Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. (James 1:22-24)
We live in a culture that teaches us to protect ourselves from criticism. Some of us choose to hide behind a false front, presenting the world with an image that is different than how we feel inside. Some find fault in others as a way to avoid the same tendencies in themselves. We all distract ourselves and avoid the hard questions about who we are and the decisions we make, because it's easier than facing the reality that we fail, sometimes. We can escape a lot of things, but we can't escape ourselves. We don't look at ourselves too closely. We might not like what we see.
The problem is that our denial keeps us locked in a spiral of defeat. We keep repeating the same mistakes and getting nowhere. We have chains of broken relationships, financial failures, and disappointments. We want more joy and peace, but we settle for brief periods of happiness. God wants more for us than the lives we choose. He wants us to live in victory, not defeat. The way we get there, ironically, is not to deny the mistakes we're making but to confront them. We need to bring the darkest part of our lives into the light—his light. It's the only way to find our way to the life we're missing.
The word of God is like a mirror. As we read, we cannot help but hold our lives up to the ideas and images that the Holy Spirit brings to life within us. We learn that we are failures, but we also learn that God has victory for us. His love is greater than all our flaws. His purposes include even people who have blown it, over and over. He loves the people we are, inside, and he wants us to live victoriously. The way we get there is to open our hearts as we read the scriptures, accept our mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and live differently.
James uses this metaphor as he writes to the church in Jerusalem in the first century. His audience was composed of Jewish Christians who were not living in a manner consistent with the message they claimed to believe. The image he paints is of a mirror that reveals who we are but then is quickly forgotten. Knowing something to be true but not living it is self-deception, he says. We live with our own brand of self-deception: the need to escape blame, to have others think of us differently than how we are, and to think we don't need to change. We avoid the mirror of God's word entirely because we don't want to see ourselves within it. We're not just hypocrites, like the people in James's church; we're under the spell of a greater cultural delusion. But under its guise, we never seem to have the life we want.
Hearing the word isn't enough, James says; you need to obey it to find your way to the truth and the life you're seeking. It starts with a willingness to expose yourself. Prioritize the time to open the scriptures and study. Find a path through a book (try James, for example), learn about the historical background behind the book, and identify the things you have in common with the original audience. Read it first from their perspective, then read it from your own. It's not words on a page, but the fertile ground from which the Spirit can change and mold you. Put the ideas into practice and follow the Spirit's lead. The direction he is guiding you is the place you want to be. It's a destination that eludes so many in today's world. You are confronted with your failure, but only so that you can find the victory you need. You will emerge with the love, peace, and joy you're in search of.