When most Christians hear the phrase “religious” they immediately think of it in a negative way. One of the local churches around my town actually advertises itself as “nonreligious.” I myself used to almost take offense when people would say I was religious because of my faith in Christ. I would quickly jump to the defense and explain why it is “not about religion but a relationship”.
Many of us have this mentality, this paradigm that we are to be in a relationship with Jesus, yet not be religious. Because after all, being religious is frowned upon by “spiritual” people right?
We prefer “relationship.” I mean, doesn’t Jesus himself hate religion? Well, Jesus’s little bro wrote a letter to believers we know as the letter of James. In this power packed letter on what it looks like to live out our faith James says some stuff about religion and being religious.
As I have been studying this letter, I find myself saying “Lord, help me to be more religious” WOW, talk about a paradigm shift! One minute I refuse to be called “religious” and now I want to be more religious than ever. By you may already know the passage I am referring to in particular but if you do not, it reads as follows:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:26-27 ESV)
So, What Are You Saying?
According to the Bible, being religious is being someone that bridles their tongue (watches what they say and how they say it) visits orphans and widows in their affliction (caring for people in need, not merely in words only but action), and to keep oneself unstained by the world (not allowing the godless fallen system that surrounds them to contaminate their character and way of life).
Hmmm… that sounds like someone I want to be. How about you?
That is not the way the word “religious” is defined by most today, but it is the way the Bible defines it and I prefer to agree with the Bible. Being religious is pure and undefiled living according to James. It is not religion that Jesus hates. What the Lord despised is hypocrisy which he calls empty religion (see Matthew 23).
Paul spoke on this issue to Timothy:
For [although] they hold a form of piety (true religion), they deny and reject and are strangers to the power of it [their conduct belies the genuineness of their profession]. Avoid [all] such people [turn away from them]. (2 Tim.3:5 Amplified Bible)
So it is claiming to be religious without living out what we profess that Jesus and Scripture, in general, warn against. It is putting the rules and traditions of man above the Word of God and even claiming it as God’s rules and regulations (see Mk. 7:6-13).
I would like to take a few moments to focus on the first issue that James brings up in regards to religious living: the bridling of the tongue. In the third chapter of James, we see he expounds on this issue of bridling the tongue and the importance of it.
He starts off warning those who desire the position of a teacher in the Church. He warns us that teachers are judged more strictly than others. It is clear throughout Scripture why this is so true. Teachers are not just accountable before God for their own lives and spiritual well being but for others as well (the shepherds lead the flock). Jesus said ‘to whom much is given much is required” and that is the case of teachers.
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The writer of Hebrews says that teachers keep watch over the souls of others and must give an account for it (see Heb. 13:17). For this reason, those who teach are told by Paul to keep a close watch on themselves and their teaching (1 Tim. 4:16). He tells Timothy that by doing this he will save both himself and his hearers.
James goes on in his letter to say that we all stumble in many ways and especially in what we say. It is for this reason that he warns teachers first because of how much they use their tongue… obviously a huge part of teaching.
“I Will Put My Words In Your Mouth”
I would like to look at three individuals in Scripture that when God called them, they felt unqualified for no other reason than their mouth of all things (perhaps they did not feel “religious’?). The first is Jeremiah who was called to be a prophet to the nations (Jer. 1:4-9). Upon his calling, he says to the Lord “I don’t know how to speak.” God then encourages him that he would speak for God and by God. The Lord touches his mouth and says “I have put my words in your mouth.”
The second individual is Isaiah. He has an encounter with Jesus and immediately cries out about his unclean lips and that he lives in the midst of people with unclean lips (Isa. 6:1-7). As with Jeremiah, the Lord touches his mouth. He is then encouraged and strengthened to speak for the Lord as was Jeremiah after his lips were “touched by the Lord.”
The third individual is Moses, and his response is the most profound to me. We have all probably heard that Moses had a speech impediment or stutter. I don’t know how true this is to Scripture. We do read that Moses said he was not eloquent and that he was slow of speech and of tongue (see Ex. 4:10). I believe he simply did not feel that he had the wits and sharpness, if you will, to respond and converse with someone like a pharaoh. In the New Testament, Stephen says that Moses was mighty in words and power (Acts 7:22).
Are Your Lips Circumcised?
Whether or not Moses stuttered is not even my concern. What I find interesting and would like to share with you is his response both times to the Lord when God tells him to speak to pharaoh: Each time Moses says “I have uncircumcised lips” (Ex.6:12,30)
Some Bible versions translate the phrase “I am unskilled in speech,” or “I have faltering lips,” and even “I am a clumsy speaker.” I believe it is important to keep this phrase literal as the ESV does.
Why do I feel this way? Why is it important to read about uncircumcised lips?
It is important because of what circumcision and uncircumcision represent in Scripture and the fact that Moses was aware of this concept and chose to say he had “uncircumcised lips” is no accident. According to Scripture, circumcision was a sign of the covenant people of God (see Gen. 17).
Circumcision was not merely external but internal. In both the Old and New Testament we see that an uncircumcised heart is stubborn to the things of God (Deut. 10:16) and that uncircumcised ears are deaf and unreceptive to God’s Word (Jer. 6:10; Acts 7:51). In light of this, I believe Moses was not merely saying he was “not a good speaker”.
So then, what was Moses saying?
Could it be that uncircumcised lips speak of unfit or “unclean” lips not in covenant with God (similar to what Isaiah said) just as uncircumcised ears and hearts are not in covenant with the Lord, according to Scripture?
Perhaps Moses felt not only physically inadequate but also personally unfit or “unclean” to fulfill the task. Moses, who was raised in the house of Pharaoh may have felt uncomfortable speaking on behalf of the Israelites because he did not feel entirely part of the Israelite community. The lips that he would have to use to address Pharaoh were not, in his opinion, fully part of the covenantal community he would be representing. We know Paul taught spiritual circumcision in coming to Christ and the cutting away of what is not of God in our lives (Col. 2:11) and in light of this I think to myself…”Are my lips circumcised?
Do I have a “religious” mouth and speak as one in covenant with God?
My prayer is that the Church will so speak and act as those in covenants with the Lord, that we will have pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God. When our lips are circumcised, we are to no longer communicate with an uncircumcised (irreligious) tongue. In regards to our lips, Paul says the following
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Eph. 5:4 ESV)
James tells us to be quick to hear and slow to speak (Jas. 1:19). Although I believe there are a few practical interpretations of this Scripture. First and foremost, I want to be one that is quick to hear (from the Lord) and then slowly (cautiously) speak under his guidance and wisdom.
May we be a religious people in its purest and undefiled form. A people that bridle their tongue for his glory.