Three Signs Your Religion is Real

James 1:26-27

August 29, 2015 | Ray Pritchard

Not all religion is acceptable to God.

This thought shocks many religious people who can’t imagine their efforts would not be enough to satisfy God. In saying it this way, I wish to be entirely ecumenical. When I speak of “religious” people, I’m including Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Charismatics, Church of Christ, Brethren, Episcopalians, and members of all the varied and sundry independent and interdenominational churches.

I definitely include my own religion on that list.

I would definitely add my own religion

Did you know you could spend your life being very religious and end up wasting your time? You deceived yourself, but you didn’t fool God.

You might as well have gone fishing.
Or bowling.
Or biking.

That would have done you as much good as all your church attendance, your praying, your giving, your singing, and your fasting. A few days spent fishing would have been better for you than all those sermons you heard.

That thought shocks me since I am a preacher. But I had better not spend this sermon talking only to you. I need this message myself. A friend told me that before he gives a sermon, he always prays, “Lord, help me preach the sermon I need to hear.” I adopted that as my own prayer because I don’t stand above the congregation or apart from it. I need to hear the word of the Lord because I am just as likely to deceive myself as anyone else.

“Help me preach the sermon I need to hear”

That’s the exact point James makes in our text. When he says, “If anyone thinks he is religious” (v. 26), he uses a word that means to imagine. Self-deception is the easiest and the worst sort of deception. It’s easy because we all tend to have an inflated opinion of ourselves, and it’s the worst because when you deceive yourself, you don’t realize it.

The word “religious” meant to James approximately what it means to us today. It refers to the outward aspects of the Christian faith, such as church attendance, taking part in public worship, singing, praying, giving, testifying, and in other ways going through the motions of Christianity.

We need “Monday-morning faith”

How do we know if our religion—even our good, conservative, evangelical, Bible-based religion—is acceptable to God? James 1:26-27 gives us three signs that prove our religion is real. It may surprise you that the list doesn’t look “religious” at all. James says the religion God approves impacts your conversation, your compassion, and your character. Sometimes we talk about “Monday-morning faith” as opposed to “Sunday-morning religion.”

What happens on Sunday is important.
What happens on Monday is even more important.

To be clear about it, James isn’t saying Sunday worship doesn’t matter. Far from it. He’s about to deal with that in James 2. But he warns us no amount of outward religiosity can compensate for an unbridled tongue, an uncompassionate heart, and an unholy character.

Sign # 1: Your Conversation

“If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself” (v. 26).

The word translated “control” comes from a word that means to put a bridle in a horse’s mouth. That’s why some translations mention the “unbridled” tongue and others talk about keeping a “tight rein” on your tongue.

Some people just talk too much

Some people just talk too much. They have too many opinions, and they share them too quickly. Because they have an answer for everything and they have the “gift” of the clever put-down, they wreak havoc wherever they go. Years ago a friend told me he instructed his team to “feel free to have no opinion about that.” That’s a good rule of thumb for all of us.

Here are some signs of an unbridled tongue:

Vulgarity, obscenity, indecent language.
Dirty jokes, off-color stories.
Pornographic language.
Racial or ethnic insults.
Humor meant to insult or to put someone down.
Angry outbursts, harsh words.
Mean-spirited comments.
Gossip, rumors, false accusations.
Imputing bad motives.
Public criticism of your spouse or children.
Yelling and screaming.
Threats and intimidating comments.
Endless criticism.
Quick, cutting comments.
Cheap shots.
Talking too much.
Talking without listening.
Condemning others.
Exaggerating the faults of others.
Excusing unkind words by saying, “I was only joking.”

Why is this so important? Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Every time you open your mouth either life or death comes out. The Bible speaks of the throat as an “open grave” (Romans 3:13). When there is death on the inside, it will eventually show up in your words.

You speak the equivalent of a 64-page book every day!

Did you know the average person speaks 16,000 words a day? That’s the equivalent of a 64-page book. In one week you speak the equivalent of a 450-page book. In a month you speak 480,000 words, the equivalent of a book of 1920 pages. In one year you speak 5,760,000 words, which is roughly equivalent to 4 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. If we stretch that out over 70 years, the average person speaks 403 million words, roughly equal to the entire 44-volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica, multiplied nine times.

Think of it this way. Today you will speak the equivalent of a 64-page book. Tomorrow another book. The day after another one.

Imagine if someone reads the contents of the book you are writing with your tongue today. Suppose it was recorded somewhere, written down somehow, caught on video, and then played back on the Internet for the whole world to see. What would we learn about your vocabulary?

How do you react under pressure?

About how you speak to your spouse and your children?
About the offhand comments you make about your friends?
About how you react under pressure?
About the way you respond when you are criticized?

If that thought doesn’t terrify you, at least a little bit, then you are a saint far advanced beyond the rest of us, or you are clueless about yourself.

David Platt points out that social media increases the temptation of careless speech:

“In a day of text-messaging, email, cell phones, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc., we need to be careful. We’ve created an entire culture that says if you have a thought, then you should immediately share it with the rest of the world. But follower of Christ, don’t buy that line of reasoning” (Exalting Jesus in James, Loc. 543).

It’s easy to make excuses, isn’t it? Let’s suppose 93% of your speech is totally praiseworthy. Or make it 96%. Or 97%. But what about the 7% or the 4% or the 3%? That’s James’ whole point. You can’t skate past this truth by saying, “My speech is morally upright 97% of the time.” That’s like saying, “I’m not really a murderer. Most of the time I never murder anyone. I only kill people 3% of the time.”

Perhaps we need to pray for the gift of silence. I remember reading about a famed linguist about whom it was said that he knew how to remain silent in seven different languages.

James draws a shocking conclusion when he says the unbridled tongue makes your religion useless. We need to keep this warning in mind at all times, but especially when we are tired, under pressure, and when others are trying to provoke us.

May the Lord Jesus grant us special grace so that we might keep a tight rein on our tongue.

Sign # 2: Your Compassion

“Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (v. 27a).

True religion moves us to action. We don’t just see the need and then walk away after saying a few good words. Bob Rowland pictures the problem in his poem “Listen, Christian!”:

I was hungry
And you formed a humanities club
And discussed my hunger.
Thank you.

I was imprisoned
And you crept off quietly
To your chapel in the cellar
And prayed for my release.

I was naked,
And in your mind
You debated the morality
Of my appearance.

I was sick
And you knelt and thanked God
For your health.

I was homeless
And you preached to me
Of the spiritual shelter
Of the Love of God.

I was lonely
And you left me alone
to pray for me.

You seem so holy;
So close to God.
But I’m still very hungry.

We can never substitute another church service or even more Bible reading for rolling up our sleeves and getting involved in this hurting world. True religion sees the distress of the world and then moves to meet that need.

True religion gets its hands dirty

James singles out two groups deserve special attention: orphans and widows. Then he adds a qualifying phrase—“in their distress.” He means those who are alone and forgotten. They are in distress precisely because they have no one to care for them.

This echoes a familiar Old Testament theme:

“Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless” (Exodus 22:22 NIV).
“Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows” (Isaiah 1:17 NLT).
“Do not oppress the widow or the orphan” (Zechariah 7:10 NASB).

I never understood what the word “widow” meant until my father died in early November 1974. Three weeks after his death, Marlene and I drove home to be with my mom over Thanksgiving. One day it was time for a meal and my mom did what she had done hundreds of times before. She called for my father to tell him that it was time to eat. After saying his name out loud, she had a stricken look on her face, as if the thought that dad was gone had suddenly hit her. For the first time in my life, I knew what the word “widow” meant. Nothing would ever be the same for her again.

Widows had little protection in the first century

Widows had little legal protection in the first century. That’s why Jesus excoriated the religious leaders who “devour widows’ houses” while making long prayers as a show of public piety (Mark 12:40). They made a show of their religiosity while taking advantage of the widows. They did this by preying on their vulnerable position, inducing them to give away their money until they were destitute. They “devoured” whatever money the widow had until she was left helpless and penniless.

Here, then, is one test of true religion. Will we care for those whose need is so great that they can never repay us? Sometimes I hear people talking about certain people we need to reach for Christ who could do a lot to “help the church.” They mean the rich, the famous, and the well-connected. But they never mean the orphans or the widows. They have nothing to offer but faith, hope, and love. To put the matter that way is not to argue against reaching the upper class. Rich and famous people need Jesus too. But we need to recapture James’ perspective.

Will we care for those who can never pay us back?

God bless those who care for the widows.
God bless those who minister to single mothers.
God bless the nursery workers.
God bless the children’s choir leaders.
God bless those who lead backyard Bible clubs.
God bless those who take in foster children.
God bless those who adopt children.
God bless those who care for the disabled.
God bless those who give to support orphans in India.
God bless those who speak up for the unborn.
God bless those who support crisis pregnancy centers.

The religion God approves cares for those who cannot care for themselves. It includes the widows and the orphans, but it doesn’t end there. It must include the unborn, the sick, the dying, the homeless, the disabled, the immigrants, the victims of sex trafficking, prisoners, refugees, and many others the world would rather overlook.

Sign # 3: Your Character

“To keep oneself unstained by the world” (v. 27b).

Genuine religion keeps you from being stained by the world. Imagine a little boy coming home from school. It’s been raining so there is a mud puddle in his path. What does he do? Well, it depends. If he remembers what his mom told him, he will walk around the mud puddle so he won’t get dirty. But if he feels in a frisky mood, he may jump into the puddle, getting mud all over his clothes. What will his mom say then?

We live in a dirty world

That’s the sort of picture James has in mind. We live in a dirty world. If we aren’t careful, we’ll end up stained by moral compromise. We need to see a connection between this command and the previous one. In order to care for the widows and orphans, we have to go where they are. But in our going, we must not lower our standards or somehow compromise our convictions. Somehow we must find ways to get deeply involved in this hurting world while at the same time not letting the world rub off on us. This speaks to where we go, what we do, what we read, the games we play, the people we hang out with, the TV shows we watch, the music we listen to, and it certainly applies to the language we use.

I don’t think we need to become fearful of the world, but we do need to be wise in the choices we make. Put simply, there are some places I personally can’t go. There are some people I don’t need to be around. There are some Internet sites I won’t visit. There are some TV shows that drag me down. To borrow the words of Clint Eastwood, a man’s gotta know his limitations. I need to know who I am and whose I am. As a practical matter, I need to know my own limits and stay within them even if others can do what I can’t do.

It’s hard enough to keep myself in line

Note that James does not say, “Keep others unstained by the world.” I’m not called to be the moral judge of everyone else. It’s a hard enough job to keep myself in line. Certainly I ought to care about my brothers and sisters in Christ—and I do—but I can’t make decisions for them. I am, however, 100% accountable for the choices I make.

We sometimes think a little sin doesn’t matter. Would you drink a glass of water that had only 1% poison in it? Of course not. You want unpolluted water to drink. We hear a lot about air and water pollution. What about moral pollution? It’s easy to get dirty. The world rubs off on us more than we realize. Pretty soon we start to talk and act like the people around us.

It’s a good thing when we are in the world.
It’s a bad thing when the world is in us.

Here is the dilemma of James 1:27. We are to be fully engaged in the world. We have to get our hands dirty in the muck and mire of human pain and sadness. When we reach out to hurting people, we will end up in some difficult situations. We must go anyway, and go in the name of Jesus. But while we are going, we must not be contaminated by the filth of the world around us.

In all these things we have the example of Jesus who left the beauty of heaven for a barnyard birth. He left behind the purity of heaven to rescue us from the impurity of this world. He walked among us, lived with us, talked with us, ate with us, laughed with us, and wept with us. He rubbed shoulders with gluttons and drunkards. He knew the Pharisees and called them hypocrites. But he never became a glutton or a drunkard or a hypocrite. The prostitutes evidently knew him, and recognized in him a kind of man who was different from all the others they had known. Because he was the Son of God, he lifted the fallen but did not fall himself.

We need Christ living in us!

If we are to obey what James has taught us, we need Christ living in us. We will never bridle our tongue, or reach out to the hurting, or keep ourselves unstained by the world in our own power.

We need Jesus!
Do you know him?
Have you trusted him?
Have you asked him to save you?

Here is a prayer we all need to pray after a message like this:

Lord Jesus! Without you I will never live this way. Come and take control of my tongue. Come and give me a heart of compassion. Come and make me pure from the inside out. Transform me by your power so that I might be pleasing to my Heavenly Father. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?