True and false religion / the haves and the have-nots – 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. 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.

As we come to the end of chapter one of the epistle of James, we find the third of three recurring themes – that of poverty and riches. Having powerfully commanded believers to be, not merely hearers of the Word, but doers of the Word, now, in vs 26-27 James further warns us against the danger of deceiving ourselves with false religious actions. He states positively what pure and undefiled religion is before God. Many people, even within the church today, have a negative connotation of the word, “religion.”

Many link religion with formal lifeless tradition, and set it against a true and living relationship with Christ. In describing the Christian faith, we often hear words like, “it’s not religion, it’s a relationship.” But James defines the word by contrasting false religion with a true religion. In verse 26, he gives an example of what false religion looks like. He writes, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” While the tongue is not the only spiritual barometer of one’s heart, it is one of the most reliable. James then goes on to contrast this to true religion in v 27. “Religion,” he writes, “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.” A synonymous word we might use to understand this is “worship.” One could switch the words in James 1:26-27 from religion to worship to better understand what James is saying. True worship is, “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This idea of caring for widows and orphans is a motif that we see throughout Scripture.

God has always had a special place and concern for the widow and the orphan. Psalm 68:5 tells us that God is: “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows.” Also in Exodus 22:22, the Mosaic law included the instruction, “You shall not afflict a widow or orphan.” Like an unbridled tongue signifies that one’s religion is worthless, James uses “care for the widow and orphan” as an outward sign of pure and undefiled religion. Lest we think that religion is merely a matter of social concern, James goes beyond this motif and further adds to his definition, stating that true religion is, “to keep himself unstained from the world.” Those who belong to the Lord are to be characterized by moral and spiritual purity. While in these bodies of death of ours, no one can perfectly follow the Lord, that should not stop us from pursuing this goal with all our heart in His strength.

As we look to this text may we all examine our hearts as to where we stand in our worship to God. What is it that characteristically comes out of our mouths? How are we caring for widows or orphans? How are we dealing with worldliness in our thoughts and in our deeds? There is not one among us who cannot grow in all of these areas. Please pray as we prepare our hearts to receive the Word this coming Sunday.

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