Don’t be all talk.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 May

James 1.26-27.

Both the Religious Left and Religious Right suck at following the following verses:

James 1.26-27 KWL
26 If anyone who doesn’t rein in their tongue thinks they’re religious,
they’ve deluded their own mind instead. This “religion” is meaningless.
27 Genuine, untainted religion before our God and Father is this:
Supervise single mothers and their children when they’re suffering.
Keep yourself spotless in this world.

The Left focuses on caring for the needy. Rightly so. But when it comes to spotlessness, they regularly make the mistake of confusing grace with compromise, and make too many compromises. (The Right likewise confuses grace with compromise; their error is out of their fear of compromise, they practice too little grace.)

The Right focuses on spotlessness—as they define it. As they should. But when it comes to the needy, they only take care of the deserving needy, not the poor in general. Like I said, too little grace. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, Lk 4.18 but today’s poor don’t always see oncoming Christians as good news, and the lack of grace is precisely why.

Both wings need improvement. But instead of repenting and working on it, they talk. They rip apart their political opponents, ’cause they figure it’s appropriate: Those guys are doing it wrong, and need rebuking. Meanwhile, verse 27 goes half-followed. Or unfollowed.

Politics aside, this bit connects with the previous bit about behaving instead of merely believing. Of living out Jesus’s teachings, and not just listening to them, believing in them, but not changing our lives in the slightest.

Here, James described those of us who listen but never act, as all talk. Not just all talk: Too much talk. Serious diarrhea of the mouth. But in fact it’s a smokescreen for the fact we’re not really following Jesus. We’re Christianists, not Christians.

And yeah, I gotta include myself in there. I have a bad habit of ranting more than I act. I try to do it the other way round, and try to be constructive and proactive instead of griping. But I’m under no delusion—or as James put it, apatón kardían aftú/“deluded [the] heart of them,” or as I translated it, “deluded their own mind.” I’m not lying to myself about it. Jesus doesn’t want me to merely talk, but to do the good deeds the Father originally created me to do. Ep 2.10 Talking ain’t necessarily a good deed.

No it’s not. Don’t delude yourself either.

Rein in your tongue.

The KJV went with “bridleth” to translate halinagogón. The word means to stick a halinós/“bit” in a horse’s mouth. It’s a mouthpiece, called a bit ’cause it’s placed where a horse could bite it, although it’d break the horse’s teeth if it tried. Reins connect to the bit, and depending on how you pull ’em, it turns the horse’s head. It’s how you steer the animal.

Ordinarily you’d put a bit in the horse’s mouth. But back in the Roman Empire, they’d also put ’em in slaves’ mouths. If slaves were unruly, or mouthed off to their masters, sometimes they’d be punished by having a bit put in their mouths. You can’t talk with it in your mouth, and that’s James’s whole point. He wasn’t just trying to remind his readers to steer their mouths like they steered horses: Get hold of your tongues. Gag yourself if you have to.

James dealt again with this idea later in his letter, Jm 3.2-12 because it’s not a small matter. The Christians he dealt with obviously didn’t know how to control their speech. Based on chapter 3, I’m gonna guess most of it had to do with gossip and backbiting. But it doesn’t matter which lack of self-control James’s people exhibited: It was undoing any good they were doing.

Such Christians don’t get a reputation for good deeds, charity, love, and compassion. They’re known as loudmouths who spout off about every little thing that bugs or offends them. You know, like American Christians do nowadays. We figure we have freedom of speech and freedom in Christ; why can’t we speak our minds about everything and anything? Well, because in so doing we reveal our lack of good deeds, charity, love, and compassion. Our hearts aren’t in any of that stuff. Means we’re hypocrites.

James’s point wasn’t to get his readers to hide their hypocrisy; not at all. Only to get ’em to shut up. Quit the boasting and big talk, and walk humbly with your God. Mc 6.8 For once.

Talking doesn’t help the needy. Helping the needy helps the needy. Talking about purity doesn’t make me pure, nor does it encourage others to do likewise. Being pure makes me pure, and gives others an example to follow—and gives ’em one fewer Christian to call a hypocrite.

Now yes, because bits could be used to gag slaves, there have been throughout Christian history a number of people who interpret James to mean he wanted absolute silence. Really, they’re the ones who want absolute silence. So in their churches and ministries, they’re silent. They equate silence with solemnity, and noise with irreligion. (They would hate my church.)

They miss the point. This is a message about reining in our tongues, not silencing ourselves. I know St. Francis was reported to say something like, “Preach the gospel, and when necessary use words.” I remind you the bible consists of nothing but words. Don’t knock words! Words are useful. The tongue, when used properly, can do great things. As you’ll see when we get to James’s comments in chapter 3. That was his point: Self-control, not silence.

Hey, if you never practice self-control, you’re never gonna get any better at it. Pull those reins.

True religion.

One of my peeves are those Christians who think “religion” is a bad word. Some moron’s been spreading around the idea in Evangelical Christianity that “religion” means dead ritual, so we need to be rid of it. Basically they described dead religion, and now Evangelicals have it in their heads that all religion is dead.

That’s why I appreciate James’s use of the word thriskeía. The word was basically defined one and only one way in ancient Greek: “Religion.” A devoted adherence to God. It’s why nearly all English-language bible translations can’t help but translate this passage with the words “religious” and “religion.” Irreligious people can’t easily get away from it.

Nor James’s definition of true religion. Fake religion, dead religion, meaningless religion, is the self-delusional all-talk stuff. Real religion, true religion, “genuine, untainted religion,” Jm 1.27 looks like this—and James listed two rather simple things.

First, “supervise single mothers and their children when they’re suffering,” as I put it. The KJV went with “the fatherless and widows.” The NKJV chose “orphans and widows.” The only problem with that interpretation is orfanús surely looks like it means orphan, but it properly means “fatherless child”—often someone who’s dad was killed in battle, but often (then as now) the father simply skipped out on the family. Likewise híra properly means “bereaved,” or a woman whose spouse is gone—whether from death, or from abandonment.

Basically, single mothers and their children. The first century had no social programs for such people. So the Christians stepped in and cared for “widows.” Treated ’em like family. Watched over them. Particularly when times were rough.

That, James said, was true religion: Loving your neighbor. Loving the needy. Shielding the weak from those who’d exploit them. ’Cause a number of social Darwinists figure these women are only getting what’s coming to them for pairing up with a loser. If he abandoned his family, he is indeed a loser, but it’s hardly the family’s fault, and Christians need to be the first to say so. And the first to help, not the first to judge.

The other is to “keep yourself spotless.” It’s a reminder of the previous verses; to “become doers of the word, and not merely self-deceiving hearers.” Jm 1.22 KWL To actually live as God wants us to, rather than do whatever we please and figure grace covers all. Grace does, but treating it as cheap instead of infinitely valuable, is as good a definition of irreligion as any.

Embracing fruitlessness on the grounds that “Christianity’s a relationship, not a religion!” means your relationship with God has gotta suck. Any relationship where we take the other person for granted, don’t care what offends ’em, exploit their generosity… Whatever it is, it ain’t any kind of relationship I want with anyone. Plenty of ill-mannered Christians are quick to cut such people out of their lives immediately, yet they never recognize these horrible traits in themselves.

So let’s not delude ourselves about religion. We need to get religious about our individual relationships with God: We need to make an effort. Certainly a better effort than we do. Figure out what he wants. Then do it. And it wouldn’t hurt to start with helping the needy.