James is a nice guy. Look at his metaphor in verses 23 and 24: “like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
This is a nice guy way of saying, “really, really clueless.” Think about it for a second. What would we say about the mental abilities or attention span of someone who forgot what they looked like right after seeing themselves in a mirror? Not much, I imagine. Sure, maybe we want to forget that the mirror showed us more wrinkles or more gray hair than we’d want to see or admit was there, but we’re all too familiar with the actual image.
James is very concerned that people understand a crucial aspect of following Jesus – it doesn’t stop at our justification. We know that Jesus, in dying on the cross, healed a relationship with God that our own limitations, mistakes and disobedience had irreparably damaged. We say that God’s grace, working in that act of Jesus, “justifies” us. But God’s grace doesn’t stop there, and neither should the growth of our relationship with him.
Faith in God must produce a changed life, James believes, or else it’s no better than having no faith at all. In fact, it may be worse, because at least those with no faith at all may come to understand their lack of it and change.
Our friends who twelve-step understand this. Only the first steps of recovery involve stopping the behavior that’s destroying them. The rest involve life changes that are designed to produce people less inclined to need chemicals or behaviors to make it through their days. Visiting an Narcotics Anonymous meeting once, I heard a man talk about questioning a fellow addict who wasn’t using anymore, but hadn’t seemed to change his behavior much. “Big deal!” he said. “Now you’re a clean lyin’ thievin’ so-and-so, is all!” Of course, he didn’t say “so-and-so,” because people at NA meetings tend to have a free-range vocabulary.
Someone may hear what God has to say about humanity’s need for salvation, and that is good. They must hear that message. We had to hear it, and so do those who may not know about it. Even though God has been at work in their lives, preparing them for their encounter with his word, that word must still come to them somehow.
But only to hear it – even if we stretch the meaning of “hearing” to include hearing, listening, understanding and agreeing with – does not go far enough. We may become aware of the change that we need and that God wants to work within us and we may even agree that such change is possible. We may even agree that it’s a change that should happen!
If that’s where it stops, though, with us being hearers of the word and not doers, then what’s the point? James doesn’t use this phrase, but what he’s saying amounts to it: A difference that makes no difference is no difference. And it isn’t.
If we call ourselves Christians but we’re indistinguishable from those around us in our speech and actions, why would anyone bother to be a part of us? Why wouldn’t they stay home Sunday morning or hit the golf course or get in a good run or do any of a thousand other things that are open to them?
There are many agencies and groups that help people and they do good and I think it pleases God when his children are helped. Are we different? Do we do something different than these others? Not unless we remind ourselves that we don’t just help a needy human being, we help a brother or sister in Christ, someone Jesus loved enough to die on a cross for.
We have brain cells and such that store our memory of what we saw in the mirror so we can call it to mind if the need is there. Christian action in the world – doing the word as well as hearing it – serves a similar purpose. It stores up within us a reminder of whose we are, of who made us and who offered himself for us. When we serve others and show them love, we can recall that Jesus has served us and God has shown us love.
We can remember not simply who we are, but who we are intended to become: A reflection ourselves, showing Christ to all who see us.