“If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides in it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:23–25)
James calls our attention to two types of people who stand before a spiritual mirror. The mirror into which we peer is the spoken or written Word of God. Through this mirror we are called by God to take a good look at ourselves. But what does this mirror show us? It shows us the light of Jesus Christ; and in that light we see our sin. We see our “natural face”. We see ourselves as we really are.
When we look in the mirror we can see a lot of similarities between us and the rest of the human race. We all have two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth, and so on. Looking at ourselves through the Word of God is the same way. It shows the entire human race in the same light. It shows us that we are all sinners in need of a Savior. Even a quick look lets us know that is true.
The Quick Look
Even so, the person who takes a quick glance at himself in this mirror gets a temporary, superficial glimpse of his face. He does not get the true picture. He does not see how the marks of sin have defaced him.
Sometimes that quick look may make us think that we are not as bad as someone else. We look in the mirror and we say to ourselves, “I am so thankful that I have these rugged good looks. I am not like what’s-his-name who has this feature too large and that one too small.”
A quick look into the mirror of the Word of God may tempt us to say the very same thing. We think to ourselves, “I am a good person. I am much better than Saddam Hussein; much better than you-fillin-the-blank; why I am even better than some people that go to the same church as I do.” That is what happens when you look too quickly.
But look again. The divinely in-spired Word of God really cuts through that superficial diagnosis and allows you to see yourself as you really are. But that can present yet another problem for the person who takes a quick look. For him, the tragedy is that once he gets that full glimpse of himself and he sees his true condition, he doesn’t linger long enough for a cure to his condition. He is like the man who gets up in the morning and only glances in the mirror. Sure enough, he sees the stubble of beard and he sees the messy head of hair, but he turns away without doing anything about it.
James writes: “he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.” In other words, he has gone away from the mirror of God with the resolute purpose of staying away. He is not going to change. He does not want to change. He knows he is a mess but he chooses to forget.
It is amazing what poor memories people have for what God says when they know His Word speaks against their activities. I remember a case in which a man was harbor-ing anger against a brother in Christ. When an Elder and I spoke with him, he could quote Scripture to justify his anger. But he had misquoted the Scripture. In his presence I pointed the verse out to him. He looked at it; looked at the cover of my Bible, and said: “Well, that’s your translation.” He was convinced that he had memorized it right and my Bible had translated it wrong.
I say he was convinced, but he knew the truth. He knew he was wrong but he didn’t want to change. He had looked into the mirror, saw the stubble and the mud on his face and he thought the mirror was wrong.
Forgetting God’s Word is a deliberate act. By walking away from the mirror a person can avoid his problem and move on to other things like telling you what your problem is. The consequence of this willful forgetfulness is that it dulls the conscience. When a person does this again and again – hearing God’s Word; reading God’s Word; looking into that mirror and forgetting what he has heard, read, and seen – he begins to think that he is okay. He paints a very different picture of himself than the one that the mirror reflects and the one that God would have him see.
The Intense Look
The sincere looker pauses long enough before the mirror to allow it to instruct him. “Oh, I’ve got a spot here. I should shave. I should comb my hair, etc.” Likewise, you look at the Word of God to get the real meaning so that you can apply it to your everyday life.
The first thing that such a listener must do is learn that law and liberty are not contradictory words. The law James is writing about is not necessarily the ten commandments (although they certainly play an important role in our lives). The law James is referring to is found in James 1:21: “putting aside all filthiness & all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the WORD implanted, which is able to save your souls.”
This WORD is all of God’s Word; all that He has revealed to us. But more, it is Christ who was the WORD from the very beginning. He alone can save. He is the light that must shine upon the mirror if we are to see ourselves correctly and make any changes in our lives. He is the Perfect Law.
This perfect law is also the Law of liberty. Without Jesus Christ a person will find himself under a worse bondage than that of Egypt. Jesus Christ offers liberty for those who are under the condemnation of sin; those who truly see themselves for what they are and are filled with a desire to change. Jesus rescues us from the captivity into which Satan has led us.
The world and all it has to offer will try to take dominion over you and rule over you and then it will oppress you. The Law of Liberty opens the way to freedom. This is what Jesus meant when he said in John 8:36: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, you will be free indeed.”
Freedom is really a relative thing. The people of Iraq have been given freedom. They are free from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. They know personally the horror and the atrocities that we only read about. They have lived with them for years. They have been liberated.
Likewise spiritual freedom means: we have been liberated. But from what? The liberty that James refers to is a freedom from the dominion of Satan and sin in our lives. Sin is our greatest bondage. Look in the mirror, God’s word of Truth, and you know that to be true. But know this as well: you cannot achieve freedom unless you submit yourself to the bondage of some authority. Either the principalities of this earth or Jesus Christ.
Look at it this way: why do you enjoy the freedoms that this country offers? It is because there are people in authority over us who allow us to exercise our freedoms. When you travel, you know what side of the road to drive on. That didn’t just happen. Someone in authority over you said “Here, in this country, we will drive on the right hand side of the road.” Now you are free to drive on the right hand side of the road. Imagine the chaos if it were not so.
Our age needs to desperately learn this truth! We are so into our own personal freedoms, but have you ever noticed that in order to get those freedoms, we have to bind ourselves to some authority. Look again at the freedom the Iraqi’s have. It is absolute chaos. Looting; breaking into hospitals and museums; taking whatever you are strong enough to take from whoever is too weak to stop you. Until the people place themselves under bondage again, that is, until they get some sort of organized leadership, Iraq will continue to be a mad house. And they know that! That is what the big debate in Iraq is all about now. Whose bondage do they want to be under?
Now let me ask you this: Spiritually speaking, whose bondage do you want to be under? Satan or Christ? True freedom is to place yourself under the Law of Liberty. It is to live in submission to Christ. Once you accept the bondage of God’s will in your life, you will be free from all other bondage.
God did not give us the ten commandments because He chose some arbitrary things He did not want us to do. He gave them to us because they work. They make life work. They make life easy.
You will get along a whole lot better with your friend if you do not lie to him. Your marriage will be a whole lot better if you are faithful to your spouse.
The person who knows Christ and seeks to reflect Him will find true freedom by keeping the perfect law of liberty.
Jesus tells us in John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” If you really understand your own sin as reflected in the mirror of God’s Word and you see the sacrifice which Jesus made on Calvary’s Cross as being made for you out of God’s great love, you will respond in love to the Lord. You will abide in His Word. You will want to keep His commandments. Being freed by God’s grace, saved through the blood of Christ does not diminish the requirements of God’s Law. Rather, it focuses us upon that Law because we see it as the holy will, the holy standard, set for us by Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the pastor of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan and editor of The Outlook.