Mirrors have come a long way. In ancient times, mirrors were composed of bronze, not glass. The metal would be polished to be as reflective as possible, but never would it yield a clear reflection like we can see in modern mirrors today. This explains Paul’s comment on life in the miraculous age: “For now we see in a mirror dimly…” (1 Cor. 13:12). “Dimly” comes from the Greek word from which we get our word enigma, which describes a riddle requiring interpretation. When the ancients looked into their mirrors, it was like solving a puzzle—“Are those bags under my eyes, or did someone punch me in my sleep?” Today we say, “The mirror doesn’t lie.” Back then, that saying would not have made much sense.
James was a master of metaphors, and in one passage he draws a helpful analogy to the mirror to teach us something about the nature of the word of God. He does this by describing two men, both who are looking into mirrors.
Of the first man he says,
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 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. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (Jas. 1:22-24)
Notice that he says that the man looking in the mirror “looks intently.” Some have made the mistake of accusing this first man of only “glancing” at himself (Moffatt) or “catching” a glimpse (Phillips) in the mirror. Remember what we said about ancient mirrors. A quick glance gave you nothing. These mirrors required a careful gaze at the very least.
The mistake that this first man made was not changing anything about his appearance after the mirror reflected a few flaws. Maybe he needed a shave, or perhaps there were a few stray hairs that needed combing. Whatever the case may have been, the man walked away without doing anything to improve his appearance. This is like the person who studies God’s word, understands it, and learns that he needs to repent, only to walk away from it unchanged.
Contrast this case with a second man. James describes him, saying,
But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (Jas. 1:25)
James is still thinking about mirrors. This second man “looked into the perfect law,” just like the first man did. The difference is that the second man “persevered”; that is, he put down his New Testament and made corrections in his life according to what he had just read.
Bibles are like mirrors in that they point out our flaws. Hebrews 4:12 reads, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Sometimes God’s piercing sword can be uncomfortable. Surgery is always painful, but sometimes it is the only option. And when we recover from the procedure, we are better than we were before.
The poet John Kendrick Bangs wrote,
Be sure to keep a mirror always nigh
In some convenient, handy sort of place,
And now and then look squarely in thine eye,
And with thyself keep ever face to face.
Keep God’s word handy. Use it as a mirror for the soul. You may find some flaws, but who wants to go out not knowing that he has blemishes on his face? Better yet, who wants to go before God in judgment, not knowing about the sins that will separate him from his Father for an eternity?