For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was – James 1:23-24
The apostle James wrote this in the first century AD. In those days they did not have mirrors as we do today, but their mirrors were made of polished metals, like brass (glass mirrors were just barely being invented at that time by the Romans). It would be safe to assume that mirrors were much less common then as they are today, especially for the poor. As a matter of fact, besides the occasional glance into a still pond, it is very likely that many people of that day had no idea what they actually looked like! And if they ever did get a chance to look into a mirror, for the average person, it would be just a glance here or there.
With that being said, we can understand what James is talking about here. He’s not talking about a fool who forgets what he looks like as soon as he leaves the mirror, but he’s talking about the fact the everybody forgets what they look like! They forget because the time they spend looking at themselves is so short. If you were to ask the people of that day what they looked like, they would respond, “I don’t know!”
So James is comparing this with the fact that many people hear the word, and then do not do it. The reason is because many people FORGET. Look what the next verse says:
But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. – James 1:25
It’s quite an interesting phenomenon. It’s not that these people didn’t know the word. They knew it, but they failed to keep that word before them. And so the knowledge was lodged in their mind, but it was not kept before them as a matter of importance. They knew, but they forgot. Notice what Peter says regarding this:
For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. 2 Peter 1:12
Think about how many things you have learned over your lifetime that you have forgotten about. Sometimes you won’t think about it for years, but then someone will bring it up and you’ll think, ‘yes, now I remember that!’ This is the way it is with the word. Even though we know it, when it comes to our daily lives we are like the man who looks at the mirror, but because the image is not constantly before him, forgets what he looks like. We also, if we do not keep the word before us constantly, forget about it very quickly. This is why James says that we must look into the perfect law of liberty and continue in it.
If James had lived in our day he might have used this illustration differently. He might have said, “when it comes to the word, you need to be like a teenager looking into a mirror! At every moment, look into the perfect law of liberty – at home, in the car, in the bathroom, as you pass by every store front, even use the camera on your phone if you have to!” The bible clearly tells us that this is what we need to do.
The word must constantly be kept before us. Jesus said that we must live in His word (Jn 15); Paul tells us to the let the word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col 3:16); Moses commands us to lay up the word in our hearts and in our souls, to bind them to our hands and our head, to write them on the door posts to our houses and our gates, to speak of them when we sit in the house, or walking down the street, when we lie down and when we wake up (Deut 11:18-20).
This is what we should be doing. This is what we desperately need to be doing.
I remember a story about a peculiar man named Smith Wigglesworth. He was a powerful man of God from England who lived in the early 20th century. This man was very effective in leading many thousands to Christ, and was used mightily by God in the area of healing and miracles. Once he and some others were driving in a car, with Smith in the back seat. The conversation was on politics when Wigglesworth suddenly yelled, “stop the car!” The driver immediately pulled the car over and Wigglesworth prayed, “Dear God, please forgive us for not including You, Your word, or the lost souls of this world in our conversation. Amen.”
This story shows us the secret of this man’s great success: He lived and breathed God’s word. Look at what the Lord told Joshua:
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. -Joshua 1:8
I miss my friend Joel. He’s one of my only friends with whom I could naturally and freely converse about God’s word. He and I would talk for hours about God’s word and never get tired of it. We all need friends like that.
We need to be constantly hearing and speaking the word of God! Are you forgetting God’s word as soon as you walk away from it? Or are you living in God’s word, keeping it constantly before you, meditating on it day and night? This may seem like an outrageous request. Doesn’t God know we have other things to do?
Here is what many people don’t understand: there’s nothing sweeter, nothing better, nothing more fulfilling, nothing as interesting, nothing as exciting, nothing as up to date, nothing as powerful as the living word of God. Many people dip their feet into the ocean, many go for a swim and enjoy the waves, but there are few that have the privilege to explore its depths, to see the glorious and mysterious world that lies beneath. God has called us all to the depths of His word.
Will you answer?
We must answer. We must not be forgetful hears. God has given us the cure for forgetfulness, so forgetfulness will not be an excuse on the day of judgement. The cure is to always keep the word before us.
Will you keep the word before you? Will you obey the command to meditate in it day and night? Or will you be the forgetful hearer? The doer of the word will receive a blessing, but the forgetful hearer, a curse.