“Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Perhaps like me, you’ve said something reflecting the same sentiment, or maybe those exact same words when conversing with someone who tells you “I don’t think religion is for me.” Religion has received a bad rep, both inside and outside of the body of Christ. Yes, relationship is at the heart of Christianity and should be seen in our lifestyle, but we mustn’t do away with religion completely. There is a religion which pleases God, and it is described to us by the apostle James.
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.James 1:26-27
Not Morality or Charity
The “religion” James is referring to is not a system of rules designed to obtain God’s favour. It is a religion based on relationship. The preceding verses make clear that this is an outworking of their faith (James 1:18), and a demonstration of what it means to be not only hearers but also doers of the word (James 1:22).
A Controlled Tongue
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.James 1:26
James tells us that those of us with untamed tongues deceive ourselves. Our faith is not even being evidenced or worked out. It is of little value. In fact, he describes it as worthless. Ouch. Isn’t that convicting? Reading this verse alone triggered a highlight reel of the words which had come out of my mouth that very week. There were some words of encouragement and positivity. I could recall speaking words with good intent but delivered with the wrong tone. There were words of truth, but perhaps best left unshared; an unbridled tongue fails to demonstrate an awareness that not everything needs to be said. There was also slandering, gossiping, speaking lowly of some and mocking others.
King Solomon provided ample instruction highlighting the danger of the loose tongue (Proverbs 15:4; 17:28; 18:20-21). James has even more gut-wrenching words on this topic when he further explores the capacity of destruction held in the tongue and the speech which flows from it later in his epistle (James 3:1-12).
Some of you may be thinking “well thank goodness I don’t talk much and mind my own business!” But not so fast. Remember how Jesus told the listeners at the Sermon on the Mount how God is concerned with not only with the outward actions but also the inward condition of the heart? (Matthew 5:21-48). So even those words you didn’t utter but thought in your heart count. The outworking of our faith, the religion which pleases God is reflected in God-honouring speech and a tightly reigned tongue.
Compassion – helping the needy
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictionJames 1:27
First-century Palestine is vastly different from our present day. One of the ways this is seen is in the socio-economic structures. Poverty remains a global issue today and is very close to home here in the UK. But during the time at which James wrote, the gap between the rich and the poor was even greater than it is today. Widows and orphans were the most destitute members of society. Thus, compassion was really displayed in the treatment toward these vulnerable people groups.
This is a call not only to meet their needs from a distance but also to sit with them; meeting with them in their affliction. With the Holy Spirit continually transforming us into the image of Christ, our hearts ought to ache at the sight of suffering. This was characteristic of our compassionate Lord who healed the sick and alleviated the suffering of the despaired. The good news should drive us unto good deeds carried out in compassion.
A Clean Life
…and to keep oneself unstained from the world.James 1:27
Lastly, religion which pleases God is one where we keep ourselves untainted from the wickedness and filth of the world and its ways. We’re not to retreat from it but remain unpolluted from the perverse ideologies and influences which abound. This can be assessed by asking “Does my speech and conduct closely resemble that of those who don’t know Jesus?” “Are my passions and thoughts carnal?” Anything which mars our Christian witness fails to reflect our faith.
Not Exhaustive, But Sufficient
James did not intend to provide an exhaustive list of what constitutes “pure and undefiled religion”. Nevertheless, what he has shared with us is sufficient. We must assess ourselves and ask whether these characteristics are true of us, both internally and externally. They are quintessential in illustrating what it means to be not just hearers, but doers of the word (James 1:22), producing the fruits of the gospel we received by faith, putting its life-changing power on display for the world to see.