“If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26-27).
Faith that matters is fruitful; that is, it bears much fruit (Jn. 15:5, 16). Religion is worthless, if it affects no real reformation in our lives. Speech is a primary indication of the validity of the religious person’s claim to faith in Christ. Jesus said, “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matt. 12:34). What we say, and how we say it, exposes the character that we truly possess, for better or worse. Someone may have many religious affectations and external practices to hold up in defense of their religious zeal, but their speech either confirms or belies their claim. The one who routinely disparages and verbally assaults others simply isn’t following Christ.
Now, we don’t lose our salvation if we utter some expletive in the heat of a moment. James was speaking more in terms of the value of our faith in Christ as far as it affects those around us. The badger, the bully, the scofflaw, and the liar reveal by their speech the corruption of their hearts – no matter how religious they profess to be.
In contrast, to visit the destitute and the distressed, displays the kind of faith that matters. The kind of visitation James spoke of wasn’t chit-chat or a gossip session, but to give care, concern, and compassion – to meet needs. Orphans and widows represented the most vulnerable of society. James referred to the kind of visitation that lifts people out of their troubles and helps them through their trials.
What’s needed today isn’t more religious hypocrisy – claims of religion that make no difference, but more forthright demonstrations of faith that matters – faith that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty and doesn’t recoil from touching the untouchables around us. Lest we think that just meeting physical needs alone is enough, James’ point was that real, pure, and righteous religion shows people Jesus. Remember the man born blind whom Jesus healed? Jesus later sought him out and introduced Himself to the man so that he could believe in Christ as Lord (John 9:35-39).
All the hospitals, orphanages, schools, etc. that fail to point people to Christ are just as pointless as the religious professors who leave people unaided in their plight. Meeting peoples’ needs is a means to bring Christ into their field of vision. We cannot neglect one or the other, but we must bring them to Christ. None of our religious pretenses and pontifications will ever rescue anyone from hell; nor will all the food, clothing, houses, or medicine we can produce, if we fail to show them Christ.
James didn’t stop there, though. He said, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (v.27). Faith that matters makes a difference in one’s own life. Again, Christ is central. If I’m truly born again, Christ will make a difference in my life on many levels. My priorities will change from seeking the toys the world offers to seeking the things above where Christ dwells. Whom I love and how I love them will change from seeking those people who make me feel good about myself to seeking those who have nothing to offer me. I won’t just love people because of what they might give me in return, but purely for the pleasure of exhibiting Christ. Desiring the smile of God will trump every other pleasure to those who have a faith that matters.