Don't you just hate stains? Stains can cause you to reject that once favorite blouse that you so loved to wear. Our spiritual stains can cause others to reject our favorite name that we so love to wear - Christian.
Just the mere mention of the word hypocrite is repulsive, isn't it? Mention the word hypocrite and the first thing that pops into most people's minds is religion. Most of us have probably run into a few people who have made us think of that word - people who profess to be a Christian, yet seldom do we see Christ in their lives.
James makes it clear that true religion does make a difference in one's thinking, disposition, communication, habits and acquaintances. It is not church attendance nor mere spiritual words flowing out of one's mouth. It is the total control of an individual by the will of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the latter part of James 1, the Holy Spirit tells us 5 areas in which TRUE religion makes a difference in one's life:
1. THINKING - A difference in one's view of God. In verses 12-15 in last week's lesson, James warned against the FALSE view of God which makes God the source of our temptations to evil. He goes on in verses 16-18 to tell us a true view of God is recognizing Him as the source of life's good things. He doesn't bless us, as we all acknowledge that He does, just to "trip us up" one day with a temptation to blame Him for some catastrophe that has happened in our lives. That is not His nature. A true view of God will make a difference in one's attitude and manner of life. Knowing that God gives only good things, we will not fall prey to Satan's subtle efforts to demoralize us into evil paths. Seeing ourselves as valuable to God, we will never be idle in spiritual service.
2. COMMUNICATION - A difference in one's ability to control her temper and tongue. Beginning in verse 19 of our lesson today, we see that true religion makes a difference in our ability to control our temper and tongue. This is probably one of the most practical test of one's religion. Are you able to listen to others and God's message? Do you know when to hold your tongue? How are you at controlling your temper? We have probably all erred in this area from time to time, but being known for a sharp tongue or a fiery temper will lessen your influence as a Christian and is likely to earn you the label of hypocrite. When we label ourselves as Christian, others watch to see if we will tarnish that label, cover it up periodically, or even if we will allow it to fall off. Let's learn to be slow to anger, think twice about using our tongue, but quick to listen to God's Holy Word and to the needs of others.
3. DISPOSITION - A difference in one's heart. Verse 21 reads, "... put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." True religion will make a difference in the way you receive God's word. Like the Parable of the Soils (Luke 8), different Christians allow the Word to become implanted to different degrees in their hearts. In some it is deeply rooted and nourished, fed and tended daily. In others it is shallow and only allowed the minimum exposure to its needs to keep it alive. If the latter is our picture, how do we make our hearts more receptive to God's will? The two-fold answer is in verse 21. "Put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness ..." Strive for purity. Because Jesus' blood washes away our sins at baptism and continually washes away our sins as we walk in the Light (I John 1:7), some Christians tend to want to hold on to one or more sinful acts from their old life, knowing that they are covered by God's grace. Even though God's grace is great enough to cover our sins, willful sinning adversely affects the effectiveness of God's word on our hearts and our influence for Christ on others. Secondly, in that verse we learn we must receive the rebuke and counsel of the Gospel in meekness. Realize that God knows what is best for us; we don't. Realize that God is greater than we are. Realize that if it weren't for His grace, we would be damned to everlasting punishment.
So the elements of a good and fruitful heart are purity and humility. A Christian whose heart is characterized by these traits will grow daily in spiritual stature and strength. She will be a good and powerful influence for truth and righteousness. She will find favor with God and with men. A hypocrite will be content to go through the motions of Christianity and feel somewhat trapped by a God that demands so much from His followers. A true transformation has not fully been made. But one who practices true religion will yield totally to the will of God in being changed "from the inside out."
4. HABITS - A difference in one's willingness to obey. True religion makes a difference in whether you will submit to authority and obey commands, or not (verses 22 - 25). Gospel truths must be translated into concrete actions. Attendance at worship service and listening to a sermon is of no value if a difference is not made in one's actual behavior. Just merely thinking on some good thing is not the same as being good. A well-known preacher wrote that sometimes people will tell him, "Boy, that sermon really touched me," or "That really hit home." He has a tendency to want to reply, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" Listening to the truth is not what gets you right with God. It is much like the person who gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror and thinks, "Yep, my hair needs combing," but then leaves the house without combing her hair. She acknowledges the need, but doesn't act on the need. The woman who fights the Word of God is most miserable as she struggles with a guilty conscience. The one who yields to God in obedience has a clear conscience and receives the blessings of God in her faithful life.
Having stressed the fact that receiving the Word of God means putting it into practice, not just hearing it, James clarifies one other factor in verse 26. Mere religious activity was not what James was advocating. One may be a "worker only" instead of being a "hearer only." Some people will substitute religious activity in place of a deeper spiritual commitment. Some may go through all the motions of being a servant of God, but still not allow the word of God to affect their hearts. The Israelites had this problem quite often. They made sure they did what was required by God, but did little to draw close to God.
Verse 26 reads, "If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man's religion is vain." Sometimes I end up working on these lectures after my kids get home from school. Because I can be rather slow of brain, I don't care to be interrupted when working on these lectures. Occasionally, one child will come and interrupt me and sometimes I have a tendency to want to yell, "Leave me alone! I can't handle that right now." If I gave in to that feeling, what would happen? My actions would not be worthy of the lesson I am working on. My children would see I'm working on a Bible lesson, but not behaving in a Christian way. I would be going through the motions of religion without my heart being affected by it.
The same might be said of a person who sits through a worship service on Sunday morning, then gets mad and verbally upset when someone beats him to the parking space he was heading for at Western Sizzlin' at Sunday noon. This is a case of a person who is deceiving his own heart by performing religious acts and supposing that he is a doer of the Word, because he attended services.
God does ask us to do some religious, external acts as a result of our faith--attending services, studying, praying, giving, eating the Lord's Supper, etc. These things are necessary. The danger appears when it is supposed that such performance entirely fulfills one's spiritual obligation. James tells us we can go through religious acts, but if we don't control our tongue we are showing spiritual immaturity. When we rely on these outward acts to show our religion, they become worthless. The acts in themselves may be praiseworthy, but if they are being relied upon as fulfilling an obligation to obey the Word of God, they become useless.
Do you remember back in Romans 7 when we were talking about the man who is a servant to sin? Paul is talking about the carnal man, sold under sin. He says, "I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want ..." When we were reading through that while we were writing the lessons, Sandy said, "Doodah, Doodah." She refers to this as "Paul's Doodah section." Sandy, if Romans 7 is the "Doodah section," then James 1:22-27 is the "DoBeDoBeDoo section." In essence, James has just said, "Don't just BE a Christian in name, BE a DOer. Don't just DO the Christian deed, but in deed, BE the Christian in heart. DO it and BE it, BE it and DO it." True religion has an outward action to God and others and an inward action on the heart. DO and BE a Christian.
5. ACQUAINTANCES - A difference in one's concern for the needy. True religion makes a difference in the sincerity of concern for the needy. James does acknowledge that true Christian faith does have its outward expression - godly concern and action in relationship to others. He wants us to be sensitive and reactive to others' emotional and economical distress. Widows and orphans were the most common in distress in biblical days. (The Church was the welfare and Social Security department of that day.) Today, James might have used the homeless and third world countrymen in his examples. All of these provide an immediate opportunity to express our Christian love. The word "visit" used in verse 27 is more than a social call. It refers to relieving the needs of the needy. Jesus loved mankind. When He saw someone with a need - physical or emotional - He took care of the need and gained a favorable hearing for the spiritual message He preached. He left us that example to follow. Each soul, regardless of social status, is seen as priceless and a possible friend to Jesus and a possible brother or sister to us.
James concludes his description of true religion in conduct with a personal plea to holiness. Personal holiness and avoidance of spiritual contamination from the sinful world - the stains - the things that get us labeled as "hypocrite" or from which we know ourselves to be hypocritical.
We need to use our prayer time and our time in personal and class Bible studies as a sort of Christian mirror to look for possible stains that we might have on us. Let that mirror not only help us acknowledge our stains, but cause us to feel remorse and desire for a more pure life that is more Christ-like. Resolve to change the heart. Satan can lead us to stain ourselves with sins of the tongue, anger, inaction, sins of hypocrisy, etc. But Jesus is our ultimate STAIN REMOVER. The Holy Spirit acts as our STAINGUARD as we allow Him to be active in our lives. He will be active if we "DO the Christian deed, and in deed, BE the Christian in heart."
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR