Warning: This one may hurt a little but I'll try to be gentle.
There are two things listed in the above scripture which would deem my religion empty and, therefore, useless: an uncontrolled tongue and a deceived heart. The words "religious" and "religion" comes from a Greek word referring to an outward expression of worship towards God.
The outward expression of my faith and worship towards God should flow from an intimate relationship with God and an inward work of the Holy Spirit. It should. Truthfully, my religiosity can look good on the outside but be more work-driven than relationally-driven causing great harm to myself and those around me.
It's like rotten apples. The grocer knows the crop of apples is rotten but he needs to make a profit so he cleans and shine the apples until they gleam. Good consumers won't purchase those apples by their appearance only. They will pick up an apple and check for bruising and probably notice its mushiness. If they do purchase them, after one bite they won't be buying apples from that grocer anymore. The grocer is only fooling himself if he thinks his actions won't hurt his profits and drive away business.
Externally, I can make my religion look good for a while. However, external religion has a way of exposing itself. I'm only deceiving myself when I can't see the harm my uncontrollable tongue is causing others. They see it for what it is - an empty, useless going-through-the-motions kind of religion. It has the potential to do great harm causing people to turn away from God instead of running toward Him.
And it's not that folks would be judging me either. Matthew 7:20 states, "Therefore by their fruits you will know them." I can polish my religion to look good all I want but rotten-to-the-core is just that. A bad apple.
Application of God's Word:
Is your religion useless and empty or pure and undefiled? There's a simple test to know the answer to this question. Is your tongue wagging? Do you gossip? Do you mumble unflattering things about others under your breath? Do you lash out at your family and others who are close to you? Do you betray confidences? Do you lie? Instead of trying to polish yourself outwardly thinking that's all you need, maybe what you should be doing is drawing closer to the Lord in intimate relationship with Him. Anything less than a genuine relationship with the Lord will make you and everyone around you miserable anyway.
You might want to take Pastor Chris Wadle's advice. This morning at church he shared, "You may need to be brutally honest...Authentic judgment does not mean condemning yourself...However, spiritually successful people are never afraid of truth...even when the truth hurts...Always remember, though, that God's plan calls for progression, not perfection."
Please don't walk in condemnation but do ask yourself the hard questions. Ask for forgiveness if it is needed. Let go of your failures and don't beat yourself up. Allow the Holy Spirit to do an inward work as you draw closer to the One Who can radically change you to the core of your being.
My tongue is a good barometer for how well I'm doing in my relationship with God and with others. I can always tell when I'm insecure because two things happen: 1) I strive harder in an attempt to look good, radically focusing on what others think of me; and 2) my tongue is uncontrollable. Majorly uncontrollable. And I'm only deceiving myself if I think my actions don't effect others.
I don't want an empty, useless religion. The best thing I can do is realize that "spiritually successful people are never afraid of truth...even when the truth hurts." I need to be willing to ask myself the hard questions (like those above) even when I don't like the answers and trust God to help me while I'm in the process of allowing the Holy Spirit to do an inward work. What I really need is less religion and more relationship in drawing closer to the One who can cleanse me, forgive me and change me from a bad apple into productive fruit for His glory.