1. Recognize the Context:
Previous Context: James 1:22-25
James encourages a person to receive God’s word with humility because it brings about salvation. In verse 22, they are instructed to "do what it says.” There is no virtue in hearing (or reading) the word without putting it into practice. To live this way only brings about self-deception. To illustrate his point, James draws on imagery from everyday life, the common experience of looking at one’s reflection. James compares the “non-doer” with someone who forgets what they look like after walking away from a mirror. This is quite literally, “out of sight, out of mind.”
The notion of forgetting one’s own appearance, after self-study in a mirror, seems ridiculous. This is precisely James' point. Not putting God’s word into practice is equally absurd. The Christian life is about knowing and doing.
James now redirects his attention from looking into a mirror to examining “the perfect law that gives freedom.” For James, this phrase is equated to the word, which brings salvation, mentioned in verse 21. More specifically, as a follower of Jesus, it included the Old Testament message in light of the risen Christ and the teaching of Jesus found in the Gospels.
God’s word provides freedom. This freedom is not to live as you please. Rather, knowing and doing God's word frees a person to live for him. In doing so, the one who practices God’s word will be blessed (1:12).
2. Read the Scripture: James 1:26-27
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
3. Reflect on the Scripture:
In verse 26, James describes the person who thinks they are religious. This adjective is only used here in the New Testament, and the noun religion is used four times, including twice in verses 26-27. The word religion means “devotion to God and the expression of that devotion through worship, prayer, etc.” A religious life without guarding one’s speech habits is empty and without value. It is also a basis for self-deception (verse 22). The pure religion God the Father accepts must include caring for the widows and orphans in their affliction and avoiding the world’s sinful pollution.
Verses 26-27 present three themes, which will be considered in three subsequent sections. These themes include speech ethics, treatment of the poor and oppressed, and resistance to the world’s corruption.
A final thought:
Within the modern evangelical world, we often hear the Christian mantra, “it’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship.” This emphasis on the relational aspect of Christianity is significant and helpful for new and old Christians alike. However, this is not a dichotomy the New Testament makes, and specifically, not one James makes. James did not understand the words “religious” and “religion” to be inherently negative, as many do today. The word for religion implies a relationship with God leading to acts of worship and devotion. However, James argues “religion” is empty and self-deceptive if it’s not accompanied by actions that demonstrate guarded speech, care for the poor, and avoidance of the world’s sinfulness.
4. Relate to life:
Remember, it is important to be a doer of God’s Word, not merely a hearer or reader (James 1:22-25). Here are some practical ways to actively respond to God’s Word. Consider these or create other ways you can apply the message.
Today, prayerfully consider your speech and the words you’ve used lately.
Today, ask God for his help to guard your speech. Ask God to help you consider your “speech” on social media lately.
Today, prayerfully consider your treatment of the poor and marginalized. Also, pray for your churches' involvement in the local community and the world.
Today, prayerfully consider how the world's sinfulness has polluted your life. To do:
Given the prayer suggestions above, how do you need to respond today? Think about your attitudes, actions, and words. Think about your family, friends, church community, and co-workers.
What specific actions can you take today?
Consider finding someone to be an accountability partner with you. Find someone who will challenge your words, how you treat others, and how the world is influencing you. Keep a word journal for the week. At the end of every day, reflect on your conversations and record them in your journal. If you regret some of the words spoken, consider what you could have done differently.