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James 1:26-27

"26 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man's religion is vain. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."

How do we deal with the trials that come to us in life? Do we view ourselves as victims and speak and act out of self-pity? Do we compare ourselves to others either to beat ourselves up or justify ourselves? Trials challenge our deepest habits of mind, our deepest beliefs about who we are and what a good life is. I took a class on Ministry to the Dying and Bereaved at Fuller Seminary and I remember the professor saying that many people think that a serious illness or a death in the family bring the family closer together. But he said this is usually a mistaken hope. What usually occurs is the deeper dysfunctions of the family surface at that time.

We hold certain beliefs about God's character and activity and our worth and identity but the faith we really operate on is made clear in the times of stress. This is why James speaks of trials as testing our faith. When we face difficult circumstances, we have the opportunity to "test" the depth and security of our faith. We can more fully live by the truth, see more clearly how true and wonderful God really is. And we can see the deeper doubts, anxieties, and idols that need to be handed over to our heavenly Father.

James speaks in the previous passage and in this one about how easy it is to deceive ourselves. We are deceived about the truth of God and ourselves when we say we trust in the goodness and graciousness of God but don't actually live by that trust. We are deceived--which means we are the ones who are the losers when we don't act on what we believe. We are not able to receive the comfort and peace of His presence and activity when we live as if He is not really present and active in our lives.

In this passage, James warns his readers against deceiving their hearts. We deceive our hearts, according to James, when we believe we are "religious" but we won't bridle our tongues. He says that the person who does this has a religion that is vain, or useless. Again, we are the losers. Our religion becomes useless, we enjoy no comfort or empowering from our trust in God.

What might James mean by bridling one's tongue? Why is this so important that to not do so is to deceive one's very heart? First, to bridle one's tongue is to discipline yourself to be careful what you say. You do not allow whatever comes to mind to come out of your mouth. You have put a watch over yourself so that nothing escapes your lips unexamined. You have a restraint on yourself.

When we are under trials, we sometimes feel our situation is an exception or a special circumstance which allows us to be less restrained in what we say. After all, we think to ourselves, this is a very hard time and so being more lax is perfectly understandable, if not justifiable. We may be tempted to indulge ourselves a bit in self-pity or in some manipulating of our situation to make things better for ourselves. What might we be tempted to say that shows we are not bridling our tongue? I think we can get a hint of this by looking at verse 27. James says there are two things that show a "religion that is pure and undefiled before God." The first is to visit "orphans and widows in their affliction" and the second is "to keep oneself unstained from the world."

Orphans and widows were the powerless of their society. They had lost all connection to those who were responsible to take care of them. They have no status, no influence. James tells his readers that they should visit these people in the midst of their affliction--in their very place of pain. They are not to wait until these children and women are in a better, more respectable place. They are not to wait until the orphans and widows are in a position to give them something back. To visit them in their affliction offers no advantage to the one doing the visiting. This is true religion. When we trust God to be our only and real source of life, peace, rest, and worth, then we can enjoy the wonderful freedom of serving others with no need for a direct return from them. That is why it is true religion. It reflects the very heart of our extravagant God who so lavishly loves us, who are unable to give Him any advantage for His gracious love to us. Here we can see deeper into His great heart and can truly receive His overpowering love because we are not distracted by looking for a way to put ourselves into advantageous positions.

The second part of true religion is to "keep oneself unstained from the world." This goes back to James' comments about the one who is double-minded. When we seek to receive and know God's presence and love, we need to turn from looking to the world for honor or life. We come to see more and more the truth that the world cannot tell us who we are and what is true life, so we stop seeking for it to do so. Of course this is a process--part of the testing of our faith to make it steadfast (vv. 3-4)

James contrasts true religion with religion that is vain. So it would seem that when he speaks of bridling one's tongue, he is encouraging his readers to restrain themselves from using their tongues to bring about their own advantage or to get others in the world to give them recognition, status, power, or worth. When we use our tongues for these things, we deceive ourselves because we are using them to gain what can only be gotten from God.

When exercising true religion we no longer regard ourselves as hapless victims nor tragic heroes. Rather we are choosing to live as if we are the beloved sons and daughters of our gracious heavenly Father who is with us in the most intimate way whatever our circumstances. He is transforming us to be in every way His mature children, able more and more fully to live in the love with which He loves us completely.

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