James called out anyone who labels themselves as religious, but doesn’t control their tongues—their words. Such people are lying to themselves. What this implies is that it is not enough to participate in religious ceremonies, keep a few commands, or refer to ourselves as a religious followers. So far as Christianity is concerned, obedience to God is meant to be followed down to the level of every word we speak.
James lived in a very religious time in history. He was born into the religion of Judaism, a political-religious system instituted by God Himself. It had been corrupted over time by its human leadership, leading to great misunderstanding about who God was and what He wanted from His people. In addition, the culture of that era was packed with religions that included the worship of all kinds of idols and false gods. All of them had specific rules and practices. All of them gave people a false sense of security in exchange for money or loyalty or ritualistic obedience. None of them was pure or undefiled religion.
Now, though, James writes that there is a form of religious expression that is still pure and undefiled before God. It is simple, though not easy: show up with the widows and orphans in their suffering. Help them. And don’t let yourself be polluted or stained by the world.
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As with other verses, we need to carefully understand the point at hand. James is not restricting “right religion” to only literal care for literal widows and orphans. At the time James wrote, these represented society’s most helpless members. Widows, in that culture, were women who had lost their husbands prior to bearing children. This left them destitute. Children without parents, and women without husbands, were among that culture’s most needy. According to this verse, “pure” religion is defined as caring for those who are in need, and avoiding the sins of the world.
When the New Testament speaks of “the world,” it usually means the “world system.” This is the fallen, sin-soaked attitude of humanity, which rejects God and opposes His wisdom. Later in this letter, James will describe worldly wisdom as bitter envy and selfish ambition. To be unstained by the world means that we refuse to be driven by our own appetites and desires and selfish goals. It means not compromising with a system that hates God. Just as James pointed out in James 1:5–8, the world’s wisdom is not like God’s.
With this, James is also implying that it’s very difficult to practice pure and undefiled religion before God…unless we see some serious changes inside of us. Merely planning to follow the right list of regulations is not enough.
James 1:19–27 emphasizes that those who truly trust God don’t settle for merely appearing religious. They give up trying to control the world with their words and their anger. They humbly receive the Word God has planted in them, listen to it, and proceed to do what it says. Part of what the Word says to us is that we should keep control over our words, to care for those who are weak and suffering, and to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world around us.