Lessons from James
“True liberty is living as we should, not as we please”
Have you ever thought much about mirrors? Is there a right and wrong way to use one? We have them everywhere. In our bathrooms, on the walls throughout our houses, on our cars and if you’re a lady, you probably have one in your purse or somewhere close at hand; my wife tells me she keeps one in her desk drawer at the office. If you were to take a moment or two and think about it, you may be surprised to learn of the many ways mirrors are used, and the many things they are used in.
Flashlights, floodlights, searchlights, and spotlights; periscopes and telescopes; barbershops and beauty shops; all make use of mirrors. Of course, babies and parakeets like to look at themselves so you’ll find them hanging in bird cages and adorning many of the toys used to entertain our little people. Mirrors are used for security purposes in retail stores, at fun-houses to make you look weird, to collect sunlight for solar power generation, and did you know Apollo 11 left a mirror on the moon? It is used to reflect laser light from Earth, and with precise knowledge of the speed of light (I am told), we can measure the distance from the Earth to the moon by measuring the round-trip time of the light.
The most popular, or common use of mirrors is grooming – we don’t want to go out in public with a dirty face or with hair sticking out from our ears and noses looking Neanderthal; and I suppose the least popular use (in my personal opinion) would be that little one sitting on the sterile tray next to the examination chair at the dentist office – I don’t like that one at all. Mirrors here, mirrors there, mirrors-mirrors everywhere.
A mirror’s purpose is to reflect light, that’s what they do, and that may be the best way to get a handle on what James meant when he chooses a mirror to make his point. Consider this scenario and look to see if you might find yourself in it.
It’s Monday morning, 5:00 a.m. A loud and obnoxious noise jerks you awake – the alarm clock doing its weekday/workday thing. In what feels like a drug-induced state of semi-consciousness you drag yourself up and out of the bed, stagger across the floor, flip the bathroom light on and bam! You come face to face with Monday morning and an urgent sense of need for Starbucks.
Why do the bathroom lights have to be the brightest in the entire house, you may wonder? Calling in sick might cross your mind. Then after taking care of a little first thing in the morning bathroom business, you slowly, and sluggishly head towards the kitchen, pour up a fresh cup of hot coffee and make your way back to the bathroom and jump into (probably just step into) the shower.
Next stop – the mirror. It can be extremely scary at first look (just ask your spouse) but you’re courageous so there you stand before the judge, the purveyor of truth – the mirror, and the mirror doesn’t lie. It states only the facts as they truly are – no shades of gray; as Sergeant Joe Friday from the old Dragnet television series of the 50’s and 60’s would have said, just the truth, ma’am; just the truth, sir.
Holding on to that mental picture (should you dare), let’s set it alongside the book of James and read together verses 23-24 which say: 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.
Next, let’s throw in that portion of 1 Samuel 16:7 which states, “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
In combining these two passages we can confidently deduce James isn’t concerned with his hearer’s physical appearance, external things, what you see in the mirror first look mornings; it’s bigger than that and much much deeper. Before glass mirrors were invented in 1835, it was not uncommon for people to use standing pools of dark water, or water collected in bowls and other types of vessels for reflective purposes. Although mirrors made of polished stones and metal have been in use for thousands of years, not everyone may have had one handy or at all, thus water continued to be used and still is by some primitive tribes of people in remote places.
Personally, I think such a mirrored image is what James has in mind. I think this to be so because unlike mirrors that can be placed on a table top and positioned for convenience and ease of use, you would have to put a bit more effort looking into a pool or a bowl of water to see yourself. To get an accurate rendering, you may have to stoop over or bend down, even get on your hands and knees and sometimes wait patiently for the water to still should it be disturbed.
James here encourages those reading his words to not rush before the mirror of spiritual reflection as if it were a morning ritual you hurriedly go through so you won’t miss that Latte or Frappuccino on your drive into the office; Starbucks will have no bearing at all on your spiritual life, but time spent in self-examination will.
In James’ thought, the word of God is a mirror that will strip away the veneer and allow you to see who and what sits on the throne of your heart, the things you value most, what motivates you. The mirror knows all and tells all; James calls the mirror the “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (James 1:25). It’s perfect because it misses nothing, it is liberating because it is founded not in the legal code of old (the Mosaic Law), but in Christ. The apostle Paul wrote, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5); that is his way of saying the same thing as James. There is no conflict between the two men, no discrepancies in their theology, as some would suggest. You are not saved as a result of what you do (works), but what you do reflects the genuine nature of the salvation you profess, and that is why James wrote, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).
As followers of Jesus, our life should be a reflection of his, at least it should be the goal we aim for, the sincere desire of our hearts. Listen, Just because you one day made the trip from the pew to the altar, knelt and prayed, shook the preacher’s hand and got baptized doesn’t confirm your having been born again from above – no! These things alone, even when coupled together with reading your bible and attending church on Sunday’s is no more an evidence of the new birth in Christ Jesus than the shape we sometimes see when the moon is full is evidence that there is actually a man in there.
Tragically, I fear many will miss out on heaven because they have (however well meaning) been swindled into thinking they’ve got an in with God and a seat at His table in eternity because they went through the motions prescribed by a preacher, a Sunday School teacher or a truly concerned family member who coached them down the isle and into the baptistery – think again. Many such people stand before a mirror (so to speak), reflect on the day they were baptized turn and walk away oblivious to the fact that not one shred of evidence defining them as genuine followers of Jesus is seen. James would say to that person, you might want to take a second and much longer look in the mirror.
My personal conviction is that if someone who professes the new birth does not exhibit a new life; if there is no change in that person, then there has been no change. Jesus taught plainly, “a tree is known by its fruit” (Luke 6:44). Solomon warned in Proverbs 14:12, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death”. Three times we read the apostle Paul cautioning, “Do not be deceived” (1 Corinthians 6:9, 15:33; Galatians 6:7), James 1:16 too raises the caution flag.
Don’t get me wrong on this one, though. I am in no way saying we are to live an error free life – I’d certainly be the odd man out if that were so. Furthermore, neither one of us (James or me) is trying to tell the world that salvation is something earned and dependent on what we do going forward to stay in God’s good graces and make heaven our home. What is being said is the mirror is there to give us a progress report on our spiritual growth, a reality check and be an ongoing source of confirmation and reassurance that the promises of God are being worked out in us.
The reality of one’s faith is demonstrated by the life he lives. Everything he does is a reflection of God’s word flowing in him and through him as a channel to the world expressing the love of Christ for others. Stand before the mirror and examine yourself, do it regularly, do it often. Look for those stray hairs that take away from your appearance, the things that would make others look at you in a bad way. Trim those eyebrows, get those nasty nose hairs out of there, look good and do good, “let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Inspired by Community Life Church (c|Life) co-pastor, David Griffin.