James doesn’t mince words when it comes to an effective religion. It’s possible to think oneself religious and yet not bridle one’s tongue, but this requires deception and bears evidence of a useless religion (James 1:26). True religion, James emphasizes, must change the most basic and pervasive parts of one’s being. It is not a top layer of “goodness” to spread over all the rest. It is a digging up and transforming of everything, even the way one talks.
Jesus Himself confirmed this line of thinking when He rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for appearing “beautiful outwardly” but being “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27, 28). Their religion was useless because it did not change them; all it did was thinly veil their wickedness.
There is a level of self-deception required to hold a useless religion. Why would someone hold onto something that’s useless, even harmful, if they knew better? Self-deception is different from ignorance, in that ignorance is an “unknowing,” whereas self-deception is a willful and intentional “not knowing.” Taken a step further, self-deception usually holds the truth in some unacknowledged recess of the mind, but it is intentionally pushed away from the consciousness. This can be because the truth is too painful or the repercussions are unwelcome. Self-deception can be a welcome detour from acknowledging the truth when it allows the individual to close their eyes to their own weaknesses, even when they’re stark and harmful. Willful ignorance is an easier path than handing over wounds to be thoroughly healed by the hands of Jesus; at least, it’s an easier short-term path. What looks good for a moment (ignoring the bad) only intensifies the wounds, furthers the bad traits of character, and can have far-reaching negative ripple effects throughout one’s sphere of influence.
The expressions of one’s heart, the words from one’s mouth, can be an excellent litmus test of the usefulness of one’s religion. Is there a Christlike way of speaking? Is there a compassionate tone? Generous forgiveness? Understanding questions? Or instead is the path of Peter followed, with his calling down of curses to distance himself from association with Christ? (Luke 22:54–62). It’s possible to not have the motivations of Peter and yet achieve the same effect—it’s possible to appear as if one has never even known Christ, let alone spent three years with Him, just by not bridling one’s tongue.
The answer here is not to buckle down or to try harder. That’s the way of the Pharisees. The answer is to have a useful religion that is found in a relationship of surrender and love with Jesus Christ.