Maybe someone you know, or even you yourself have, at some time talked about “organized religion” with a little spit in your words and contempt in your heart for all the terrible things “organized religion” has done to the world. And we don’t have to look very far to realize some of those accusations have merit. [And if you think organized religion is bad, you ought to try disorganized religion sometime!] But the truth is, religion has never been the perpetrator of these evils. What men have done with religion and in the name of religion have been detestable at times. But religion is no more, and no less, than the external expression of what is really going on in the heart.
If you had never read the book of James and someone asked you to boil religion down to its essence what would you list as the essentials?
· When we think of religion we usually think of the ritual side of it – worshiping, singing, praying, communion – those things we do together in assembly.
· When we think of somebody who is very religious we think of a very spiritually minded person who spends their time reading the Bible, praying often, single-mindedly devoted to God.
· We might think of a religious person as one who comes to church every time the doors are open, is deeply involved in ministry, generous in contributions, zealous about sharing the gospel.
And all of those things have a place in a religious person’s life.
But James surprises us. All those things which we picture at the core of religion, James doesn’t mention. Instead, he focuses on things most of us relegate to the back burner; they’re on our “B” list of things to get done. But James says, “No, these are the basics.” “If anyone considers himself religious…” these are essential. “Pure religion…” has these ingredients.
What are these core essentials of a religious life?
James starts where most of us fail – with the way we use our tongues. “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”
Most of us here would consider ourselves fairly religious. We come to church, we live good lives, we try to let God rule in our priorities. But if we’re honest with ourselves – we’ll admit that we are careless with our tongues. And there are so many different ways we can use our tongues for harm. Think with me about a few of those:
Lying – When we lie, we violate the truth, which is God’s very nature. Sometimes we tell bold-faced lies, other times we just exaggerate. But it’s always contrary to the will of God. When we speak, God wants our words to be truthful, regardless of the circumstance or cost.
Gossip – if there is one sin that is universal, gossip would almost certainly be it. We like to talk about people, we want to hear what so-and-so did. And so we talk about others, and most often we say and perpetuate harmful and unkind things. When you find yourself talking about someone, ask yourself, would you say it if they were standing beside you?
Slander – there are times when gossip is ratcheted up a notch and we say intentionally hurtful things about others. We undermine their reputation, we impugn their motives, we tear them down in others’ eyes.
Verbal Abuse – So many families are victimized and torn apart by verbal abuse. We tear down and criticize and say terribly hurtful things to each other. We let anger and bitterness pour out of our mouths in ways that destroy relationships.
Profanity – I cringe when I think of how pervasive profanity is becoming in our culture. Words that we would never use are common place out of the mouths children. On television, words that we don’t allow in our homes are used as punctuation. And it affects us. When vulgar words assault our ears on a regular basis we find ourselves becoming immune to the shock and even thinking and using those words ourselves.
Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Eph. 4:29)
Now, if you’ve read James, you realize that James will have a lot more to say about the use of the tongue when we get to chapter 3. But here, in one very succinct verse, James places a high priority on the importance of our speech. And the reason it is so central takes us back to the words of Jesus: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Mt. 12:34)
We try to brush off the importance of what we say – “They’re just words, I didn’t really mean it.” But Jesus says our words reveal what is really going on in our heart. And the heart is what God is really concerned about when he looks at our religion.
We see that time and again in the Old and New Testaments.
Amos records the words of God: Amos 5:21-24 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Anytime religion is divorced from justice and righteousness it is appalling to God.
Jesus condemned the religious leaders: Mt. 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
Matt. 15:6-9 “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
It’s always easier to practice ritual than to practice religion. We get caught up in the formal routines and forget what they are designed to lead us to. Like the Pharisees we precisely tithe of our income, but we don’t practice justice and righteousness; we sing songs of praise, but our hearts are far from God.
Perhaps that’s why James places such importance on the tongue – because it is the barometer of our heart.
And the second thing James targets has the same kind of impact: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” Most of us don’t carry a real burden for orphans and widows. We send a few dollars a month to a Children’s Home. And we don’t even give our widows a second thought. Why widows and orphans? It would be easy to let ourselves off the hook and explain it away by saying, “I don’t know any orphans, and all the widows I know are doing alright.”
And of course, cultural situations have changed, and widows aren’t usually in as desperate of financial straits, and orphans usually have family who care for them and if not, government agencies step in. Are we exempted then?
What we find in the Bible is the remarkably tender heart of God, whose concern is always for the helpless and those who cannot defend themselves. Not just a verse here and there, but a constant theme – that God’s heart pours out to those who cannot defend themselves, and that he himself will be their provider and defender. And that whoever has the heart of God will do the same, because we ourselves have been helpless and defenseless:
Isa. 10:1-2 Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.
Deut. 10:17-19 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.
Deut. 24:17-22 Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.
And what does that mean in 21st century America, in Glenwood Springs where even the poorest among us live in relative luxury? Are we exempt? Is James’ exhortation antiquated and irrelevant?
· It’s easy to isolate and insulate ourselves from those who are needy and helpless. But that simply means our mission becomes a further reaching one.
· We’d better be taking care of the needs among us – and there are still many. But we also need to look beyond the walls of our building and the perimeter of our neighborhoods.
· We’d better take seriously the needs of the poor and homeless, because God does. We should care about the suffering of people in Uganda and Guatemala and Haiti, because God does. We need to have a heart for the needs of those who are victims and those who suffer injustice and those who are being persecuted, because God does.
· What we do for the homeless is a direct reflection of God’s heart for those who are the least among us.
· We can never exempt ourselves from caring for and hurting with others and say, “That’s not my problem,” because James says, “If you want to practice pure religion, it is your problem.”
But finally, James also internalizes this pure and undefiled religion. He says that when we strip away all the veneer from religion, at the heart of it we will “keep ourselves from being polluted by the world.”
When James talks about purity, he uses the language of science. The words he uses: “pure, undefiled, unpolluted” are used to describe water that is clean, metal that is free from impurities, an animal that has no blemish.
· Jesus used a similar thought in the Sermon on the Mount, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is single [or pure], your whole body will be full of light.” And he goes on to describe how you can’t divide your loyalties between two masters.
· There is this thread running through scripture that purity is a matter of being purely and exclusively focused on God. Moral purity is far deeper than avoiding this sin or that sin – it is a matter of the heart. If our lives are singly focused on God, then there is no room in our lives for thoughts or words or actions that would obscure that focus or pollute that relationship.
· If I look at purity the way James describes it, I would no more use my body for immorality than I would pour a tablespoon of arsenic into a glass of water and drink it.
Pure religion always comes back to the heart – does your heart belong to God – is your life completely under his control – is Jesus the Lord of your life?
Where James brings us back is to that need to see things through God’s eyes. It is that wisdom from above. His thoughts are not our thoughts, our ways are not his ways. And whenever we try to construct religion according to what makes sense to us or what is comfortable in our schedule, we will always be off the mark. Only when we ask God, “what is important to you?” will we begin to live lives that are pleasing to him.
Do you want to practice pure and undefiled religion? Keep a check on your mouth, take care of the needs of the helpless, and keep your life exclusively devoted to God.
It’s that simple, and yet that difficult.