When I was a child we would sing, “I’ve got that old time religion in my heart, way down inside.” What is real religion? And how do you get it “way down inside”?
Religion is not just about attending church, collecting the offering, saying prayers or reading the Bible. Of course, these are important and helpful religious activities. But real religion is more deeply rooted than any activities. One can faithfully engage in all of the aforementioned activities and still practice faulty religion.
Real religion involves the dynamic between belief and action, or putting faith into action. For James, anything less than an action-oriented faith is impotent religion.
Some say the problem with church affiliation is too many competing interests or allegiances. James implies that the problem is with Christians simply attending church rather than being the church.
While not underestimating the various alternatives to church participation, perhaps we can understand James’ point more clearly by examining our own faith.
How do you know if your faith is dead or alive? Some gauge the vitality of faith on emotion. In fact, some ministers embrace emotion as a religious pep rally. Of course, real religion has an emotional dimension. But we should never mistake emotion for spirituality. Emotions are easily stirred, but not easily maintained.
James gives us a litmus test for a living faith, for real religion.
Do you show preference to the rich while ignoring the poor? James describes the rich as wearing fine clothes and gold rings. The poor are socially, economically or politically underprivileged. Not only do they lack expensive jewelry and wardrobes, but they are hungry, lonely and uneducated. Real religion does not ignore the poor.
Do you engage in lots of talk but take little action? Are you a big religious talker? In every church and every community there are individuals who love to talk religion. If you listen to them talk, you might think they are extremely devoted to God. But often, no action supports their religious verbosity. James has no use for religious talk that is devoid of faith action.
Is your religion dead or alive? No one knows you better than you do. Do you wear your faith like a logo when it is to your advantage and take it off when it is not? Is your faith deeply rooted in your heart and mind, or does it teeter on the tip of your tongue.
Religion is not believing the right things, but acting on right beliefs. James says, “Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do.”
Barry Howard is pastor at First Baptist Church, Corbin, Ky.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches. He and his wife, Amanda, live in Brookhaven, Georgia.