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Epistle of James 1: 17-27 (NIV)
17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do.
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 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.
“Are you religious?” In a Western country in the twenty-first century this can be a “loaded” question. The questioner has either a negative perception of what it is to be the least little bit “religious” or a preconceived but incomplete notion of what “religion” means. To reply with a “yes” would result in being “pigeon-holed” where further qualification or nuance is both unwelcome and unwanted.
In the minds of many, to be “religious” is to adopt an outward show of sanctity which might not accurately represent the inner person. If the Church of God is regarded as filled with hypocrites rather than with sinners forgiven by God because of their faith in Jesus Christ, it fails to be attractive to those on the “outside”.
The author of this Epistle, widely but not universally regarded to be James the brother of our Lord, has presented a guide for moral conduct which the Church of God would disregard at its peril. We are not to take any one verse as sufficient in its depiction of how every Christian person should behave. Rather, the entirety of the Epistle can be relied upon as a helpful though incomplete guide to godly behaviour.
The individualism championed by society today contributes to a sense of personal autonomy, accompanied often by an assumption of self-entitlement. Any law that limits one’s autonomy potentially generates resentment. James desired his readers to “(look) intently into the perfect law that gives freedom”. This law of the new covenant released people from the onerous and near-impossible challenge of living in perfect accord with the Law handed down through Moses. Jesus taught and demonstrated the two great commandments: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love neighbours as we love ourselves (Mark 12: 29-31). That gives freedom because it involves living in accordance with God’s will, which every Christian person loves to do. The Christian is thereby blessed (verse 25), freed from trying to live a “religious” life.