My kids recently found an old children’s book of mine that explains how to do some simple magic tricks. They decided to perform a magic show and invited us adults to attend. We watched as they showed us a dollar bill with George Washington right side up, folded the bill, unfolded it and showed us George Washington was now upside down. They did a couple of other tricks, but at no point in time did they deliver an incantation and actually perform magic. The key to magic tricks is not magic. The key is deception. The magician is not deceived. He is trying to deceive the people watching. In James 1:26, however, we see a person who has deceived himself.
Think about the Pharisees with me. These are the religious leaders of the day. They uphold the law (and more) and seek to live their lives before men in the most rigid standards they can. They teach men the outward conformity to the law. They teach men how to look religious. Now James comes and tells the believers that if a person seems to be religious but has an unbridled tongue, that person’s religion is vain — it is empty. Have you ever seen those play bottles for doll babies? From the outside they look full. Then you turn them over and they empty even though nothing comes out of the bottle. These religious people with unbridled tongues are just that. They look full of all the “right things,” but the truth is, they’re empty. The unbridled tongue they display is unbridled in sin, it speaks of things it ought not (Titus 1:10-11), and it is unbridled in excess, it speaks too much (Proverbs 10:19). This unbridled tongue is a sure evidence of an empty religion.
James 1:26 also tells us that this person has deceived his own heart. Once again think of the Pharisees with me. Most of them probably thought they would stand righteous before God one day. After all, hadn’t they kept all of the commandments? Yet, it was their unbridled tongue that showed their heart. Read Matthew 12:23-37. The Pharisees have accused Jesus of being in league with Satan. How unbridled can you get? Pay attention to Matthew 12:34. This is a very familiar verse to us, but think about how closely the tongue and the heart are tied together. The tongue reveals all that is in the heart. In the very outwardly religious Pharisees, the tongue revealed a heart void of the understanding of God. It seems that a person who has a religious exterior and an unbridled tongue could very well be unsaved. This person has an unregenerate heart.
I don’t want to close all doors there though. There are some who are simply carnal Christians. In 1 Corinthians 3:1 Paul is telling the Corinthian believers that they are carnal, “babes in Christ.” They are indeed “in Christ.” They have Christ, but they haven’t built anything of lasting value on that foundation. Further down in the chapter in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 we see that we can have the foundation of Christ but still be laying up no treasures in Heaven. This person who seems to be religious but lacks self-control in her tongue could simply be revealing a lack of growth. The person has faith but has not added virtue (2 Peter 1:5-8). And still, this person’s religion (outward show) is empty. There is no reward in empty labor.
Then in James 1:27 we see the contrast. Pure religion is seen in the merciful and humble acts of the doer. The great show is not where we see a truly pious woman. True piety is seen in the servant. Pure religion is not evidenced only in visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction, but it is in these merciful acts that we see the embodiment of the pure, outward focus of religion. Also, the one who is religious keeps himself unspotted from the world. To keep oneself is to have a jealous watchfulness. We are jealous to keep pure. We are keeping our hearts with all diligence (Proverbs r4:23). We are learning to number our days so we may apply ourselves to wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
I have talked to several people recently who have expressed that growing up they felt like they had a checklist to gauge their Christianity by. If they did all those things on that checklist, things like wearing the right clothes, going the right places, talking about the right things, if they did all these things then they were spiritual. When they grew up, however, they realized that Christianity was more than external conformity. Christianity was a change of heart and thinking. That change of heart and thinking shows up in the externals. It shows up in the things I wear, the places I go and the things I talk about. But the change is first in an inward conformity to Christ not a conformity to an external standard (Romans 8:29). We can’t live our lives by a checklist to see if we’re OK. This passage in James points to that. James has just gotten done talking about being a doer of the Word and not just a hearer. Then he pauses to remind us that this doing does not begin with our hands, but it begins with our heart.
I can’t leave this without asking where are you? Consider what you are conformed to. Are you ruled by an exterior standard in your life or is your exterior ruled by a heart conformed to Christ?