James 1:26 – 27 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 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.
Religion is a word that has the ability to conjure up both positive and negative ideas when it is used. Some church leaders use it in a negative sense almost exclusively and they are no doubt referring to the empty religious formalism that is so prevalent in the church. When the word religion is used in this sense it can be helpful to point out that devotion to religious practice apart from an ongoing relationship to God is in fact dead.
But this is not the only way the word can be used. Religion is also a word used with the best of intentions to convey true, heartfelt, gospel-driven service to God. This is the way that James is using the term in James 1:26-27, in the positive sense of genuine service to God. But even in James’ mind the distinction between the two uses of the term is an important one, so he provides a few tests for us to help us determine whether or not our religion is genuine or false.
The first test involves how we use our words. He asks, “So you think yourself genuinely devoted to the laws of God? Then answer me this, how well do you control what comes out of your mouth and how it comes out of your mouth?”
Most of us would agree that as a child of God we should be concerned with our manner of speech. As a religious person I would agree that what I say and how I say it matters, but how has such knowledge impacted/changed/directed my actual speech? That’s the more appropriate question for us to meditate on? If my only step is to affirm that speech matters but I do nothing to bridle my tongue, my affirmation only condemns me.
Matthew Henry is helpful on this,
When men are more concerned to seem religious than really to be so, it is a sign that their religion is but vain; or as James says here, “Your religion is worthless.
The first test of whether or not our religion is pure has to do with how we use our tongues. Do we speak the truth in love? Do we commend ourselves or the strength and power of Christ? Do we guard our mouths from unwholesome (rude, disrespectful, careless, biting, sarcastic) words? Or do we use our mouths to grant grace to our hearers?
Colossians 4:5-6 Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
There is a second test and it has to do with how we care for the fatherless and the widows among us? James is emphatic that this is the true test of pure devotion. 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. (Jam 1:27)
The word “visit” is one that means to make careful inspection with helpful intent (BDAG). It implies a very vigilant and continual scrutiny with an intention toward gracious care. This is a whole-hearted devotion to the well-being of others.
Once again I consider myself religious in that good and proper sense but James will not let me be content with my own opinion of myself. He says, “You consider yourself religious, how well do you lovingly watch over and care for the widows and fatherless children under your care?”
As I have asked that question of myself I have been reminded that some of the things which I consider to be of the utmost importance, God sees as distractions from the real work of pure religion. It is easy for all of us to forget about our widows and the few fatherless children we have among us; but I want us to check our hearts in this and challenge one another to understand what such oversight means to God.
In our care for one another and in our zeal to share the gospel, we must not forget those whom God elevates in ministry importance.