But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. —James 1:22-24
Have you ever looked in the mirror and been horrified at what you saw? Maybe there was a big piece of spinach stuck between your front teeth? Or a huge sprout of hair sticking up in back? Or a morsel of cream cheese clinging to your mustache?
James is writing an intensely practical, urgent letter to Jewish believers who have been scattered because of persecution (James 1:1). These are dearly loved brothers and sisters in Christ, and they face a host of dangers, not only from pressures and enemies outside but also from within their own hearts. In this first chapter James will caution them against being deceived three times! The verses here give us the second of those warnings. What is the source of this deception? Themselves! And what kind of problem would arise through this self-deception? Being hearers of the word of God only, without actually doing what it says.
Then James gives an illustration of this “hearing-only” problem: you’ve just taken a good look in a mirror (for the original hearers, this probably would be polished metal, rather than what hangs on our wall today), but what happens after your look? Not transformation. Not dealing with what you have seen of yourself. Nope, you go away and forget.
James has already given important instructions to his hearers in this letter: receive trials with joy; ask God for wisdom; stand fast under trial; don’t blame God for temptations; be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; and put away filthiness and rampant wickedness. The rest of the book is full of similarly practical, important words. But if the hearers simply lean back in their seats, nodding in agreement, and then proceed to live on in anxiety, anger, and immorality, satisfied that they have heard from God, they will be in real trouble! God’s word, received with God’s help, by faith in God’s own Son, will effect change into God’s likeness (see James 1:18 and 2:1).
Do you hear God’s word regularly? Do you have a daily pattern of looking intently at the Bible so that its illuminating light may shine on your heart (James 1:25)?
Do you ask for God’s help seeing where his word calls for change in your own life? Or are you satisfied simply with study?
How does the gospel give us hope for real change? Why does faith in Christ prompt on-going repentance, change, and growth? How is this different than trying to earn God’s favor by improving ourselves in our own strength?