Religion: worthless or priceless?

James 1:19-27

29 January 2012

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service


Recently a video on the Internet has "gone viral" as they say. Don't worry, it just means that a lot of people have watched it—in fact, over 17 million people in the last three weeks; you can find it on You Tube. All it is is a really well produced four minute performance by its author of a poem, which he's called "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus".

And—with an understanding of what the author means by "religion"—I think it's rather good, especially the second half. But you can see why it might cause a stir, because people have all sorts of different understandings about what religion means.

In follow-up interviews the author has clarified that what he means by the word "religion" is "hypocrisy, legalism, self-righteousness, and self-justification". In short, false religion. And the connection with our passage is that this is pretty much what James condemns as well in verse 26, If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.ref

And, for sure, there is plenty of worthless religion in the world. But that isn't the the whole story on religion, because, as James goes on, there is religion that is true and worthy. Verse 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.ref

You may be surprised to hear that religion is barely mentioned in the Bible. There are only about five references to it in the whole New Testament, and three of them are in this paragraph. But if we understand religion to be about how we choose to live our lives in the light of our knowledge of God, then it is a massive theme for James.

And James is quite clear that we can either do religion in a way that pleases God, or we can do it in a way that is worthless. So that's the question he poses for us: is our religion worthless or priceless?

Worthless religion doesn't listen to God

The discussion starts back in verse 19: worthless religion does not listen to God.

James begins with a proverb, My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angryref. Not "slow, slow, quick, quick, slow"; simply "quick, slow, slow". Quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.

Verse 20, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.ref Our God is a God who is slow to anger; our quick human-centred anger makes us less like him rather than more.

Now, this is an excellent piece of standalone advice,—potentially church-transforming on its own,—and if this were the only thing all of us remembered from the sermon this morning then I'd consider it a job well done: be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

However, James seems to have something a bit wider in view. In context, what exactly is it that he wants us to be quick to listen to? Is it only about listening to each other?

Well, there is a thread running through these paragraphs. In verse 18 James talks about the word of truthref. In verse 21, the word planted in youref. In verses 22 and 23 he actually talks about listening to the word. In verse 25, the perfect lawref. It's looking, isn't it, like the key thing that James wants us to be quick to hear is God's word: the word of truth.

He's telling us, when you come to the word of God, be quick to listen; humbly accept the word planted in you. When we hear the word of God, we should be very slow to assert our own judgements, and even slower to become angry.

I've been privileged a number of times to hear Professor Stephen Hawking give lectures. I'm sure you've heard of him: he has motor neurone disease and is almost entirely paralysed. The way he communicates is truly extraordinary. He has just enough independent movement to click a single button to laboriously select words from a computer screen on his wheel-chair, and when he's finished a speech synthesiser delivers his words in a Dalek-like voice. His lectures are obviously pre-prepared, but question and answer sessions are quite amazing. It can take him five or ten minutes or even longer to compose a reply to a question. But during that time there's not a whisper in the audience. Everyone is eager to hear what the great man has to say. No-one jumps in with their own answer to the questions because they know they'd look a fool. And if he says something controversial people don't get up and rant at him: they weigh what he says, because he is after-all probably the greatest theoretical physicist alive. It is far more likely that he's right than they are.

This is the attitude to God's word that James would commend to us. God has gone to great lengths to give us his word: let's be quick to listen to it. Let's be slow to jump in with our own views: we'll only look like fools. And if God's word offends us, let's remember that it comes with His authority—and He's far more likely to be right than we are,—so let's be slow to become angry. This is what James means by humbly accepting the word.

As a practical application of this, next Sunday evening we will be holding the first of our discussions about "Men and Women in the Church". Believe me, this is a topic people can get quite excited about! My prayer is that we will come that evening quick to hear—ready to listen to what God's word says; slow to speak—holding back from leaping in with our own cherished views; and most certainly slow to become angry, with each other and with God himself.

Worthless religion does not listen to God. Priceless religion humbly accepts the word planted in us—it is priceless because it is through this word that we can be saved.

We need to continue to hear the word whenever we meet together like this, in all our small group meetings, when we meet to pray, at occasions like the church members' meetings, and especially in our own day-to-day lives. Let us always be people who are quick to listen.

Worthless religion doesn't do what God says

Next, verses 22 to 25, worthless religion does not do what God says.

We may be hearers of the word, but that is not enough, says James. We must also be people who do what it says.

Now, it's very easy to be glib and just say, "do what the Bible says!" And there are plenty of clear commands in here. And there are plenty of commands that we no longer need to keep as well (goat sacrifice anyone?). And there is an awful lot of it which doesn't seem to command us to do anything in particular. So what does James mean by saying simply, Do what it saysref?

James gives us a picture of a mirror, but I'd like to spend a few moments extending that a little. I want to share with you a little picture of one way I approach the Bible.

Imagine a beautiful stained glass window. We don't really go in for stained glass here—we have a little—but this window is enormous. And it's made up of myriads of small pieces of coloured glass, each one carefully shaped and placed, interlocking and intricate. And behind this window there is a blazing, glorious light, the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, blazing through this window and it is the most glorious thing you have ever seen. And all you can do is worship.

That's one aspect of how I see this word. We can't yet see God's glory directly: he is too holy. But through this word his glory shines through. And each story, each sentence and paragraph is a piece of the window, designed to fit together perfectly and show us his glory. And the proper and only response is to worship. In that sense, we do what it says: we know and praise our God, Father, Son and Spirit.

Now to James' picture. The Bible is not only a window, it is also a mirror. It doesn't only show us God, it shows us ourselves. And what we see is not glorious. Sure, there are traces of the glory: we are after all in His image. But they are, verse 21, hidden by our filthiness. We are stained and polluted by the world, verse 27. We look in the mirror of the word and it reflects back what we truly are, and what we see is not pretty.

And James says that if we do this, if we look into the word and it shows us ourselves as we really are, and then we go away and do not do something about it, then we deceive ourselves. Practically every day for the last five or six years I've looked into the mirror and told myself that I've got to lose some weight. Yet I still haven't changed my diet; I'm still not doing any exercise. You've got to wonder how serious I am. I appear to be deceiving myself; it's a bit pathetic really.

And yet we do this with the Bible too. Like a mirror it reveals us as we truly are. And it tells us what we need to do about it. Yet so often we just walk away and forget all about it. How many sermons have you forgotten by the time Sunday lunch comes round? How many morning quiet-times have evaporated before you reach your office desk? How many resolutions have you made and not followed through on?

This is worthless religion. Religion that is worth something not only hears the word, or in the words of verse 25, looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedomref, but religion that is worth something does not forget what is heard, but does it. This is religion that God blesses.


So we come back in verse 26 to where we started. James gives three examples of practical application of the word; things that people who follow Jesus should be doing.

He expands later on in the letter on each one of these, so we won't look at them exhaustively now, but in brief he says, first, keep a tight rein on your tongue. This refers back to being quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Worthless religion does not affect how we speak to one another; priceless religion makes our conversation full of grace and seasoned with saltref. James comes back to this theme in spades in chapter 3.

Second, priceless religion has compassion for the poor. Not just benevolent feelings, but actions that help, that give, that support and act. If your religion does not affect your giving it is likely worthless. James unpacks this in chapter 2.

Third, priceless religion changes our behaviour: it keeps us from being polluted by the world. If your religion does not affect how you live from day to day—if your life from Monday to Saturday looks pretty much like that of your neighbours,—then your religion is likely worthless. Again, we return to this in chapter 4.

This paragraph, verses 26 and 27, is a picture of Jesus, isn't it? Always wise in what he said: sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh, but always under control, always glorifying his Father. Always acting the bless the poor and to heal the sick, compassionate to the weak. Always pure and perfect, unstained by the world.

If our religion is worth something, then over time as we look intently into God's word, we will see the reflection changing. More and more our reflection will change to become gradually like Jesus' reflection. Today we see our own reflection, and, frankly, it's horrible. But as we pray and as we identify our sin and filthiness and ask for God's forgiveness and work with the Holy Spirit—gradually the reflection we see becomes more like his reflection. The two images, the mirror and the stained glass window, begin to look just a little bit more similar as he cleans us up. Slowly but surely Jesus' glory begins to shine through in our lives.

This is religion that is worth something; this is priceless religion.

Just a final note. If you want your religion to be worth something, then it is vitally important to see the flow of James' thought in these paragraphs.

Priceless religion doesn't start with us and our efforts; priceless religion starts with God planting his word in our hearts. It starts with us humbly accepting this word, verse 21. Often when we think of religion we think of a shear effort of will that tries to make us more pleasing to God, but that's worthless religion all over again: mere human effort that acts only from the outside in. We cannot make ourselves more like Jesus just by trying harder.

Priceless religion starts with God implanting his word, his Spirit, himself in our hearts. It doesn't finish there, as James argues so strongly, but it must start there. And our actions—what we do—is then a response to God acting first in our lives.

It may be that you're not sure this morning that you have humbly accepted God's word planted in you. You don't know if God is working in you from the inside out to make you more like his Son. If so, then listen: no amount of trying harder, no amount of religion is going to help. Instead, come and talk to me or the prayer team after the service and we can help.


So here are some questions for reflection.

What is your religion worth?

1. Are you quick to listen? How can you be a better hearer of God's word? Where does the Bible feature in your life?

2. Will you do what it says? What is God saying to you through his word that you need to act on, to repent of, to do better? Ask for his help; resolve to do it; go and do it.