"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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