23:14). Nothing so kindles the indignation of God as such heartless hypocrisy. Did you know that God has made himself known in the Bible and in history as the God of the helpless and defenseless? He is known as “the Father of the fatherless” and “protector of widows” (Ps. 68:5). He cares about their plight and his heart goes out to them. He acts on their behalf and judges those who oppress them. Active compassion reveals the presence of true religion because it shows a likeness to this heavenly Father, a living sympathy with his concerns.
Every genuine revival in history has been accompanied by and expressed in works of benevolence, ministries of help to the needy. That was true in the great Fulton Street Revival of which we celebrate the anniversary this year. Wherever people genuinely love God, they cannot help but seek the good of the poor and downtrodden. Ask yourself today, you who profess to be the people of God, who worship him and want to serve him: What am I doing on behalf of the world’s little people? What have you done this week to alleviate suffering, to minister to human need? What will you do as a sign of the faith within your heart?
Here’s the third mark of true religion: “to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This is more difficult to measure, isn’t it? We can tell if we or others are bridling our tongues. How we treat the afflicted and deprived is also open to view. But the matter of defilement by the world is more subtle and inward. True, it has its external side. To keep ourselves unstained from the world surely means to avoid the unrestrained selfishness, the godless revelry of the world around us. But that doesn’t mean withdrawal from these mixed-up people, from their activities and company. Jesus is our model here. He was spoken of with scorn as “the friend of publicans and sinners” (Matt. 11:19) because he sat at table with outcasts, because he showed interest in people of dubious character, because he went to the homes of the despised.
We don’t contract the world’s stain on our clothing or on our hands but in our hearts. It’s not the world system around us that contaminates, but the love of the world. Remember how John the apostle put it:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.
1 John 2:15-16
It’s when we partake of the spirit of the world, when we adopt the values of the world, when we live for the plaudits of the world that we are deeply defiled.
Do we begin to see that what James is calling for, how it’s far beyond our reach? By our own resources, we simply can’t live that way. We can fake some of the externals, but we can’t change the inner spring from which all behavior proceeds. We can’t “make the tree good,” as Jesus put it, so that its fruit will be good as well.
What James is building on, of course, is the gospel, the message of forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ. It’s when we trust in Christ as our Savior, surrender to him as Lord, and receive the life-giving power of his Spirit that we begin to be renewed within. Pure religion is the outward expression of that inward change. So look first, friend, to Jesus Christ. Trust him to make you a new person in the depths of life and to give you a truly loving heart. Then in your speech, in your kindness to the unfortunate, and in your resolute turning from evil, you will be expressing what God calls “pure religion.”
God give us that, a heart for people in need, the curbing of all bitter speech, and also a life that shows the likeness of Jesus Christ.