James 1:26-27 ESV
26 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 not a popular term these days. Many modern Christians shy away from this word. We think of religion as ritualistic procedures and rules that somehow gain us favor with God.
The emphasis now is a stronger focus on relationship, instead of religion. In my opinion, this viewpoint is not without merit. Just like in James’ day, people still tend to be more religious than simply being a true follower of Christ. A true follower who is growing in Him, and developing a relationship with Him. However, religion in a pure form, is not a bad word. James gives us a glimpse of what pure religion should look like.
First, James says if you can’t exercise self-control you deceive yourself, and your religion is useless. James specifically mentions the tongue here, but controlling one’s speech certainly falls into the general category of self-control. It is similar to what he said earlier in verses 19 and 20 about anger. Peter and Paul both wrote about self-control as well, so we know this is an important topic.
James further states that if you want to see what undefiled religion is, just look at those Christians who care for the orphans and widows. I’m pretty sure James is not saying this is the only form of worship, but this is what true worship looks like. This is pure religion. In an even more simplistic description, you might reduce this to the idea of someone putting the needs of others ahead of their own.
In the first century, orphans and widows would have been among the most needy people. A widow would have specifically been a woman who lost her husband, and had no children to help provide for her needs. She would truly be destitute. Orphans wouldn’t have been in a much better situation. Remember the command of Christ, which summed up all of the law? Jesus put it very simply, love God and love others.
James finishes chapter one with a statement about keeping oneself unstained from the world. The “world” mentioned here, is a reference to the world system. In this case, a system that is estranged from God. A godless system that promotes one’s own selfish, and sinful desires.
Like self-control, the Bible as a whole spends much time warning us to remain unstained from sin. As a Christian, we are members of the church. In other words, we are the called out ones. We have been chosen, and set apart. We are saved by grace through faith, but we are still called to live in a way pleasing to God. We are called to live the way James writes about.
So, in these two verses, James warns us to take a look at our so-called religion. If we are not exercising self-control, and we are allowing the sinful world system to be our guide… then we are off track. On the other hand, we are on the right track if we are loving God and loving others, not just with lip service, but actually showing our love by putting others first.
Don’t be afraid of religion, just practice it in the truest sense.