“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
(James 1:26-27 NIV)
In yesterday’s passage, James reminded us to be not only a hearer of God’s Word, but a doer as well. If we think it’s OK to just hear and not do God’s Word, then we deceive ourselves (v. 22).
In today’s passage, James points out one more area where we can deceive ourselves: our religion, our worship, of God.
So what is James saying here? There are all kinds of insights and applications that we can pull out of this, but we must ask ourselves, what is the author trying to tell us?
I believe James is defining and contrasting how we may define”religion”, vs. how God defines “religion”.
The key to unlocking these verses is to understand the world “religion”. Why is this important? because James uses a form of this word three times in these two verses (“religious”, “religion”).
“Religion” is the external ceremony, the regular worship service. Christ-followers of James’ day had a service similar to our modern-day worship service, with music and singing, teaching, reading of God’s Word, and other parts meant to bring honor and glory to God.
James tells us that what we may see as worship vs. what God sees as worship may be different. So how do we test our definition? By what we say and what we do.
James tells us that what we say matters. James understood that the tongue speaks what the heart feels. So how can we worship God one moment, and the next moment cut down someone with our words?
Jesus addressed the Pharisees when they accused Him of not following their religious “rules”, and said they honored God with their words, but their hearts were far from God (Mark 7:1-8).
James points out that false religion is centered on external look only, and is focused on self. And when we measure ourselves by ourselves, we always come out looking pretty good.
James contrasts the self-centered, self-deceiving definition of religion with God’s definition.
James says that true religion, as God defines it, comes from the heart, and is others-centered, first to God, and then to others. Notice that James uses two synonymous terms (“pure” and “faultless”) to double-emphasize God’s view on this definition of worship, of religion.
So what does James say how we demonstrate our worship of God? To look after, to care for, orphans and widows in their distress. There were no government-funded social programs in James’ day, so widows and orphans were at the mercy of the kindness and generosity of others.
James also said that we are to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. What does this mean? Simply stated, it means that we should not hang out with those who do not benefit us, and whom will not benefit from us. As a wise man once said, “if you hang out with the dogs, you will get fleas.”
When we keep our hearts humble, and see others from God’s perspective, and take action to help those in need, God is honored. This is an act of worship in God’s eyes.
Father, help us to see the world around us with Your eyes, to hear the sounds around us with Your ears, to be sensitive to Your leading to those who need our help. And may we have the courage to step up and help, to offer a kind word, a smile, a helping hand, something to eat, a roof over their head. And may You receive all the honor and glory. Amen.