James gives us a very interesting metaphor to describe people who are only hearers of the word and not “doers of the word.” They’re like people who forget what they look like as soon as they walk away from the mirror.
Now I know – there are some things about what the mirror shows us that we would rather forget. The amount of gray in the hair – or the amount of hair that’s not there. The exercise that should still be done. Or the unhappy results of what genetics has stuck you with. And that metaphorical mirror, the one that we talk about looking at when we talk about whether or not we can live with what we’ve done, that one shows us things we would rather forget as well. How we treated this person, or what we said in that situation. I would much rather those things had been done by someone else, but the mirror shows me that the one who did them was me.
Still, the way James talks about it the idea of forgetting what we look like is not recommended. He seems to think it’s pretty foolish and the sign of a shallow kind of person. If he were 12 he might be saying, “You’re so dumb that when you walk away from the mirror, you forget what you look like.”
There aren’t a lot of things that are more “us” than the way we look. When we’re born people scrutinize our new faces, hunting for signs of this parent, that grandparent or some other relative, when the truth is all babies look like Winston Churchill. One of the signs we’re starting to grow up is when we choose our own clothes to wear instead of being dressed in what our parents lay out for us. Cowboy outfits, princess dresses, superhero T-shirts – all of these become important parts of our lives as we get into our elementary years and we begin to have some interest in what we look like to other people. Middle school is invested with having the same clothes as everyone else does in order to establish that we are our own person. It makes no sense to me either, but it probably did then.
And then there’s high school, where we probably use some of our own money to buy things that we want to make us “look older.” We tell everyone how cool our music is by our T-shirts (and also how cool we are for listening to them). It’s not just girls – boys too will want to copy a certain look in haircuts or appearance. Our clothes help show other people we like this video game, that movie or TV show or that we support a particular cause.
Don’t get me started on what happens in college.
The upshot is that even healthy, well-adjusted people pay attention to what they look like because it’s a part of their identity. So James is suggesting more than just people who aren’t bright enough to remember their own faces after they walk away from the mirror. He’s suggesting that people who only hear the word but don’t do it have forgotten something even more important: They have forgotten who they are.
We can hear the gospel message of God’s love all we want to and even believe it truly describes us and our relationship with God. But until we live it out, it does not define us. It does not tell us who we are. Something else does.
Maybe it’s the words of someone else in our lives, some authority figure who we’re always trying to please. Maybe it’s the crowd of people to which we want to belong, dictating to us how we will act and look and speak if we want to be accepted. Maybe it’s our culture at large, imposing values about what’s important and what’s not, what needs to be pursued and how it needs to be pursued in order to arrive at our true selves. Maybe it’s the circumstances in which we live – you’re in a trailer, you’re a nobody with no future but if you’re in a mansion you’ve got the world on a string.
For many people, one of those things or something else entirely defines them, and you can tell what it is, what word they have heard, by what word they spend time doing. Show me your checkbook and I’ll tell you what matters to you. Show me your calendar and I’ll tell you what you think is important. The word you hear is not what defines you, it is the word you do.
James saw the same things, expressed of course in terms of his own culture instead of ours. He knew that the fundamental problem with all of those other words was that they were inadequate and they were inaccurate. It’s why doing them rarely if ever leads to real, full satisfaction and a life with meaning. There is only one truly defining word and it it’s the gospel message, the word that speaks to the image of God in every one of us. It tells us that we do not need to perform the tricks that all of these other words demand, because before we ever drew breath we were loved by the God who made the universe and everyone in it. That is the truth of our worth and value, and nothing else. That is our identity. And it’s a very good word indeed.
If we do not do it, though, if we do not love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and if we do not love our neighbors as ourselves as the Holy Spirit leads and helps us to do, well, then we will never know who we really are.
But if we do it? If we do the Word as well as hear it? Not only will we learn who we really are, others will learn who they are because of those words and actions. Let’s listen to someone who can tell us about that.