James 1:26 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.
27 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.
Worthless religion is internal. It is a discussion with oneself, whereby we evaluate ourselves and our life based on the intuitions of our own mental/emotional world. This is patently unreliable and will certainly steer us astray. On the other hand, pure and undefiled religion is defined and evaluated from outside ourselves. God is the King; not me. God is sovereign; not us. Popular opinion and personal opinions matter little. It is what God thinks and says that matters. We must look to Him for definition and direction.
In light of this first point, then, we find that much of both "religion" or "relationship" in our culture are subjective, and thus, worthless. If there would be a recovery of what is pure and undefiled, we must return to the objective standard of God's Word, in repentance, and start again, working out our religion, not in self-sufficiency, but in conscious, intentional submission and in the fear of the Lord.
In the next set of contrasts that are spaced in parallel in the outline, we see that worthless religion is primarily an exercise of the tongue, but that pure and undefiled religion demands also the exercise of one's feet in "visit(ing) orphans and widows." James is famous for his insistence on faith and works, or, a faith that works. A real vital faith will express and exercise itself in obedience.
Here again we can easily see that much of what goes on is worthless religion. When we talk more about prayer than actually bend the knee in actual prayer, we are participating in worthless religion. When our doctrine is not properly attached to life, we are involved in worthless religion. When we do not practice what we preach, we are giving witness to a worthless religion. Again, this requires obedience, a dying to self, a stripping off of the old man, and seeking the renewal that Word and Spirit alone can accomplish.
Finally, the outline contrasts how we like to think of ourselves, with radical actions taken in the light of reality. This point borrows from the two previous points. It is not how I feel about myself that makes a lick of difference. It is how I am viewed by God. The doctrine of justification by faith is essential here. We are clothed in Christ's righteousness, and that is good news that I need to preach to myself every single day. But the companion idea is that I am a sinner who is "prone to wander." The world has an allure that must be battled. Worthless religion may be able to buddy up to the world, but I cannot afford to place myself in that magnetic field. True religion desires personal purity. An essential part of my mission, whatever else it may involve, is to walk with Christ in integrity. And as I stumble, I am to confess that sin and forsake it, as thoroughly and quickly as possible. Any religion (or relationship with Jesus) that does not include a hatred of sin is worthless. We need a religion that proclaims and reinforces that theme.
Only God can create a pure and undefiled religion. He does so through a relationship with His Son, Jesus. This religion will be centered in God, touching all areas of life and conduct, emanating from a heart that has been re-placed and is being re-formed by God's grace.