Main point summary
If you don't control your speech, your religious deeds are worthless. Want to impress God? Tend to widows and orphans, and don't let the world's dirt get on you.
If anyone thinks he is religious
If anyone thinks himself to be exceptional in his good deeds
q and does not bridle his tongue
and does not control his speech
but deceives his heart,
but instead deceives himself into thinking he has it together,
this person’s r religion is worthless.
then all his actions are worth nothing to God.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:
What really matters to God is this:
s to visit t orphans and widows in their affliction,
tend especially to orphans and widows when they suffer
and u to keep oneself v unstained from the world.
and do your best to keep the filth of the world off of you.
One of my greatest battles in my heart is to figure out the religious formula for God's favor. I tend to want to earn salvation through action rather than faith. Here, James offers a warning to those who think they have the formula nailed down. It's almost as if he is saying, "You think you're religious? Well if your tongue isn't under control then you're just deceiving yourself and therefore all your works mean nothing to God. Instead, this is what REAL religion looks like: Take care of the widows and orphans and don't let the world drag you down into the muck." It's interesting how our speech reflects our heart so closely. Jesus said, "But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person." (Matthew 15:18) There are many Christians who seem to feel that their day-to-day speech mean nothing. That they are liberated to use whatever language they want. But James warns us that our speech is a thermometer that has an uncanny accuracy to show whether we are deceiving our own hearts. Thankfully though, James doesn't leave us hanging with just a warning. He gives us one of those rare consolidating principles that guys like me both love and hate - he summarizes pure religion with an insanely tall order of taking care of widows and orphans in their distress, and keeping ourselves clean from the world's filth. So why widows and orphans? The only thing I can think of is that widows and orphans belong to a population that will likely never be able to repay you or elevate your status in society. They aren't the rich business guy that can connect you with the next big career move. They aren't people of influence who can pump you up in society. These are the down-trodden who have had the carpet ripped out from under their feet. Putting time, money, and effort in to widows and orphans is unlikely to yield any sort of worldly return. So it stands to reason that only a redeemed heart that is intent on storing up heavenly riches would care about helping out these individuals. All that being said, from a historical perspective (and I'm theorizing here as I'm not a historian), I would doubt that there were any charitable rock-stars in the First Century. I would suspect that Western Civilization's admiration of charity is fruit from a Judeo-Christian worldview that has been able to flourish for a few centuries. So theoretically, one could take care of widows and orphans "for the cameras" these days. But back in the First Century I would doubt that there would have been any public admiration for helping the least fortunate. And finally, "keep oneself unstained from the world". Well, this probably includes not just language, but what you let your eyes see, what you do with your money, who you hang out with, what you do for entertainment, etc. This is no small order, one that seems harder and harder every single day with the world pushing the boundaries as far as possible. Hmm...I'm starting to like the idea of salvation through grace and faith more and more.