“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.” – James 1:22-25
“You’ve got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was.” – Irish Proverb
“Growth itself contains the germ of happiness.” – Pearl S. Buck
As I continue to work through the book of James some parts call for comment and I cannot help but write what I write. These verses are the opposite. I have been trying to work on this for nearly a month now. It is so hard to illuminate verses that are so straight forward as these. Earlier today something finally jumped out at me.
I have been toying with the idea of cutting my hair short again. To help me decide, I have been looking through pictures of myself with both long and short hair and something occurred to me. I have two types of pictures. I have pictures that I took of myself that I don’t mind looking at. Then there are candid pictures of me that make me cringe every time I see them. Let me give you an example:
This is my profile picture which looks like a random web cam shot, but is anything but random:
This is a candid picture of me that is actually not planned, just snapped:
My oh-so-carefully-random profile picture shows the “me” that I want to see when I look in the mirror. At the risk of exposing my own stupid vanity, that picture took half an hour and about 15 tries to get right. The pictures that are just snapped make me want to turn inside out and crawl under a rock. Why is that? I finally realized that my profile picture is a visual example of what James is talking about here. If I hold my head at an angle to avoid double chins, and don’t turn to show my crooked eye, and have just the right lighting, then I’m not a wholly unattractive person. But is that what I really look like? It is, given the right circumstances. But more often than not, I’m the goofy, crooked eyed, double chinned, frizzy haired hippie moping in the corner. Still, I do my best to walk around with the profile-picture-Andy image in my mind.
Of course this is just an outward appearance. It is of absolutely no importance, really. As C.S. Lewis so beautifully points out, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul, you have a body.” I don’t cease to exist when this body dies any more than I cease to exist when I exit my car. And my body does not define me any more than my car does. It is just a vehicle. But the principle applies to what James is saying here. How many of us, myself included, have the same type of self image as I show with my profile picture? So many times I hear it said (and have said myself), “I’m a good person, I’ve never killed anyone. Why would I need a savior?” It is the same thing as my profile picture. In effect I’m saying, “I’m fairly attractive. My right eye is not crooked. I don’t have a big nose.” But the beauty of the Gospel is that I don’t have to keep holding my head at funny angles. I don’t have to wear glasses to disguise my crooked eye. The Gospel says, “Your profile picture self…that self that you think is so great…is even uglier than your snapshot self. But Jesus will overlay His beauty to every part of your life.
We have to look into the mirror of the Law. I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but I tend to be much more on the liberal-licentious side. I tend to resonate with the Grace-based churches who teach that we are no longer slaves to the law. Of course this is true, we are not slaves to the law. But it doesn’t really excuse us from trying to be better people. I also really like it that Jesus summed up the entirety of the Law by saying basically, “Love God, and Love each other.” There is comfort there. It is beautiful that I am not required to follow the hundreds of laws of the old Testament in order to gain the favor or forgiveness of God.
But what happens when I look into the “perfect Law that gives freedom”? Do I look any better when I hold myself up to the perfect Law of “Love God, Love others”? The truth of the matter is that I look far worse. I am even more desperately in need of a Savior. Even if I can’t follow the hundreds of laws perfectly, when I try to really Love…to really get my heart right…I am in a lot of trouble. When I really ask myself who I am truly loving, all too often the answer comes back, me, myself, and the giant “I” in the middle of sin. So, I look in the mirror of Christ. I look at the way He loved others, and the way He loved God. I listen to the urging of God’s Holy Spirit. And I progress, and I grow. I take 3 steps forward and 2 steps backward. But I grow. That is what James calls us to here. We are to look at that mirror no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. But we can’t walk away when it gets ugly and go back to our profile-picture-self. We have to keep looking at that goofy snapshot, and learning what we can fix, and letting God fix the things we can’t fix ourselves. In that process we will be blessed.
Let’s all say with the Psalmist:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” – Psalm 139:23-24