The verse most of us remember in this context is found in the first chapter of James’ epistle: “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” (James 1:27).
But this verse, so often quoted in isolation (or marked in our Bibles that way) is actually only part of James’ teaching on this subject. When we read James 1:27 in context we see that his thought actually begins in the verse before this one: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
Now, if we read these verses together – as we should – we find something interesting: that James is giving us not two, but three distinct tests of our religion or personal religious practice. First (in verse 26), he gives us the test of speech. James does not give us any specific examples here; he just tells us plainly that religion that is not worthless involves control of our speech – whether it be the restraint of negative or impure speech or the use of positive uplifting speech.
Next (in verse 27), James tells us that religious behavior that God accepts includes good deeds. Here, he does give a specific example – to look after orphans and widows in need. But the principle is obviously a broad one of which this is just an example. The care for orphans and widows clearly represents our actions toward everyone in need – our willingness to act on our religious beliefs on their behalf.
Finally (in the second half of verse 27), James tells us that religion acceptable to God also includes keeping oneself from being “polluted by the world.” Here again James does not give any specific example of what he has in mind, but we can gain insight into his meaning by comparing this verse with what the apostle says later in this same letter: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
Here, James is also talking about the problematic ways in which the wrongful aspects of the world around us can influence us negatively. Although this influence can affect our actions and words, interestingly it is our thoughts that James has in mind here. We see this from what James says directly before verse 4: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want” (James 4:1-3).
So the setting of James 4:4 has to do with our thoughts and attitudes. That means that the three tests James gives us in James 1:26-27 are, respectively, tests of what we say, do, and think. Thinking, saying and doing embrace most of what we are as individuals, of course, and James makes the point that our religion, if it is to be true, must involve all three – the behavior of the mind, the tongue, and the hand: our thoughts, words and deeds.
But the wording James uses is particularly important because he stresses that no matter how good our religion may be in one of those areas, it is meaningless if it is not matched in the others. James tells us that it doesn’t matter what good deeds we do if our thoughts or words are not also right; it is of no importance if our thoughts and words are right, but our deeds do not follow through. All three must be right.
These combined tests of what constitutes true religion should give us all pause. It is only as we analyze our own behavior in all three areas and ensure that, with God’s help, we are living out our religion in all of them* that we will pass the tests James gives us.
*See our article on the surprising order of importance the Bible gives to words, thoughts, and deeds here.