Worthwhile Religion - James 1:26-27

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At some point most of us have known someone who has been afflicted by cancer. Cancer is a disease that is deadly if left untreated, but it often attacks the body behind the scenes, where you don’t notice until it’s too late. It’s not uncommon to hear someone who is diagnosed with cancer say the words, “but I felt fine!” The fact is that we can’t always trust the way we feel. We can have a deadly disease and not even realize it. The only way for us to know for sure whether we are healthy is to do tests to find out.

This morning we are going to look at James 1:26–27, and James gives us some tests for us to examine our spiritual life by. He says that sometimes we think we are spiritually healthy, but in fact we are sick. James seems to be telling us that even within the Christian faith, there are some people who consider themselves religious, but are simply deceiving themselves. There are many people who simply “play church”. They learn the lingo, they attend services, they sing the songs, they may even carry their Bibles with them, but their lives have never been impacted by Christ.

So in our text this morning, we will look at three things that James says will help us see whether our religion is pleasing to God, or whether we are simply playing a game.

Bridling the Tongue

James begins by telling us,

If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

The first way that James says we can test whether our religion is true or not is by whether we keep a tight rein on our tongues. The words “tight rein” are intended to evoke an image of horses. Horses in James’ time were used for transportation, but also for doing all sorts of labor. Horses could be used in a lot of different situations, but they had a mind of their own. A horse is only valuable if you make it do what you want to; a horse out of control isn’t helpful, it’s dangerous. So, how do you gain control of a horse? You attach reins to its head. If you hold the reins tightly, you can pretty much make the horse do whatever you want.

You can see why James would use this illustration to talk about our tongues. We can do all sorts of work with well-spoken words, but we can also cause great destruction with poorly-spoken words. In the same way that an uncontrolled horse is dangerous, so is an uncontrolled tongue. You know the phrase you learned when you were little, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That statement isn’t true, careless words can cause irreparable harm. James says that if we do not seek to control our tongues, then our religion is worthless.

Jesus taught that our tongues give a glimpse of whether our faith is true. In Matthew 12, Jesus was addressing the Pharisees, who were speaking against him. He told them in no uncertain terms that their speech gave a clear indication that their faith was simply for show. Jesus’ teaching is summed up at the end of verse 34, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” In other words, what comes out of our mouths is an indication of what lies within our hearts.

I’m reminded of the story of a church that was doing a work day, and the pastor was working on several projects around the church, hammer in hand (that won’t happen here, because our pastors aren’t allowed to use hammers or power tools.) But as he worked, he was sharing words of wisdom with those around him. As time went on, there were more and more people just standing around listening to him. At one point, the pastor, full of pride, said, “So you must be finding what I’m saying interesting.” One of the men who was listening quickly responded, “What you’re saying is interesting, but I’m really interested to hear what you say when you hit your thumb with that hammer!”

This man understood that what we say out of reflex is probably a good indication of what is in our hearts. Religious people usually do a pretty good job of editing our speech to make ourselves sound good. We generally don’t curse; we come up with turns of phrase that are more acceptable to our society instead. We usually don’t tell people off, but we try to be gentler in what we say to people (even if we say it through clenched teeth). But while it may look good on the outside, the fact is that even if we do these things, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have a tight rein on our tongues. Why? Because cursing and telling people off is not the only way we can sin with our tongue.

A good counselor has to exhibit controlled speech. They don’t share the things that were told to them in confidence. They are careful in the way they approach their clients, they aren’t harsh, but gentle. They often spend more time listening than they do talking. This is what controlled speech looks like…but often it’s not what our speech looks like.

There are myriad ways that we can sin in our speech, but most of them go unnoticed by us. We avoid the sins that our society finds objectionable (such as swearing), but completely overlook the others (like sharing information that we know we should keep to ourselves, or using sarcasm to attack another person so that we can claim that we were just joking.) James warns us of the danger of doing this. When we overlook the sins we commit with our tongues—even those that others deem acceptable—we deceive ourselves into thinking we are pretty good, so we feel fine while the cancer continues to grow inside of us.

Now chances are, there are many of us (myself included) who hear these words and realize that we don’t have complete control over our tongues. Few people would claim that they were in complete control of their tongues (and those that would are probably revealing that they don’t have control…otherwise they’d keep quiet!) So is James telling us that if we aren’t perfect in our speech that we aren’t really Christians? I don’t think so. Rather, I think that he is telling us that if we aren’t seeking to change, if we compare ourselves to others and conclude that we are doing pretty good, then we have good reason to question whether our so-called faith means anything at all.

James says no matter how religious we act or how good we (or others) think we are, if our tongues are out of control and we don’t care, it proves that we are simply deceiving ourselves and our religion is worthless.

Active in Service

The first way that James tells us we can examine our faith is stated in the negative—he has told us what true religion is not. The last two tests are stated in the positive—now he seeks to tell us what true religion should look like.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

It would be easy for us to misinterpret what James is saying here. He is not telling us that all we have to do to please God is to build orphanages and give money or shelter to widows. Those are good things, but if that’s what we take away from this verse, then we are missing the point.

James is not simply saying that if we help others God is happy with us, and therefore our religion is true. There are lots of people who do good things, but are deceiving themselves as far as their religion is concerned. There are countless people who do some great charity work (some even involving widows and orphans), but I’m sure that many of them aren’t doing it to serve God—they have other motives. That is not true religion at all. God is concerned with our actions, but even more than that, he is concerned with the motivation behind our actions.

James is telling us that true religion changes the way we live our lives. True religion is active, not passive. He started by telling us that we must be active in controlling our tongues. Now, in verse 27, he tells us that true religion is active in service to others.

In the culture James was writing to, widows and orphans were the people who needed the most help, because they had no way to care for themselves—there were no government programs that gave support to these people. Orphans obviously had no family to provide for them. Widows could not work and usually had no money of their own, because the family’s resources were not left to the woman. If these people’s families didn’t care for them, they were in deep trouble. As Christians, we are expected to help those who can’t help themselves. There are a lot of people like that in our society, so we should be involved in helping provide clothes for people who can’t afford them, housing for people who have no place to live, and financial support to those who really cannot make ends meet no matter what they do. This is true religion.

But I don’t think James is saying that caring for widows and orphans is the only thing that is pleasing to God; I think he is just giving examples of the way a true faith is lived out. If we have really been changed by God, we will be active in serving others. There are many very practical ways that we can live out our faith,

Giving a ride to the doctor, court, work, etc.

Helping someone with repairs they can’t afford or do themselves

Providing food for someone in need

Taking the time to listen to someone who most people ignore

Stopping to help a stranded motorist

Providing a job to someone in need

Tutoring a child (or adult) who needs help

Standing up for someone who’s being gossiped about

Adopting a child in a foreign land (e.g. Compassion International)

We need to be on the lookout for those who are “in distress” and find ways to meet their needs. James is not telling us that if we do these things, then we have earned God’s favor. Rather, it is almost the opposite. He is saying that if we have really been changed by God, then we will desire to serve others. If we are really seeking to honor God we should be willing to be involved in inconvenient love. Most of our acts of love are things that we think will fit into our schedule or think would be fun. James is talking about a sacrificial love—a love that serves others simply because it honors God, not because it’s convenient.

Let me share with you how the Life Application Commentary sums up the kind of service James is describing.

The point becomes clear that the more obviously “religious” a behavior is, the more easily it becomes meaningless, while some of the most humble and common actions are the greatest opportunities for worshipful obedience. These are acts that we probably would not do except out of obedience to God.

Remaining Unpolluted

The third thing that James tells us in this passage is that we should keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. Think about a person who is under quarantine in the hospital. Before you can go in to see them, you have to take precautions so that you don’t get infected with what they have. You might have to put on a gown, gloves, and a mask before you go in. As soon as you leave, you take all those things off and you also have to make sure that you wash your hands thoroughly. We do these things because we know that if we don’t take precautions, the chances are high that we’ll get or spread the same disease.

The same is true of our Christian faith. There is a disease that affects everyone in the world, and that is sin. We are called to prevent that disease from taking hold of us. If we want to avoid being polluted by the world, we have to be careful where we spend our time and be careful in choosing our activities and our friends. We have to be active in preventing ourselves from being contaminated by sin.

We have discovered that the best way to avoid a disease is to get vaccinated against it. We still take other precautions too, but the vaccine is one of the best defenses we have against infection, even when we are around people who are sick. There is a vaccine for sin too, it’s called the Bible. If we want to inoculate ourselves against the sins of the world around us, we have to devote ourselves to studying God’s word and applying it to our lives.

There is often confusion about how to study the Bible. Sometimes people study the Bible like a student studies for a test. You can certainly read the Bible like that, trying to memorize facts and figures so that you can impress everyone with your knowledge, but the fact is that studying the Bible that way won’t do much to prevent sin from infecting your life. Instead of reading the Bible like a student preparing for a test, we need to read the Bible like we would read the directions to get to our vacation destination. If you were going to Disney World, you’d want to closely follow the directions or you might never get there. You’d closely watch the road signs to make sure that you were on the right road. If you found that you’d taken a wrong turn, you’d try to get back on track as soon as possible. This is the same way we need to approach the Bible.

That means that as we read the Bible, when we see a command, we need to try to follow it as closely as we can and make whatever changes are necessary to follow it. If we are reading Scripture and discover some specific sin in our lives, we should confess it to God and ask him to help us get back on track. If we will follow the directions God gives us as closely as we follow directions on vacation, then it will serve as a vaccination against the contagious sinful behavior of the world.

James says that true religion is not only active in bridling the tongue and serving God and others, but also active in remaining unpolluted. If we want to have a chance at remaining unpolluted, we cannot possibly do it alone; we must seek the help of the One who can keep us clean.


One of the things that is great about the book of James is that he does not pull punches, he cuts straight to the heart of the matter. The advantage to this is that there really isn’t room for us to tone down what he is saying—his words are abundantly clear. He says that there is a big difference between true faith and a faith that is simply for show. The fact is that we can fool all sorts of people if we are good enough at pretending, and James says we can even fool ourselves. He gives us some objective tests to see whether we are simply playing the game, or whether our faith is true.

First, James asks us to examine whether we have control over our tongues. Think about it for a moment. What does your vocabulary tell you about your purity? What do your topics of conversation tell you about the depth of your love? What does the quantity of your words tell you about your ability (and willingness) to listen to others and to God? What comes out of our mouths is an extension of what lives in our heart, and James says that our speech is evidence of our faith. So ask yourself, how well am I doing in this area? None of us is perfect, but be honest, are you making an effort to gain control?

The second test James gives us is whether our faith causes us to be active in serving others. A true faith will result in a compassionate Christian. Are you active in your faith? Do you look for opportunities to serve those around you, or are you so focused on yourself that you don’t even notice the needs of others? Are you willing to be inconvenienced to help and love others, or are you only willing to serve God when it fits into your schedule or sounds like fun? If the answer to these questions is no, then maybe it’s time to get serious and truly begin serving the Lord.

Finally, James tells us that a true faith results in Christians who desire to remain pure. Sin is a disease, and like any disease it takes a constant effort to prevent ourselves from getting infected. What are you doing to prevent the world from impacting the way you live? If you have difficulty answering that question, there’s a good chance you’ve already been infected. Maybe you’ve already begun to compromise the way you live. If so, it’s not too late, you can begin fighting off the infection by starting to follow God’s instructions. It may not be easy, but it’s the most effective treatment there is.

James gives us these tests for a reason; because if we’re deceiving ourselves, we won’t even know that the cancer of sin is growing inside of us. The whole point of these tests is to help us to examine our lives from God’s perspective, and not just our own. James has shown us what true faith looks like, so apply these tests to your own life and see where you stand. If you’ve been pretending, it’s time to stop and get serious about your faith. Turn to Christ and to actually live your life for Him—ask Him to change you and help you to stop pretending. You can fool me, you can fool the world, and you can even fool yourself, but at the end of the day (and at the end of your life) God knows the truth.

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