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What Does It Mean to be "Religious"?

Posted on March 14, 2023

Have you ever heard someone say something like this: “I’m a religious person.” 


That sounds good, but what does it mean? Does it mean that they go to church? Does it mean that they try to be kind to everyone around them? Odds are, they don’t even know what it means! The word “religious” has been thrown around and abused so much in our society that we have forgotten what it really means. 


Fortunately, the Bible tells us exactly what true religion is, and it might surprise you. James 1:26-27 clearly state, “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” 


Here James tells us what pure and authentic religion looks like. First, it has nothing to do with appearance. Just walk into church on a Sunday morning, and you will see a lot of people who look religious—they come to church dressed up with their Bible in hand, they sing the hymns with a gleeful face, and they might even say “amen” to the sermon. However, these people are NOT religious. 


In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were considered the religious elite. They looked very religious. They wore long robes, recited long and beautiful prayers, and could quote the law of Moses at the drop of a hat. But Jesus called them hypocrites, stating that they were just like the whited sepulchers, “which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27b). The Pharisees looked religious, and they did religious things, but their hearts were filthy. When James refers to those who “seem to be religious,” he is talking about those who think they are religious. Looking religious does not make you religious! 


James points out that pure religion has two factors. 


Pure Religion is Manifested in Compassion (v. 27a)


“Pure religion…is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction…” True religion comes from the heart. The heart is what matters most to God, not the outward appearance (as God makes clear in I Samuel 16:7). You can try to fake compassion, but it will not last because you are doing it with ulterior motives, which will eventually come to light. 


The person with real compassion will show it by visiting the fatherless and widows in their time of need. This is a selfless act. It takes time, and it is not done to be seen. Contrast this with the Pharisees, who did everything to be seen. They wanted people to adore them, but as a result, God despised them—they lacked compassion. 


Jesus spent time with the less fortunate—sinners, lepers, prostitutes, widows—as well as people who were despised, such as tax collectors and Samaritans. Jesus showed real compassion to these people. 


Pure Religion is Manifested in Character (v. 27b)


“…and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” True religion takes responsibility for one’s own spiritual life. Notice that the Bible says “to keep himself.” This is not something that your friends can do for you; this is a personal responsibility. The Apostle Paul encouraged Timothy to “Take heed unto thyself” (I Tim. 4:16). Being a good Christian is not just about helping others, it also requires that you help yourself. 


When something gets spilled on you, what do you do? You clean it up. Maybe you even change your clothes. So in the Christian life, we are responsible to keep ourselves clean. We are to live pure lives that honor God (see II Cor. 6:14-18). God makes it very clear that we are to live sanctified (separated) lives. We should not look or talk or act like the world. Don’t be a chameleon Christian—one who acts spiritual at church but then acts worldly in the world. 


So I would summarize it like this: True religion is not an outward show, it is an inward desire that manifests itself in wholesome communication, Christlike compassion, and godly character. 


The next time someone tells you that they are religious, ask them what they mean. Chances are, they won’t give you a Bible answer, but a secular one. And then you can tell them what it really means to be religious. And I hope that you too desire to be religious, that these qualities would be true in your life. 

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