If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.
The reason I haven’t blogged in a few days is partly because I’ve dreaded reflecting on this verse and the few that come after it. The call here, the challenge, the conviction … It is almost too much to bear! The word religion already makes me shudder. And now, I have to be worried about useless religion!?!?!?! Eegads.
But I think, as it goes in this walk with Jesus, that we must let these sharp, double-edged words turn our minds and hearts to the cross and never to our own shortcomings and failures. What does useless religion mean when it is examined next to Jesus and not just in the context of my own works? What is useless religion?
I think the verse itself says it rather plainly: In summary, “If anyone among you thinks he is religious…this one’s religion is useless.” Just when we think we’ve done well, just when we think we are good people, just when we think we are “on the ball,” just when we think we have anything at all to offer, just when we think we are doing well in serving God, we come to a place where our religion is useless. And this is consistent with the rest of the Bible: isn’t the very notion of salvation hinged on the fact that in order to be secure, we must know how perilously insecure we really are?
As a keeper of my home (loose term), I have gone through different seasons where I would define myself as a certain way. Sometimes, I am super organized and become a super neat freak and minimalist. Sometimes — more times — I am really lazy and don’t feel like doing anything at all and my house looks like a messy spare closet. The point is, that during each of these seasons of time, I seem to be a certain way because of the things I do or don’t do. If you came to my house on a day when I put a long movie on for the kids and cleaned every room from top to bottom, you would probably say I was pretty organized and maybe even kind of anal. If you came on a day when I didn’t get dressed until 4 p.m. and I may or may not have had maple syrup in my unwashed hair since the day before yesterday, well, you may say otherwise.
This, I think, is akin to useless religion. If I wanted you to think that I was a certain way, say more on top of things than I really am, then I would work really hard until I could say, “I am so organized and my house is very clean.” I would start to clean all the nooks and crannies, for example, under my kitchen sink, and I would realize that the months (okay, years) of neglect have created ten times the amount of work I expected. And as I’m cleaning there, I would notice that the cabinets are filthy. And while I clean the cabinets, I would see just how dusty that radiator is. And ugh, the floor! The crevices! Behind the refrigerator! How is the ceiling dirty, for Pete’s sake?! And on and on it goes: by the time it takes me to finish cleaning the whole house this way, someone (no names) would have traipsed through with muddy paws or spilled milk on the counter or dumped their a box of Legos in the middle of the living room floor … The dog-and-pony show of having a home worthy of being featured in a magazine begins again just as soon as it ends. And I would sit back and think to myself, “what is my goal here?”
The commitment to appearance and performance is never-ending; there is always something more to be done, especially when it comes to cleaning things that are dirty, like our hearts.
This misconception that we can work hard to make religion useful, or to keep our homes — our hearts — super clean at all times, becomes like every other aspect of our ignorant and helpless selves; it becomes a way for us to know dearly the reality of our desperate need for forgiveness and love that covers our multitude of sins! Useless religion is just another example of how we will always fall short, and how we are, by nature, hypocritical human hearts. Useless religion shows me the power of the cross. Having a useless religion is — finally — something that Jesus can work with.
And the last bit of this verse to touch upon, linked so mightily to this idea of a useless religion, is the failure to bridle my tongue. Because when I think that I am religious, or that my house is clean, or that my heart is clean, I will say so, even if it is not out loud to other people. Even if I understand that I am saved by grace, lest anyone should boast (Eph. 2:9), I still say to my mind, my soul, “Well done, Self. You are accomplished.” Perhaps I even boast and thank God for allowing me to feel accomplished. This leads me one place:
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God I thank you that I am not like other men’ … (Luke 18:10).
I fear being someone who prays with myself, who lives for myself, who pleases myself with the things I have done: I fear being someone who does not walk in the Spirit. And that, I think, is the epitome of useless religion: to be where the Holy Spirit of God is not.