Thursday, July 26, 2018

The word is a mirror

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.
I have wondered in the past how this passage (James 1:22-25) is meant to work.  Maybe I'm just slow.  Being accustomed philosophically to think of being and doing as two separate things, and being accustomed theologically to think of Law and Gospel as rather distinct, I found James' illustration baffling.  How is hearing the word, which in this context seems to be primarily about hearing God's commandments, like looking in a mirror?  Why is the person who doesn't do what he hears like someone who forgets the look of his own face?  What is going on here?

So, I think I've been baffled by this because I've been reading James as if he weren't a Christian, which is a ludicrous thing to do.  James is a Christian, and that means a particular way of reading the commands of God.  Here's how I think it works.

When we read God's commandments, we are not just looking at an abstract list of required or forbidden behaviours.  We are looking at a description of Christ, and what it means and looks like to live in Christ.  The perfect law of God, the law of liberty, shows us what it is like to be free, what it is like to live to God.  In other words, it shows us Christ, and it shows us our true selves as we are elected in Christ to live in him.  When we hear the word, we see ourselves as we are in Christ.  So if we fail to be doers of the word - if we neglect to let what we hear become active in our lives - we are like those who have been shown their true identity and yet forget it instantly.

Imagine there is only one true mirror in the world.  Oh, there are mirrors everywhere in this imaginary world, but all except this one true mirror are like fun house mirrors.  Every other mirror distorts, and only the one will show you what you really look like.  If you look in a bent mirror and conclude that you are absurdly thin, you might increase your diet; or of course if you look in a mirror that makes you look very fat, you might cut down on the old doughnuts.  But if neither of those mirrors is telling you the truth, your behaviour will be inappropriate (and harmful!)  Only the true mirror will help, and it will be important to remember what you saw there when you are confronted by the warped mirrors that fill the world.

Only the word of God - and let's be explicit, that means Jesus Christ, in whom God's Law and Gospel find their perfect unity - will tell you what you are really like.  Every other 'mirror', whether it be the mirror of other people's opinions, or of the prevailing philosophy and anthropology, or your own self-assessment, or even the record of your life to date - all of these are wildly inaccurate.  You are not, really, the person you seem to be to others or to yourself.  In the final analysis - and let's be explicit again, that means Jesus Christ, as the final measure of every man - you are who God calls you to be in Christ.  Trust this mirror, says James, and behave appropriately.

1 comment: