For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the repeated bits of advice we receive throughout our lives is that we should just “be ourselves.” Getting on the bus for the first day of school? “Be yourself.” Going on a first date? “Be yourself.” Heading in for a job interview? “Be yourself.”
Now, I suppose that this works out well enough, but for Christians, this conventional wisdom is easier said than done. The advice assumes that as long as you know who you are and stick to that, then all should be well. But how do you know who you are? After all, you can’t be yourself until you know yourself. But again, for Christians, this is precisely the difficulty. Knowing yourself is actually a really hard thing to do. As James says in our Epistle today, God is the only one in whom “there is no variation or shadow due to change.” God is the only one who has perfect self-knowledge and is therefore eternally, infinitely, perfectly himself. That’s just what it means for God to be God. But we are not God. We are constantly subject to variation and change, from one minute to another. Our moods can shift on a dime; we can be tired and sluggish after a poor night’s sleep; we can be disciplined one day and indulgent the next; we can be distracted just as easily as we can be attentive. Etc. etc.
So if the advice is to just be ourselves, and our selves are always changing, then which version of ourselves should we be? Let’s imagine that you’ve identified the best version of yourself that you can be. You wake up in the morning and commit to be this best self. You get dressed and look in the mirror and see the best that you can be and determine with all your might to be this person that you see in the mirror. Then you leave and head out to your day. Who are you now? You can’t stay in front of the mirror forever; but once you go away, you almost immediately you forget what you were like. The version of yourself in the mirror slips from your memory almost as soon as you encounter the next thing you have to do; and more than likely, you respond to the situation as habitually and as thoughtlessly as you always do. So much for being your best self!
Because we are creatures and therefore not God, who we are is a rather unreliable guide for how to proceed through life. And when we then consider that we are not only creatures, but sinful creatures, our reliability is further compromised. Sin, after all, is simply another way of talking about the particular way that we can’t seem to walk in a straight line. We are unstable, held in bondage to our fleeting passions and desires, many of which are the causes of our temptations and sins. So being ourselves is precisely the challenge of being human. And because we are subject to change, we cannot serve as our own standard or measure of how we ought to be.
If you recall today’s Epistle, you probably noticed that my little imaginative exercise about looking at yourself in the mirror was exactly what James himself used. But instead of making a point about the difficulty of being yourself, he used the analogy of the mirror to describe the one who is only a “hearer of the word” rather than a “doer of the word.” The word here, of course, is “the implanted word which is able to save your souls.” That is to say, the word, the wisdom, the teaching that is “implanted” into us when we listen to it. But in context, this “word” is not exactly what we think of as “the Bible” but rather the “perfect law” that James mentions a few lines down; the perfect law that, when “interpreted through the gospel of Jesus,”  is the “law of liberty.” Remember that at the time of James’ epistle, the New Testament did not yet exist as we know it. Scripture was just the Old Testament, which contained the Law of God as delivered to Moses and the people of Israel. This Law was a “perfect gift from above,” having come down from the Father of lights, and is therefore able to save our souls.
But there are two conditions that are necessary in order for this word, this perfect law, to be for our salvation. The first is that we are doers of the word, and not hearers only. Those who are only hearers of the word, James says, are again “like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” Note that what makes them hearers only is that they are fixated upon themselves -- they are like the man who looks at his natural face in the mirror. They may hear the word, they may know about the perfect law, but it is not the ultimate standard that governs their lives. They are focused only on what is natural; they are acting as though they are a law unto themselves. The Law of God is at most a helpful suggestion that they’ll take into consideration in time. And of course they never get around to doing that because they forget both what the law is and who they are. By contrast, those who are doers of the word look not at their own selves in a mirror, but into the perfect law itself. The word is their mirror. They meditate upon it day and night, receiving it as a gift from God with all humility and devotion. They submit themselves entirely to it, which is why it becomes for them the implanted word. The perfect law permeates their entire being; it becomes who they are. And, having “put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness,” they can at last live freely; they can finally be themselves. The Law is their mirror.
Now, there is a significant difficulty here that needs to be addressed. Because if we were to just take this epistle from St. James at face value, it could be easy to conclude that this is just about moralism, a code of rules that we are bound to obey out of sheer willpower in order to be saved. Indeed, this is what has made the Letter of James so challenging throughout the history of the Church. The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther famously declared it to be little more than an “epistle of straw” because, while he admitted that it was a helpful explanation of the Law of God, it was for that very reason not the Gospel. It could not be “good news” for us because if all we have is the Law, we are bound to fail; which is why any attempt at earning salvation by our works is futile. For Luther, if we were to take James’ advice and look into the perfect Law of God, all that we would see is our own condemnation. It would not be the law of liberty, but the law of our bondage to divine judgment. That’s why it was so important for Luther that we are justified by faith alone and not by works.
Contrary to Luther, though, James says explicitly that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone” and that “faith without works is dead.” But his concern is still worth taking seriously. Given our susceptibility to temptation and sin, how can James’ teaching about the perfect law be good news for us? Where is the Gospel to be found here? To answer these pressing questions, let’s consider what James might mean when he speaks of the “implanted” word. Because who could possibly be the one to implant this word within us if not the Father of lights, from whom we receive every perfect gift? And as a gift, God gives us this word out of the abundance of his grace. We don’t earn the gift, because otherwise it wouldn’t be a gift. And the gift is ultimately that of Christ himself. He is the perfect embodiment of the word, for he is the word made flesh. And for him, the law was indeed the law of liberty, because the law was his very nature. He was the Son of God, and therefore he could freely be himself at all times -- to be himself was to be perfect. But he also was the Son of Man, who united himself to our humanity, making it possible for us to be united to his divinity. The Law that he embodied was no longer a moral code that stood over us, but instead was “written on our hearts.” The Law was now implanted within us so that we could receive by grace what Christ possessed by nature. In Christ, the law could now be for us the law of liberty because Christ himself was now implanted within us and we in him. His freedom is now our freedom. And Christ is now our mirror.
The Gospel here is simply that “every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above.” We do not become doers of the word by committing ourselves to follow it to the letter, because the letter kills. We become doers of the word by receiving it with meekness as a gift, given to us by God on account of nothing that we ourselves had done to earn it. We only become doers of the word by first receiving it in faith, which is itself a gift of God as well. So it’s all grace all the way down. When we look into the mirror of the law, we see only Christ. And when we see Christ, we see also ourselves, though the mirror is still dim. But one day, we will see him face to face, at which point we be as he is and Christ will be all in all.
So in a way, the advice to just be yourself still holds true. It’s just that we are no longer ourselves, for we belong to Christ. And he is our true religion indeed, pure and undefiled before God. Amen.
 Addison Hodges Hart. The Letter of James: A Pastoral Commentary. 57.