Scripture: James 1:17-27
A lot of scripture is metaphoric, symbolic. Some of it isn’t.
“…their religion is worthless.”
In addition to not being terribly metaphoric, these words are about individuals, as well as
collective communities. The ancient world had little concept of individuality in the way we
understand it. It’s hard for us to understand such a collective reality, and sometimes we
misunderstand scripture because of that. Here, however, with James and Jesus, we are being
called to look at the individual as well as the community.
“…in vain do they worship me…”
“…their religion is worthless.”
These bold and uncomfortable words are about, at least in part, where hurtful words and
behaviors come from. These words from James and Jesus are saying that our words and
behaviors, both good and evil, come from our hearts. From all that is broken, or healed, inside
At first glance, James seems to be suggesting that we should control our emotions and
bite our tongues. Certainly, this is excellent advice to us all, and it has a very practical outcome.
Thinking before we speak and not flying off the handle makes life more pleasant in a close-knit,
Christian community. Or any kind of community. But I don’t think James or Jesus are
primarily concerned with the practical. Instead, I think they’re talking about those broken and
hurting bits inside of ourselves, from which so much evil arises.
Lets look at the individual level in a very short story:
Once upon a time, there was a pious Christian couple. They went to church twice a
week, were active in many ministries, and they both had an active prayer life. At home, in
private, the man made a practice of belittling and criticizing his wife. When his wife said this
hurt her, the man became yet more verbally and emotionally abusive. When the wife called out
the verbal and emotional abuse, the man would fly into a rage. One day, after ten years, she left
The man was baffled. He couldn’t understand why she left. But he wanted to move on
from his loss, so he went to counseling. With the help of his therapist, he eventually saw how
his early childhood was full of fear from his emotionally distant, hyper-critical, narcissistic
father. He began to see how he, himself, found emotional intimacy threatening, and how his
unconscious behavior drove away the wife he loved, and kept his other relationships at a safe
We can probably find a dozen instances of this story, with minor variations, within a
kilometer radius of us right now.
The deceived heart, the unexamined and unhealed inner lives we all carry around, can’t
help but harm others. Our unclean hearts spill forth all kinds of evil, and the most vulnerable
among us, those for whom God calls us to care, are the ones who get hurt the worst. The
scripture seems to ask, what is our religion worth if we don’t care for those who need care the
most. Scripture seems to ask, how can we keep from pouring forth evil if we don’t find healing
for our innermost selves.
Our story about the pious couple sounds a bit extreme. We’re not like that, right? And
even if we were a little like that, our small lives, our “issues,” can’t have much of an impact.
We certainly can’t take responsibility for evil in the world or our religion being worthless.
I admit, that is a bit unreasonable. But we can and I think we must take responsibility for
the harm we cause, especially the harm we cause unconsciously.
If we don’t, I fear these hurts and this lack of individual responsibility can snowball. I
fear they can snowball so horribly that we see their effect on a community level, maybe even a
global level. I fear that those harmed, those who cause harm, and those responsible for hiding
that harm can cause real crises.
How could that be? I’ll tell you in three very short stories.
Once upon a time one pastor violated five of the most vulnerable under his care.
Once upon a time, hundreds of pastors violated thousands of the most vulnerable under
Once upon a time, more than ten thousand pastors violated hundreds of thousands of the
most vulnerable under their care.
The interior of the human heart, from which evil intentions come, is the place we must
start. You and I can’t write a happy ending to these stories of the pastors. There’s not much we
can do. But we can, and we should, do something about our own human hearts. It is the one
thing we can change.
Loving God with all that we are, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, will usually keep
us on the straight and narrow. But there is more work we may do.
We may take a good, long look into our unclean hearts. Inside, we will often find two big
lies that we tell ourselves. The first lie: We believe others can “make us feel” an emotion. Lie
number two: We believe our emotions force us into behaving a particular way.
It is not okay, for example, to lash out verbally or emotionally. No one can make us feel
violent, and our violent feelings cannot make us harm others.
Really learning this lesson can take a lifetime. We slip up and fall back into the lies. “He
made me so angry,” I hear myself say sometimes. We might slip up every day.
The good news is, we have forgiveness through Christ if we confess, reconcile, and try
again. And through Christ, we have true healing.
Just look at the disciples in our Gospel story. They’re happily living in communion with
each other and with Jesus. They’re happily ignoring rules that no longer pertain to them…
because Jesus healed them. Jesus healed them from the inside out.
The disciples could pour forth love and holiness, they could build others up and not tear
down. I want to believe that nothing evil could ever come out of the disciples again, although
they probably slipped up from time to time.
We are called to discipleship. We are called to be healed and made holy as the disciples
were healed and made holy. We are called to do absolutely everything we can to allow our
hearts to be cleaned, and keep evil intentions from forming.
I’m going to tell you how to do this in three easy steps. Number one: We admit we have
a problem. Number two: We get help. Number three: If we don’t think we have a problem, we
go back to number one.
We can and should ask God to heal us. God can and does bring healing. God also
provides us with healers and helpers. God gives us prayer ministries and anointing, wise
brothers and sisters in the faith, faithful pastors, the sacrament of reconciliation, and the
Eucharist. God also gives us therapists, counselors, good evidence-based psychology, and other
healers outside the Church.
I’ve tried all of these methods myself, and they work great. And they only require two
things. Number one: Brutal honesty with ourselves. Number two: Constant hard work.
Denial will get us nowhere. We need to get really serious about getting our inner lives
healed in any way we can.
And when we do this hard work, we have every hope in the world of our hearts being
When we do this hard work, we can really care for others as Christ called us to do, even
if we stumble sometimes.
When we do this hard work, we are truly loving God with all that we are, and loving our
neighbors as ourselves.