While people today want to emphasize “spirituality” over “religion,” that is not the biblical way. By “spiritual,” people want to talk about a self-defined personal relationship with God, the way they feel, or their pursuit of some mystical or mysterious expression of the soul. The Bible is much less abstract and more concrete in passages like James 1:26-27, and the result should be quite convicting.
James indicates that one’s religion could be worthless (1:26). This one may even think himself to be religious, but instead he is a forgetful hearer. In context, he has forgotten what God’s word has said about bridling the tongue. But, the principle applies much more broadly. One can think himself religious, but in ignoring what the Bible says on a specific matter—ethics, morality, the plan of salvation, worship, etc.—this one deceives his own heart and possesses a worthless religion. Notice that there is a concrete, objective way to measure this.
James indicates that one’s religion can also be pure and undefiled (1:27). In keeping with context, this is a person who is a doer and not only a hearer of the word. This person consciously reads and strives to apply what God has said in Scripture. James gives a couple of examples of this in the verse, from compassionate care for the unfortunate to not allowing the world to taint us by its influence. Regardless of the challenge or obligation, because we strive to follow the Word, we will have a religion that is unsoiled and unsullied. James says so.
I may think I have a certain kind of religious, spiritual life, but the Bible is a mirror that shows me exactly where I am. I can claim or assert that I have a certain relationship with God or spiritual feeling, but does the declaration match the deeds. That determines what kind of religion I have.