“If anyone thinks he is religious, but instead of bridling his tongue deceives his heart, this one’s religion is worthless” (Jas 1.26).
You know that guy who always has an answer for every question, explanation for every situation, provocation for every dispute, and/or recollection for every story? Whatever the setting, this guy always has something to say and assumes it’s everyone’s privilege to hear it. His answer always better. His explanation always more astute. His experience always more dramatic. He’s impatient when others are talking but expects undivided attention when waxing eloquent on the topic at hand. You know that guy. I am that guy trying to be was that guy.
Due to our sinful rebellion against God we lost peace on all fronts. We lost peace with God, peace with each other and peace within ourselves. James 1.26 puts the latter on display. What we think doesn’t often jive with what we are, which doesn’t always jive with what we say. Our minds, hearts and tongues are at odds with each other such that we can convince others with our tongues what is not true of our hearts. We can even deceive our hearts into feeling what our mind manipulates through our mouths. Unlike God, what we say is not always consistent with who we are.
Perhaps the most hellish fallout of our inner war is the way we use our tongues to appear religious without actually having to be religious. And by “religious,” James intends the particular form of Christianity, not religion in the general sense of any and all faith traditions. To think oneself “religious” it to consider oneself godly or, we could say, Christian . Still worse, we don’t outright lie about our religion, but genuinely think we are religious because we can talk a sophisticated religious game. James is not confronting those who lie about being religious, but who sincerely substitute religious tongue-wagging for “pure and undefiled religion” (v27).
James, the consummate pastor with a keen sense of what it means to actually apply the gospel, makes several things quite clear:
1. One’s Christianity (“religion”) is directly related to how one uses his/her tongue (cf. Jas 3.1-12). Jesus taught us the substance of our regular conversations is what most thrills or fills our hearts (Mt 12.34). So despite what we may think about ourselves we reveal who we are by what regularly rolls off the tongue.
2. Bridling the tongue is a mark of Christian (“religious”) maturity (cf. Jas 3.2). By “bridling,” of course, James employed an equestrian metaphor and is used only here and in 3.2 in all the NT. As a bit in a horse’s mouth controls his direction and behavior, so the tongue controls our direction and behavior (cf. Jas 3.3). Bridling the tongue doesn’t necessarily mean restraining it (although it might), but controlling it. We bridle the tongue when we refuse to use it (Jas 1.19) and when we use it carefully and gracefully (Eph 4.29).
3. Not bridling the tongue is to deceive one’s heart. What’s the connection between an unbridled tongue and a deceived heart? When I’m merely spouting off how religious I think I am I’m convincing my heart that I’m far more religious than I really am. James contrasted religion-in-word-only with “pure and undefiled religion” in 1.27. The more I talk a good religious (or Christian maturity) game the less inclined I am to actually serve the cause of Christianity in mercy and holiness. My Christianity is shaped mainly by reputation than actual devotion.
For example, those of us who enjoyed Happy Days growing up remember that we never saw the Fonz actually fight anyone. Yet, everyone was afraid to fight him. He talked a mean enough game that no one challenged him to any actual fisticuffs.
Likewise, I will labor to convince you I’m religious without having to actually get my hands dirty with widows, orphans or practical holiness. In so doing I deceive my heart into feeling religious without any substantial evidence that I really am. And James teaches that anyone like that observes a worthless Christianity. There is no Christianity-in-word-only.
Consider a few pastoral applications:
1. Don’t just talk about forgiveness. Forgive. Don’t go on about forgiveness to make people think you’re a forgiving person in order to avoid being held accountable to actually forgiving your enemy. Our mouths can deceive our hearts into thinking we’ve forgiven when we really haven’t. Go and actually forgive your enemy so they can tell the world how forgiving you are.
2. Don’t just talk about prayer. Pray. Don’t talk a good game about prayer to make people think you’re a praying person in order to avoid being held accountable to actually praying. Develop a reputation for prayer by the mouths of others, not by your own.
3. Don’t just talk about evangelism. Evangelize. Don’t talk about a love for and necessity to evangelize such that people think you’re a faithful evangelist when you’re really not.
4. Don’t just talk about grace and mercy. Extend grace and mercy. Don’t talk about God’s grace and mercy such that people think you’re a gracious and merciful person without having to actually confront the grudge(s) you’re nursing.
5. Don’t just talk about love. Love. Don’t talk about how much we need to love each other because of how much God has loved us so that people then think you’re a loving person and then don’t confront any hatred germinating in your heart. Many times we can hijack (or profane) God’s love to throw others off the scent of our our own anger and bitterness.
6. Don’t just talk about encouragement. Encourage. Don’t boast about the value of encouragement so that people think you’re an encouraging person without being held accountable to actually making a phone call or writing a note.
7. Don’t just talk about the Bible. Talk Bible. Don’t throw around words like inerrancy, infallibility, authority so that people think you’re a Bible person without actually considering how much Bible you love, know and apply.
Foghorn Leghorn summarized James quite well: “You’re doing a lot of choppin’, but no chips are flyin’.” That’ll preach, I say, I say.