“If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
Your speech reveals the condition of your heart.
In verse 22 James talked about the delusion of hearing the Word without obeying it. Here he talks about the deception of external religious activity without internal purity of heart.
That’s a common deception. Many people confuse a love for religious activity with love for God. They may go through the mechanics of reading the Bible, attending church, praying, giving money, or singing songs, but in reality their hearts are far from God. That kind of deception can be very subtle. That’s why James disregards mere claims to Christianity and confronts our motives and obedience to the Word. Those are the acid tests!
James was selective in the word he used for “religious.” Rather than using the common Greek word that spoke of internal godliness, he chose a word that referred to external religious trappings, ceremonies, and rituals—things that are useless for true spirituality.
He focused on the tongue as a test of true religion because the tongue is a window to the heart. As Jesus said, “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matt. 12:34). Corrupt speech betrays an unregenerate heart; righteous speech demonstrates a transformed heart. It doesn’t matter how evangelical or Biblical your theology is, if you can’t control your tongue, your religion is useless!
You can learn much about a person’s character if you listen long enough to what he says. In the same way, others learn much about you as they listen to what you say. Do your words reveal a pure heart? Remember Paul’s admonition to “let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Make that your goal each day, so you can know the blessing and grace of disciplined speech!
Suggestions for Prayer: Ask the Lord to guard your tongue from speaking anything that might dishonor Him. Be aware of everything you say.
For Further Study: Read James 3:1–12. ✧ What warning does James give? ✧ What analogies does he use for the tongue?
1:26, 27 Useless religion and pure and undefiled religion are contrasted. Religion here means the external patterns of behavior connected with religious belief. It refers to the outward forms rather than the inward spirit. It means the outer expression of belief in worship and service rather than the doctrines believed.
Anyone who thinks he is religious, but cannot control his tongue, … this one’s religion is useless. He might observe all kinds of religious ceremonies which make him appear very pious. But he is deceiving himself. God is not satisfied with rituals; He is interested in a life of practical godliness.
An unbridled tongue is only one example of futile religion. Any behavior inconsistent with the Christian faith is worthless. The story is told of a grocer who apparently was a pious fraud. He lived in an apartment above his store. Every morning he would call down to his assistant, “John!”
“Have you watered down the milk?”
“Have you colored the butter?”
“Have you put chicory in the coffee?”
“Very well. Come up for morning devotions!”
James says that such religion is useless.
What God is looking for is the practical type of godliness which takes a compassionate interest in others and keeps one’s own life clean. As examples of pure and undefiled religion, James praises the man who visits needy orphans and widows, and who keeps himself unspotted from the world.
In other words, the practical outworking of the new birth is found in “acts of grace and a walk of separation.” Guy King describes these virtues as practical love and practical holiness.
We should put our own faith on trial with the following questions: Do I read the Bible with a humble desire to have God rebuke me, teach me, and change me? Am I anxious to have my tongue bridled? Do I justify my temper or do I want victory over it? How do I react when someone starts to tell an off-color joke? Does my faith manifest itself in deeds of kindness to those who cannot repay me?
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.
In explaining the meaning and implication of serving God, James tells his readers first how not to serve God. Then in the next verse, he instructs them how to profess and practice their religion.
- “If anyone considers himself religious.” This is a simple fact conditional sentence that depicts life as it is. A person who attends the worship services in a Christian church may consider himself religious. To be sure, many people believe that church attendance, praying, or even fasting is the equivalent of being religious. Not so, says James, because such activity may be merely outward show. That is formalism, not religion.
What, then, is religion? Negatively, it is not what man construes it to be when he considers himself to be pious. Positively, religion comes to expression when man speaks with a bridled tongue.
- “Yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue.” The author of this epistle introduces the subject of the tongue in the first chapter (1:19), mentions it here in connection with religion, and then returns to it more explicitly in the third chapter. There he compares the tongue to horses that have bits in their mouths so that they obey their masters. “No man can tame the tongue,” James says. “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8). If man is able to bridle his tongue, “he is a perfect man” (3:2).
If man fails to keep his tongue in check, his religion is worthless. The unruly tongue engages in lying, cursing and swearing, slander, and filthy language. From man’s point of view the hasty word, shading of the truth, the subtle innuendo, and the questionable joke are shrugged off as insignificant. Yet from God’s perspective they are a violation of the command to love the Lord God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. A breach of this command renders man’s religion of no avail.
- “He deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” This is the third time that James tells his readers not to deceive themselves (1:16, 22, 26). As a pastor he is fully aware of counterfeit religion that is nothing more than external formalism. He knows that many people merely go through the motions of serving God, but their speech gives them away. Their religion has a hollow ring. And although they may not realize it, by their words and by their actions—or lack of them—they deceive themselves. Their heart is not right with God and their fellow man, and their attempt to hide this lack of love only heightens their self-deception. Their religion is worthless.
Do Not Be Deceived: The Importance of Right Speaking (1:26)
26 The word translated “religious” (thrēskos, GK 2580) is rare and unknown in Greek prior to this occurrence in James. The related and much more common word thrēskeia (GK 2579), which James uses at the end of v. 26 and again at the beginning of v. 27, has to do with religious ritual but could also imply the internal piety of the worshiper (TLNT 2:200–203). James clearly uses both terms to speak of service to God via right attitudes of the heart and righteous living (see 1:20). In line with the previous passage, true religion does not participate simply in forms of worship (i.e., hearing the word spoken or read) but must extend to a transformation of life that has implications for how one interacts in community.
Specifically, if a person thinks of himself as religious and cannot keep control of his tongue, he is self-deceived. The word translated “considers himself” does not have the pronoun attached to it in Greek, and the term dokeō also can communicate the idea of reputation, or “to seem.” Thus it might be better to translate the clause, “If anyone seems to be religious,” or, “If anyone has the reputation of being religious.” Yet what seems to be is not really true, for this person uses words destructively in the community. Both the NIV and NASB reflect that the term for “control” (chalinagōgeō, GK 5902) was used literally of a horse’s bridle, which is the main means of controlling the horse; hence the figurative meaning of “keep under control.” If the tongue is not kept in check, two conclusions may be drawn. The person deceives his own heart, and he has a worthless religion. The heart was seen variously as the seat of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual life of a person. In its figurative use, it represented, among other things, the inner self where moral decisions were made. James’s emphasis here is that we can trick ourselves into thinking ourselves religious when the clear evidence indicates otherwise. If the tongue is not under control, the supposed religion is “worthless,” a word connoting that it is useless, fruitless, powerless, or even lacking truth.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 177). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2224). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 63–64). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 228–229). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.