In this passage James describes the nature of true religion. Notice that it doesn’t have anything to do with how much of the Bible you can quote or how many times a week you go to church. No, true religion reveals itself in self-control and compassion for others.
Jam. 1:26-27 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. (27) 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.
James warns his readers of a vain, or empty, religion. If your religion doesn’t cause you to control your tongue, your religion is empty. One of the quickest ways to tell what is in a person’s heart is to listen to them talk. Jesus said it this way:
Mat. 12:34 O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
If religion doesn’t change how you talk, it hasn’t changed who you are on the inside. A controlled tongue is one indicator of a changed heart. James’ call for his readers to be swift to hear and slow to speak (1:19) would certainly apply here. Here are some other verses that talk about the kind of control we need to have over our speech:
Pro. 10:19 In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.
Pro 20:19 He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips.
Eph 4:25 Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another.
Eph. 4:29 Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.
Eph. 5:4 Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.
If a person claims to be religious, but their religion doesn’t control their speech, they are deceiving themselves. Not only that, but their so-called religion is useless.
The word religion has taken on a bad meaning among many Christians. But there is a kind of religion, a true worship, which pleases God. This religion motivates its practitioners to useful compassion and holiness.
In addition to cleaning up our talk, real religion motivates us to do good in practical ways to those in need. The word “visit” in verse 27 means more than just dropping by for a chat. It implies inspecting to see what needs a person has and then doing what you can to fill the needs you found during your inspection. We check in on those in need to see what we can do to help. Jesus described this real religion:
Mat. 25:34-40 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: (35) For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: (36) Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. (37) Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? (38) When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? (39) Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? (40) And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
How we react to the problems of the needy people around us tells us an awful lot about how spiritual we really are. Christ illustrated this in a parable:
Luk. 10:30-37 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. (31) And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. (32) And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. (33) But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, (34) And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. (35) And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. (36) Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? (37) And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
Pure religion also changes the believer’s relationship to the world in which he lives. It helps us see that this world system around us is contrary to God and godly living. James talks about this later in his letter:
Jam. 4:4 Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
True religion helps us stay pure from world’s corrupting influences:
1Jo 2:15-17 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (16) 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. (17) And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
Holiness is another hallmark of pure religion. God put it plainly:
1Pe. 1:15-16 But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; (16) Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.
How’s It Going?
- Has your religion changed your talk?
- Are you practically compassionate to those in need?
- Does your religion motivate you to be holy?
Read James 2:1-4 and assess your attitude toward rich folks and poor folks.