Whenever I do a workshop on relationships and communication, I inevitably get some version of the comment, “Have you been spying on us?” It’s because I’ll give illustrations of common struggles between people, describing the missteps, the feelings, and the things we say to ourselves in the midst of an escalating conflict. The descriptions can fit so well that people accuse me of having set up a hidden camera in their living room.
People embroiled in conflict are often so hyped-up, so focused on winning, that they’re unaware of what they’re contributing to the problem. Breaking down the conflict into a description of the predictable steps involved is like holding up a mirror: Here, look. Do you see yourself? I watch their body language as I speak; I see signs of recognition in their faces, and spouses steal glances at each other that seem to say, So we’re not the only ones?
The big question, of course, is whether anything actually changes after they leave the workshop. Let’s face it: it’s not that easy to change years of bad habits. We quickly become angry and defensive at the first sign of trouble. When that happens, we don’t usually pause for serious and calm reflection: Hmm, let’s see. What was it I learned in that workshop? Ah, yes, I remember. I should do this instead…
That’s understandable. Still, what good is it if we keep learning new insights about ourselves and can’t put them into practice?
. . .
James has observed a number of problems in the church. It appears, for example, that people were being quick to get mad at each other and to speak in thoughtless anger. That’s not how righteousness works, he tells them, advising them instead to “welcome with meekness the implanted word” (1:21, NRSV). The gospel which they have already received internally should be bearing external fruit; meekness of heart should express itself outwardly in a quickness to listen to others.
And lest there be any misunderstanding of what it means to “welcome the word,” James continues:
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. (vss. 22-24)
It’s not enough, he insists, to just hear the gospel; again, the implanted word should grow in us and bear fruit. Our inward transformation should result in outward obedience: hearing should lead to doing. What’s the point of looking in a mirror, James seems to suggest, if you’re not going to do anything about what you’ve seen?
It’s not just marriage workshops that hold up a mirror to us and allow us to see who we truly are. How many times have we listened to a sermon and felt a flush of conviction? The preacher speaks our truth, and we know we need to do something, to change our ways.
Then the service is over. We go home, and forget all about it, until the next time our spiritual buttons get pushed. If this happens often enough, we learn to equate a “good” sermon with one that pushes those buttons. We may even subtly begin to pride ourselves on feeling appropriately guilty — all while still doing little or nothing to change our attitude or behavior in relationships.
Scripture itself is meant to hold up a mirror to us, particularly in the person of Jesus. If we believe that Jesus was God Incarnate, then we believe that we’ve already been given a living, breathing example of what godliness looks like when clothed with human flesh. We need to consistently take a good long look at Jesus, and then at ourselves.
Then we need to remember what we’ve seen.
And do something about it.