"If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:26-27)The term James uses for "religion" speaks of that which is external and especially that which is ceremonial. Some have distance themselves from the term "religion" saying that "religion" relates to laws and codes while Christianity is built upon a relationship. In this I understand what they are saying, but religion, as used in its "pure and undefiled" since, is still a good word and can still be used to describe our relationship to God and man. James tells us three important things regarding religion.
First, religion has its seat in our hearts. If a man cannot control his tongue, all the rest of his external acts of worship are useless and vain. This is because he words flow from his heart, where his religion is seated. Jesus said, "You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil." (Matthew 12:34-35) A man who speaks evil things give testimony to the evil in his heart while a man who speaks good things shows forth a good heart. Religion proceeds from the heart and all our external attempts at religion are in vain if our heart has not yet been converted, and the easiest way to tell if a man's heart has been converted is to listen to his speech.
Secondly, religion is to be practical and personal. So much of what we call religion is acts we do towards God; acts that are suppose to, in some way, help, bless, and minister to God. However, pure and undefiled religion is directed outward not upward; to those in need rather than towards God who is in need of nothing. Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." (Matthew 25:40) How can we who are of this world minister to God who is in heaven? How can we who are natural minister to a God who is spiritual? By ministering to those whom He has created. When we care for each other, we care for God. When we bless each other, we bless God. Practical and personal religion is religion that touches God.
Finally, true religion seeks to be Godlike not worldly. Peter describes Jesus as a, "lamb unblemished and spotless." (1 Peter 1:19) And he calls us to be "diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless." (2 Peter 3:14) Our external religion should express our conformance to Christ's nature. True religion is to be Christlike. In part, this means that we choose behaviors which help us to guard what we have received against loss or stain by the world. For each of us, such a religion may be different. For some, it may mean abstaining from drinking, for others the abstinence from certain forms of entertainment. For the believers of the first century it usually meant not going to the theater, the bloody shows, or even the public bath houses. For some, these activities are too enticing and can stain their otherwise cleansed soul. If is far better to avoid such places that to proceed in a false sense of security; to error on the side of prudence than to reap the repercussions of loss. True religion is a guarded religion that prizes heavenly values above worldly pleasures.