What Does True Religion Look Like?

| Leslie Mathers

“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.” James 1: 26-27

At first glance, these two verses stood out to me as a somewhat random ending to an otherwise neatly organized first chapter of the book of James. A good portion of James 1 aligns with topics of enduring through trials and being a doer of the Word. Then, at the end of the chapter, James quickly inserts a discussion about the nature of religion, an unbridled tongue, and caring for orphans and widows. As a teacher who is constantly reminding my students to stay on topic when they write, it sort of bothered me that these last two verses didn’t seem to cohesively wrap up the chapter; however, the more I pondered verses 26 and 27 in light of the theme of the whole book of James – faith in action – I began to recognize the connections. The topics in these verses indicate specific ways words and actions show whether or not a person’s heart has been transformed by Christ.

James first describes a person whose religion is worthless or vain as one whose words are out of control. You don’t have to go far to come across this kind of person. Instead of speaking words that minister grace (Ephesians 4:29), this person’s words are marked by carelessness and indiscretion. Like smoke from a fire, if you trace these words back to their source, James says you will find a heart that is deceived and is operating out of a worthless religion. This person is not even aware of how his or her pattern of reckless speech stands in contrast to being a “hearer” and “doer” of God’s Word. A tongue out of control indicates a heart that is not controlled by Christ.

Moving from a false sense of religion, verse 27 gives a picture of religion that is pure and undefiled. Pure religion gives the idea of something that is not mixed with or tainted by corruption. It is not a smoke screen masking falsehood or a deceptive agenda. It is not religion that is self-promoting by condemning others. Instead, this type of religion is marked by humility, service, and obedience to Christ.

One way pure religion can be found actively serving is by “visiting orphans and widows in their affliction.” These two groups represent those who are needy, helpless, in distress, marginalized, neglected, or oppressed. In that sense, this category could also extend to people who suffer from homelessness, slavery, poverty, and all kinds of hopelessness; however, it is no coincidence that orphans are one of the two specific groups mentioned here. Caring for orphans allows believers an opportunity to reflect the same love Christ showed by rescuing us when we, too, were afflicted, needy, and without hope.

To obey this command in an active way is not easy. It can be messy. It requires sacrifice and stepping out of comfort zones. It means disrupting routines and self-centered mindsets. It involves giving with no strings attached. At times we might look around at the brokenness of the world along with our limited resource and wonder what impact we could possibly make. To that point, John Piper encourages believers to remember, “Results are God’s business. Obedience is ours.” I love what this verse reveals about the tender and compassionate nature of God toward those in need, and I am challenged by this reminder to love as Christ has loved.