Jamesby Douglas Estes
What is religion? What does it mean to be religious?
This question is as important today as it was in James' day. James wrote about wisdom to believers who were ″scattered among the nations″ (James 1:1). These believers encountered a wide variety of worldviews, philosophies, and rituals that existed under the banner of ″religion″ (e.g., Acts 17:16-23). However, just because an idea or practice is described as religious does not mean that it honours God. For example, some of the people in James' day believed that it was a religious duty to make offerings to the emperor. This kind of act might gain a person social favour, but it does not honour God-in fact, it is ″worthless″ (James 1:26).
To explain a key application of wisdom-listening and speaking-James ties it to the practice of religion that is ″pure and faultless″ (v. 27). Here's James' point: if a person avoids making offerings to a king and claims to honour God alone, yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, that person has fooled himself (v. 26). Anyone who cannot control his words is not able to live in a way that honours God. Blessing God on Sunday and cursing man on Monday is an inconsistent lifestyle-it leads nowhere. James makes this point because he knows people who think they can do just that.
James now gives two examples of ″religion that God our Father accepts″, with the first being ″to look after orphans and widows in their distress″ (v. 27). This example is a tangible way to show love to others. In the ancient world, few cared about orphans and widows (see Isaiah 1:17), and there were no official support systems for such people.
The second example is ″to keep oneself from being polluted by the world″ (James 1:27). ″Polluted″ refers to sin, our brokenness, but in a religious sense. We are not to allow the rituals and customs of the world to become ours. For example, we are not to make offerings to emperors even if it is culturally expected. We are to keep ourselves close to God-and God alone.
James' two examples echo the two principles of the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). We are to love others, even unimportant people such as widows and orphans; and we are to love God, especially by keeping ourselves from sinful activities. These examples of the Great Commandment in action introduce the next few sections of the book of James.
Religion that is ″pure and faultless″ (James 1:27) becomes a part of our lives when we obey God's commands. Plenty of people in the world are religious-but their religion is not pure if it arises from their own sense of right and wrong. We show by our restraint and good works that our religion is real, and is one that truly honours God.
What are other examples of ″pure and faultless″ religion?
How does ″pure and faultless″ religion relate to wisdom?