“Devoid of force. Useless. Of no purpose.”
When I think about my faith, these aren’t the first words that come to mind. But James, Jesus’ brother, used “worthless” to describe the religion of the person who doesn’t control his tongue. Hear James’ words: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
After reading that verse this morning, I had to ask myself why James used such strong language to convey the importance of how we speak. Sure, our words matter, but are they really that big of a deal?
In this particular passage, James challenged his Christian audience to act on God’s Word instead of merely hearing what it says (1:25). Throughout the letter, he argued convincingly that genuine faith is expressed in corresponding actions. In his words, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:17).
Coming back to the verses at hand, James characterized “pure and undefiled” religion as being restrained in speech, compassionate to the oppressed, and holy in lifestyle (1:26-27).
I believe this section of Scripture is exceptionally pertinent in our day and age, and much could be (and has been) said about its implications. But the part I couldn’t shake this morning was James’ explanation that uncontrolled speech evidences self-deception, meaning, ironically, that the one who considers himself to be religious can actually undermine his profession by his actions.
In his commentary on James, Clayton K. Harrop wrote, “It is easy for us to go through the motions of being religious without controlling our tongues…The tongue, just as headstrong and capable of self-assertion as the strong-willed horse, must also be controlled. Otherwise, all religious practices can only be deception. Others may not be fooled, but the individual with the unbridled tongue is deceiving himself.”
Harrop added, “When we speak eloquently of the Christian virtue of patience and lose our own at the slightest provocation, our speaking is accepted as insincere. When we extol the grace of love, and speak hatefully to another, who is going to believe that we know anything about love?”
Speech can either be life-giving or deadly (Proverbs 18:21). Words can be used as a compelling testimony to the grace of God or as a stumbling block to those around us. There’s a lot at stake in how we speak to and about fellow believers. The ramifications are as significant – if not more so – in how we address the watching world.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul outlined the centrality of Jesus’ resurrection to the Christian faith. He argued that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The word rendered “futile” here is the same Greek word translated “worthless” in James 1:26. In other words, the Christian faith would be useless without the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Ministry and belief would be “in vain” (15:14). But because Christ has “in fact…been raised from the dead”, it’s not our doctrine that’s devoid of force (15:20). If we’re not careful, it’s our witness.
There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated when observing the moral, political, social, and spiritual landscape of our society. But I wonder how people would respond if, in the context of authentic relationships, we spoke the truth with conviction and in love.
It’s time to use our words to encourage and honor our brothers and sisters in Christ. By God’s grace, we can engage in respectful dialogue about our disagreements and differences. And by all means, since we’re the only people on the planet with a life-giving message to share, let’s make sure that’s what the world hears from us most clearly and most often.
Maybe, when our words and actions are in alignment with His Word, others would finally see the value of what we believe. Maybe then they’d conclude following Jesus isn’t worthless after all.