One of the differences between Madagascar and where I am from is that there is a noticeable lack of mirrors here. It becomes suddenly and strikingly noticeable when, after a few days, I suddenly catch a glimpse of myself and realize, “Yikes! That’s the haircut they gave me?” or “Wow. I haven’t shaved in a week.” or simply, “Oh hey, It’s me!” It is striking how surprised I always am by myself. This small cultural difference, along with the book of James, has had me thinking a lot about mirrors and what it means to listen to God’s word.
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
I think James is a more accurate observer of human behavior than I ever realized. I do not think he is not contrasting two different kinds of self-observers,* some of whom look at themselves in a mirror and forget and others who look and remember their face well. Does anyone do that? He is saying that people can never look at themselves enough in a mirror; we always forget. And looking at the Word of God is nothing like looking at oneself in a mirror.
Psychology studies would agree that people are almost always poor judges of themselves, often skewing their self-image into something far better or far worse than what is real. Do you know what you look like? We have looked in plenty of mirrors, and yet who are we most interested to see in any picture? Do we not, almost automatically, look for ourselves? How do we look? You would think we would know at this point and would thus spend more time looking at the other people in a picture, and not ourself. What have we been doing all this time staring at ourselves the mirror if we do not yet know what we look like?
I think perhaps, James would say that we look in mirrors for approval. We judge, “Am I good for today or not? Do I approve or disapprove?” The same is true for pictures. “Do I approve of myself in this picture or disapprove?” If we don’t approve of a picture we try to get rid of it. And if we do not approve of the mirror we make a minor adjustment that we assume helps, and go out into the world. Chances are, after a few minutes, the whole process will be forgotten, and my self-image will return to the one I keep in my head.
We look in mirrors to self-justify our face.
That should be nothing like looking at the Word of God.
When I look into the Word of God, I am not looking at myself. I am looking to encounter a person: the Word of God. And his Word is a binding one that necessitates doing. I need not look at myself and judge, justify, approve, or disapprove since the Word Himself has already provided the justification and the approval. All that is required when we hear his Word is doing. This does not mean a neglect of mental effort, but rather a new direction for mental effort. No longer do I use my mind’s ability to try and justify myself, in a sense making sure I am acceptable for the day; rather I spend mental effort determining how I will do what has been said.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
So for example, a few verses later James says: “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.”
Reading it like a mirror would be to meditate intently on this, maybe even for an hour or so, trying to figure out how what I already do conforms to this verse. I would look and think until I approve enough to walk away and then be done. Already I have forgotten the whole thing.
Reading it like the Word of God would be to do it.
*(The NIV does make it sound like James is contrasting two kinds of self-observers by connecting verse 23 to verse 24 with an “and” instead of a “for”)