Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 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.
My first thought when it came to writing on these verses was that this would be a very easy post… and then I started thinking about it. The “catch” here is the part about keeping a “tight rein” on the tongue. My first thought was to go off on people within the church who abuse their positions of authority to say hurtful and ugly things to people from a position of self-righteousness. Of course it occurred to me that having a tight rein on the tongue probably applies to the keyboard as well. OK, I’ve heard the more traditional approach to this many times: watch your language! Somehow however, that always has struck me as being just a bit shallow. Yes, we shouldn’t be tossing foul language around, but do you really need me to tell you that? I have the impression that James had considerably more in mind, particularly in this context.
Great: Now what?
The truth is that I think we often make a mistake in passages such as these by taking them too literally. I doubt that James wrote this to give us the perfect verse to enable an annual sermon on cussing, nor do I think that he wrote verse 27 to give us the perfect verse to justify our annual message on helping the needy or to raise money for an orphanage. After all, the context is love in action, and that is far broader than either of these two applications. Of course followers of Jesus shouldn’t be using the filthy language of this wicked world, of course followers of Jesus should actively aid and protect widows and orphans; these are but examples of a larger truth.
In the larger context, it seems to me that James is giving instruction about the sanctity and sacredness of each one of God’s children. He wants us to recognize the fact that every single person is valued by God, that we must make every effort to respect, love and cherish every single one. We mustn’t be in the habit of denigrating anybody, for they are loved and cherished by our Lord, so much so that He willingly gave Himself up for them. Most of all, the little children who are innocent and helpless must be a high priority for us to love, nurture and protect from harm, as well as the widows who have been left alone and vulnerable… and anybody else who is unable to protect themselves from this harsh world.
This is what it means to love, to put that love into action, and to serve God. This is what Jesus did, and this is what His followers are to do.