“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” (James 1:26, ESV)
What does James mean by saying this?
The person who trusts in religious piety sooner or later will expose his faithlessness with his mouth, because he doesn’t have the inner power to bridle his tongue. Trusting in external things to please God and receive His blessing are deceptive and worthless.
John Calvin, who was often the victim of slander and misrepresentation, wrote:
When people shed their grosser sins, they are extremely vulnerable to contract this complaint. A man will steer clear of adultery, of stealing, of drunkenness, in fact he will be a shining light of outward religious observance—and yet will revel in destroying the character of others; under the pretext of zeal… but it is a lust for vilification. This explains… the bloated pharisaical pride that feeds indulgently on a general diet of smear and censure. (— John Calvin)
What James’ metaphor points to most is the uncontrolled slanderous tongue—carping, critical, and judgmental. The outwardly religious person characteristically avoids moral filth and lying, but falls easily to slander in his heart.
James is teaching us that if the tongue isn’t controlled by God, it is a reliable indicator that the heart isn’t either. Jesus taught the same truth during His earthly ministry.
In Matthew 12:34, Jesus told the self-righteous Pharisees, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks… For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.” He’s saying your heart’s on display in the words that you say.
Religion that doesn’t transform the heart, and thereby the tongue, is totally worthless in God’s sight. So what does the “real deal” look like? Look at verse 27 which says…
“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.” The principle in verse 27 could be stated like this…
The pure and undefiled kernel of true religion manifests outward and inward devotion to God (27).
Katharos (pure) and amiantos (undefiled) are synonyms. The first word emphasizes cleanliness; while the second denotes freedom from contamination.
This is unalloyed religion without the intermingling of prideful self-righteousness or condescending superiority over others who don’t subscribe to your private habits or practices. It has to do with personally helping those who can’t pay you back.
Now wait a minute! I thought he was talking about the tongue. James went from talking about the tongue and religion to suddenly talking about visiting widows and orphans. What’s the connection?
The connection is this: the trial of bridling our tongue is like the trial of inward and outward devotion to God as expressed by our attitudes toward others.
The same reason we can’t perfectly control our tongue by our own power is why we can’t keep our selves perfectly unspotted from the world around us. All of us are going to be tempted in more or less the same ways.
To state it positively, the same spiritual power that enables a person to control their tongue will also enable them to remain unspotted from the world. The manifestation that we have such power is demonstrated by ministering physically and spiritually to those who can’t reciprocate in any way, namely widows and orphans.
James is teaching us that the same man or woman who controls their tongue is also willing to set aside their own preferences and go out of their way to help someone who can’t help them back—just because it will honor God.
James says: “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.”
In using these two words: pure and undefiled, James isn’t talking about what feels right to us, or of what looks right to the world; he’s talking about what is right in the sight of our God and Father.
If we think of religion in purely altruistic terms, whatever true religion is, it must be that which is right in the sight of our God and Father. If it isn’t right before God, then it’s useless… like a worthless husk. The husk may resemble the kernel, but it’s hollow.
The religion that honors God is Christ-centered, not man-centered. It is established by faith and demonstrated by works. And it is internal before it is external.
May we strive together for that which is pure and undefiled in the sight of God; the genuine article and not some fake substitute.
With joy in His goodness,