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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. (James 1:26)
A man may believe that he is religious, i.e., (1) belief in the faith, (2) belief in the teachings of the faith, and (3) living by those teachings in one’s daily life. He may believe that he is a devout person, wholly dedicated to God. He may be attending Christian meetings, or he may be doing some religious works, which on the surface makes him come across as a genuinely committed worshiper. However, there may be some flaw in his conduct, which would cast doubt on the validity of his being a genuinely religious man. If he is truly a religious man, his entire life will be in harmony with the Word of God. The Holy Spirit should lead his Christian conscience, the mind of Christ, and inner person through the inspired Word of God, not a mere observance of some formalities or ritualistic practices. We need to understand that it is how God perceives us, not how we perceive ourselves. – 1 Corinthians 4:4.
James brings to his reader’s attention one of the most challenging tasks of the imperfect human, the failure to control the tongue, i.e., what one says, namely bad things. It is of such grave concern that James spends almost all of chapter 2 on this one issue. Not controlling one’s speech would include malicious gossip, slanderous talk, badmouthing, impulsive and reckless statements, flattery, using their tongues to deceive, and the like. While he may put on grand airs or an appearance of being religious, his tongue (speech) convicts him of being one who pretends.
- He pretends to have belief in the faith,
- to have belief in the teachings of the faith,
- and to be living by those teachings in his daily life but actually behaves otherwise when outside of the church’s view.
In James’ day, the Pharisees were a self-righteous lot, who used their many words to flatter, lie, deceive, and seek their own glory while speaking ill of the common Jew as though he were less than human. – Mark 12:38-40; John 7:47-48; compare Romans 3:10-18.
When one begins to think more of himself than he ought, he is surely hip-deep in self-deception. Our relationship with the Father and the Son necessitates that we control our entire body, including the tongue. Paul told the Corinthian congregation that they needed to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5) Therefore, if anyone is living a life that seems religious on the surface yet has not gotten control over the tongue that causes pain to others and to self, this is deception in the heart, i.e., the inner person. Even if one has many Christian gifts that stand out, such as being a good speaker, having a warm and charismatic personality, and is generous but falls short in his speech, this is deception. This one has not realized what all is involved in truly being a religious person. (1 Cor. 13:1-3) We cannot practice any sin, and at the same time, consider ourselves a genuine Christian. The apostle John clarifies that Jesus’ ransom sacrifice covers committing a sin, not the practice of sinning, i.e., living in sin. – 1 John 2:1; 3:6, 9-10.
First, we should understand that James is not speaking about the religious organization but the type of worship that this person carries out. This one has a significant flaw in his walk with God, his Christian conduct, and so he is not pleasing in the eyes of God, who would view his worship (religion) as worthless. This is a case of formalistic worship, not true worship of God, as he has infected his relationship with self-deception by his failure to control his tongue. It is worthless to the point that all he is doing is wearing out the floors of the church as he ritualistically enters and leaves each service. His worship is tainted and polluted and, therefore, pointless or useless.