If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
This passage is basically about “walking the walk” instead of simply “talking the talk” when it comes to the religion of Christianity. The ability of mankind to deceive ourselves is great. Many professed Christians put Christianity and obeying God on the backburner of one’s list of priorities. Yet since it is still on the backburner and thus still on the stove as it were, instead of being completely off the table and completely out of their lives, they consider themselves a religious person. Sadly, God would disagree with them. As we see in James’ inspired writings, God wants more from us than simply believing in Him and spending a couple of hours a week in a church building. He wants Christians to “prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (1:22).
Notice how He indicts as “worthless” the religion of someone who “thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue” (1:26). Consider the numerous ways we can (and oftentimes do) sin through what we say and how we say it. How often do those who profess to be Christians use the name of the Lord in vain, vulgar, flippant ways instead of with the reverence He demands and deserves? How often do professed churchgoers gossip to each other about each other? How often do we speak rudely, sardonically, and sarcastically to each other either in person and especially on social media? How often do we lie to each other, either purposefully or without realizing it because we choose to repeat what we believe is true without doing due diligence to make sure that it is in fact the truth? Self-control is listed among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), the evidence that one is truly a spiritual person. It takes self-control to “bridle (our) tongue,” to watch what we say and how we say it, to have the discipline needed to make sure that we speak nothing but the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). If we lack this discipline and aren’t diligently working to obtain it and use it, then we are indeed “deceiv(ing) our own heart” if we think we are truly religious and good Christians.
God then summarizes what He considers to be “pure and undefiled religion” (1:27). First, it is “to visit orphans and widows in their distress.” “Visit” (episkeptomai) carries with it the idea of doing more than just dropping by and saying hi; it means “to look upon in order to help or to benefit…to look after, have a care for, provide for” (Thayer). Orphans and widows in the first century as well as today tended to be people who had no means to provide for themselves and needed legitimate help to survive. Being truly religious in God’s eyes requires one to truly help them in whatever way one can (cf. Matt. 25:31-46; Gal. 6:10; 1 Tim. 6:18; 1 Thess. 5:15; Tit. 3:14). Someone truly religious will also “keep (themselves) unstained by the world.” Faithful Christians will be different from the rest of the world. They might like the same food or the same sports, but they won’t use the same vulgar language. They won’t treat each other badly as the world does. They won’t have the same worldly priorities and focus. Instead, they will “seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). They will “set (their) mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). People will be able to easily see that the faithful Christian is different from them.
Christians, may this describe you and me! May we work to better control what we say to others and how we say it. Let’s do our best to help those in need at every opportunity we have. Above all, let’s grow to the point where everyone we know can see a distinct difference between us and this sinful world. Let’s work with God’s help and grace to become truly religious in God’s eyes!