Religion!

“I got religion” was the folksy expression I sometimes heard growing up in the deep South when someone accepted Jesus.  As for me, I spent most of those years running awayfrom religion.  And from God. But the Lord was relentless in His pursuit.  In time, I surrendered to His free gift of Grace.  I came to understand that following Christ was about a relationship—not a religion.  Salvation was made possible only through the costly blood of God’s Son. No wonder they call it “Amazing Grace.”

James prods us to practice true religion.  He’s not talking here about religion as a ticket to heaven.  Rather, religion in this context, refers to the practical expression of our devotion to the Lord:

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you(James 1:27 NLT).

The Greek word translated “religion” is threskosseldom used in the New Testament.  Threskos describes outward service rather than our inward piety of heart. It’s all about our actions. True religion, according to James must involve acts of mercy, love, and holiness.

Let’s look at this same versein the Amplified Bible:

External religious worship[religion as it is expressed in outward acts] that is pure and unblemished in the sight of God the Father is this: to visit and help and care for the orphans and widows in their affliction and need, and to keep oneself unspotted and uncontaminated from the world (James 1:27 AMP).

We are saved only by grace through faith. Our faith is the foundation for all of our good works. Good works cannot earn our salvation. But If we truly want to please the Lord, we’ll be intentional to pour our life out in service to the hurting ones around us. Especially the widows and orphans.

James reminds uswe must also not forget the purity of our own life. We are called to holiness. That’s the kind of religion, he challenges, that pleases the Lord.

So I’m asking God to show me who is on His heart.  I want to be sensitive to His Spirit. Alert to practical ways I can serve those in need.  Especially during this Christmas season as we celebrate the birth of His son.  I’ve also prayed for the Holy Spirit to correct me in areas I need to clean up—it’s so easy to slide into the self-centered ways of the world.

Today, as we step out into our world, let’s dare to pray the prayer God always answers:  Lord, break my heart for what breaks Yours.


Words!

I love words. Words allow us to connect with each other—and with God. But I’ve seen the damage words can do to individuals, families, churches, even nations.   James warns us to use our words well. He gives us a sober warning on the dangers of the tongue.

I gotta say, this one hits close to home. I may think I am walking out my faith well. But James cautions that if I don’t watch my words, I’m in trouble. The exact translation of this verse from the original reads like this:

If someone thinks that he is religious, yet does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.  (James 1:26 MOUNCE)

Notice the translator adds a twist:  If I don’t “bridle my tongue,” I actually deceive my own heart. What’s more, my religion, James says, is worthless.  The word translated worthless conveys “purposelessness or futility.”  My faith becomes futile.

Words prove what’s in our heart. Jesus said it this way: “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45).

Sometimes, I speak before I think. I need to grow in the area of governing my speech. Maybe you, too, struggle with your words.

Bridling my tongue goes deeper than just words.  Jesus reminds me it’s a heart issue.  The message of James is straightforward.  If I keep my heart clean, my words will take care of themselves.

Lord, put a watch over the door to my lips.  Catch me before I speak words that wound.  Fill my heart so full of Your love that my words will bring life to those around me.  Make me sensitive to Your voice and receptive to Your Word.  Daily.  


Execute!

Execute is the translation of ideas into action. For any business, the ability to execute is critical to the bottom line.

In spiritual matters, we execute when we live out the truths we’ve learned in Scripture—we put feet on our faith. James exhorts believers to execute—to be doers as well as hearers of God’s Word. “Faith without works is dead,” he challenges. His words can make us squirm.

James calls us to dig deep.  Do we really believe our beliefs or do we merely hold an intellectual assent to the faith?

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and. after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  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. 

Some believe James treads dangerously close to a works-based theology.  Apparently the Reformation champion, Martin Luther, thought so. He once called the book of James an “epistle of straw” and thought it shouldn’t even be included in the New Testament.

I disagree. In fact, the book of James has been one of my strongest faith-builders. He puts me in hard places that grow my trust in God.

Do I truly believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection covered my sin?  If so, that belief should propel me into a life of action and good deeds. Have I found practical ways to be both a hearer and a doer of God’s commands and His calling?

I’ve heard that mother eagles are quite nurturing. Yet their method for teaching their young ones to fly is a swift push out of the nest!  Yikes! They swoop down and catch the baby eaglets as they falter, repeating the flight lesson again and again until the little ones are soaring like….eagles!

Just like a mama eagle, James sometimes pushes me out of my cozy nest of faith with a call to action. I hear the Holy Spirit whisper, “ Go there, to that one who need’s the Father’s love. Serve this broken one over here. Share your living water with the thirsty one.”

My heart beats fast.  I step out…take a risk…and find that my faith takes wings.  My trust grows big, and before you know it, I’m soaring like an eagle!


Deceived!

Have you ever trusted someone only to be deceived?  Deception is as old as—well—as time itself.  A deceiver works his magic by flashing one set of motives, while armed with another.

Deceivers are cunning.  Their tricks work for a reason.  But in order for deception to work, we first have to believe the deceiver’s lie.  Take the Garden of Eden, for example:

The devil appeared to Eve in an irresistible package. He presented a temptation tailor-made to her secret longings.   “You won’t die when you eat the fruit from the forbidden tree,” soothed the serpent.  “God knows that if you eat the fruit, you’ll be like Him…knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:1-13).

Eve “saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her.”  Turning a deaf ear to her heavenly Father’s warning, she “took some of the fruit and ate it” (Genesis 1:6).  She gave a bite to Adam, their eyes were opened, and they “suddenly felt shame at their nakedness.”

Horrors.  Eve had wanted to be like God only to realize she was not dressed for the job. She and Adam were stricken by deception, shamed at their utter inadequacy. Sin was downloaded into their DNA. Humanity has wrestled with our fallen condition ever since.

The most deadly deception, however, was the devil’s attack on God’s character.  “God’s motives are not pure,” he lied.  “His rules are not from a heart of love…He just wants to keep you from being all you can be.”  Sound familiar? Satan found a strategy that works, so he uses it again and again. When will we ever learn?

James gives us a moment to ponder the heart of our loving heavenly Father:

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows  (James 1:16,17).

Think about it. Everything good thing that has ever happened to you is from your loving, heavenly Father. Even His boundaries are for your good. And the bad stuff?  Suffering will always be something of a mystery, but James challenges us to greet the hard places with joy (James 1:2). Throw a counter-attack, he urges. Trust God to use those very trials to grow our faith roots deep.

Make no mistake about it. You do have an enemy, but it’s not God. Don’t let anyone tell you that God is not for you! He is all loving, infinitely good, and in complete control.  Grasp that one, dear friend, and you’ll resist the deceiver when he comes knocking.


Fade!

Faded jeans.  Faded furniture. Faded memories—mental images grown dim over time. Let’s be honest. Life here on earth fades.

Time tricks us, tempts us, promises what it can’t deliver.  So we humans buy the lie and exhaust ourselves—chasing after that which fades.

Riches. Achievements. Beauty.  All are satisfying at first. But they don’t last. Anyone who has watched a loved one age and die knows that the joys we experience on this earth are fleeting.

Life fades. So James beckons us to turn our eyes toward eternity, reminding us how “the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements. (James 1:11 NLT).

Let’s reflect on the complete passage from The Message. I’m stirred by this artful paraphrase, a nice companion to my Study Bible:

Prosperity is as short-lived as a wildflower, so don’t ever count on it. You know that as soon as the sun rises, pouring down its scorching heat, the flower withers. Its petals wilt and, before you know it, that beautiful face is a barren stem. Well, that’s a picture of the “prosperous life.” At the very moment everyone is looking on in admiration, it fades away to nothing (James 1:9-11 MSG).

God’s Word always points us toward things unseen.  Eternity. Right from the start, James reminds us that our trials build perseverance (James 1:2-4). Trials also reveal what lasts—and what fades.  Trials can loosen our grip on the goods of this life so that we anchor ourselves firmly in the eternal.

For reflection:

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him (James 1:12 NIV). That kind of crown is eternal!

God wants us to freely enjoy this life. But it’s wise to sit lightly on its fleeting pleasures. We’re to build our foundation on the eternal life given to us only in Christ. A blessing which will never fade!