James 1:23-24, "For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was."
This morning, perception does not define reality, though quite often we live our lives with that mantra. In every endeavor of society, we have to make observations and attempt to critically analyze situations to determine how we should think and proceed. However, no man being perfect, the observation and analysis must always be tempered with the thought that we are fallible creatures and susceptible to error. Still, man's pride often impedes his willingness to accept that fact or at least often employ it while going through life's situations. Perhaps a boss has the wrong impression of his employees. Perhaps a child has the wrong impression of his parents. Perhaps the church has the wrong impression of her pastor. In each of these cases, the vice versa could apply. As the old saying goes, "You never know for sure how a man is or feels until you walk a mile in his shoes." May we temper our observations and judgments with the reality of our own fallibility.
When considering the pages of Holy Writ, one must start with the realization that it is perfect. James goes on in the verse following our verses to call the Scriptures the "perfect law of liberty." In other words, the Bible does not present us a combination of truth and error (like situations of life do), and therefore our analysis of this perfect law of liberty does not include separating what is right from wrong. Rather, our study of the Scriptures should only entail getting to the specific truth under consideration and seeing how it affects us and modify ourselves accordingly. As a wise old elder once told me, "When you read the Scriptures, you can read them one of two ways: 1. use the Scriptures to prove what you think or 2. use the Scriptures to prove what to think. Choose the latter." Instead of forcing preconceived notions upon the page, allow the page to declare what your direction should be.
Notice James's thought above. Under consideration is a man who has access to the word of God. This person also has heard the word spoken through gospel power, but the reality is that many times the consideration of God's perfect law stops with the hearing or reading of it rather than extending into the practice of it. How many times have you heard these sentiments, "Boy that sure was good preaching." "What was it about?" "I don't know but it sure was good preaching."? Such a circumstance falls squarely into the realm of James's discussion. The point of the Bible and gospel preaching is not for an intellectual exercise. Indeed, the Bible is the most logical, reasoned, and completely true book ever written. However, our reading of it and listening to the gospel is not to simply say, "Well that makes sense." The point is to the see the sense of it and apply it like integrated light that touches every recess of our life.
One of the things that James compares the word to is a glass. This word could aptly be thought of in our modern vernacular as a mirror. When someone looks at himself in the mirror, the mirror does not make him look like he looks. It shows people what they already look like. The Bible and the preached gospel do not make us what we are, but they reveal what we are. When a man leaves the mirror, no matter what he thinks or does not think, the image the mirror gave him holds true. When a man closes the Book or leaves a church service, the reality stays the same even though the declaration is done for the time. Reality does not change. However, the perception often does.
One of the harshest realities the glass declares to us is that by nature we are worms and wholly undone. (Romans 3:10-18) The picture and image is not very comforting. However, that is the reality of our nature. We are totally depraved by nature. Yet, one of the most glorious images of the glass is that by grace we are made in the image of His Son first through regeneration and then eventually in the resurrection. We do go from one image to another as from glory to glory. (II Corinthians 3:18) This is reality friends. Nothing changes it, for it is the way things are. We can no more undo the image of grace any more than we could have undone the image of depravity. We were wholly one, and we shall one day be wholly the other. What if some, most, or even all do not perceive this or do not accept it? It matters not, it is still reality.
Now the hardest thing is to remember these things when not standing in front of the mirror. Let us consider a number of regular, consistent life situations that might lure us into thinking differently than the reality of the glass and thereby be guilty of doing what James warns against in our study verses. When at work or somewhere in the world, how do we want to initially react when someone tries to run us down? If they smack us, we want to smack them back. If they verbally taunt us, we want to retaliate in kind. Why is that? The reason can simply be boiled down to the fact that we many times think too highly of ourselves. Whether we admit it in those words or not, we confess it freely with our deeds. Though we may fiercely amen the point of not deserving anything good when it is heralded from the pulpit, do we just as fiercely amen the point with our deeds when we are in the trenches of life? Sadly, I must confess that I often do not.
Another common situation in life is when someone becomes overwhelmed with guilt. It can paralyze their life to such an extent that they are rendered unprofitable for Godly service. Guilt can stunt the development stymie the growth of a child of God. I have seen guilt paralyze people to the point of fearing to return to church for the shame they feel or even being around their families for fear of verbal assault. Guilt can be a tricky thing as it does not always come in the same way or linger for the same duration and season.
So, what is the point of bringing up pride and guilt? What do they have in common? The commonality between them is that they both apply to us not remembering what we looked like in the glass when presented with the image. Too much pride forgets the image of depravity that we fully bore by nature and still bear in our old man of flesh. Too much guilt forgets the image of glory and grace that declares in the soul and spirit – and testifies in hope toward the resurrection – that we are children of the King Almighty. Both actions, while opposite in appearance, equally apply to forgetting our image. No matter what the person thinks or says while beholding the image, those things pale in comparison to seeing them and walking in them while not in front of the mirror.
One of the highest compliments I ever received about one of my sermons was when someone told me, "I heard you preach some months back. Not long ago, I faced something you preached about, and I tried to do what you encouraged us to do in the sermon. You know, it really is the best course of action." Brethren, those are the most resounding amens a preacher can receive whether he is around to hear them or not. The point of the Bible and preaching from the Bible is to do what is either read or heard. As another wise old elder said, "The sermons a man preaches with his feet will always speak louder than the sermons he preaches from the pulpit. Likewise, the religion a person shows between pew time will always testify more than the religion while in the pew."
Now, it does behoove us here to plainly declare and state that sermons from the pulpit and religion in the pew is not only good but necessary and needful. Sometimes people today can become so enamored with personal religion (living the Godly life) that they think the orderly public worship is no longer of necessity. Friends, no matter how successfully we have been in the trenches in a given season, we still need those reminders from the mirror of the specifics of the image. No sermon preached sticks with us in its entirety forever. No reading of the word gleans everything or even retains everything that is understood. We need the reminders of what is right and true, but coupled with that, we need to remember that it has sufficient teeth and application to navigate every avenue and question in life.
Friends, I rarely – if ever – like what I see in a natural mirror. I like to tell folks that I never had to worry about losing good looks as I never had any to lose. However, no matter what I think about the image in the mirror, alas! that is me. It is how I look. No matter what we think about the image in the spiritual mirror, that is the reality. At first there is much alas! Then, it gives way to much rejoicing. May our lives keep those two main images in refulgent view. As such we will not fall victim to the oppressive nature of pride or fall prey to the paralyzing influence of guilt. We are, sadly, members of a ruined race of man, but we are just as surely members of the glorious family of the Almighty. May our lives show forth these two things, manifesting that we both hear and do the perfect law of liberty.