There are two ways to look at a mirror. This fairly unoriginal thought crossed my mind as I stood before my bathroom mirror focused on the spots I was wiping away, when my gaze suddenly shifted to a dark smudge under my eye. With one hand still cleaning the spots on the mirror, I tried to remove the spot under my eye with the other. It didn’t work; or at least, as I attempted to do both, I didn’t do either job well. You can’t look in a mirror and at a mirror at the same time.
Because the Christian scriptures are compared (among other striking images) to a mirror, the illustration seemed to be one worth contemplating. But instead of being stirred with thoughts and theology, I was caught off guard by the stirring of my own conscience.
Earlier that day, as I was reading a passage I can’t remember now, I thought to myself with a self-assured sigh: “If only [so-and-so] were reading these verses, they would see their situation more clearly, and the thing they’re completely overlooking.” It is little wonder why I can’t remember the verses; I wasn’t looking in the mirror. My eyes had shifted elsewhere.
Jesus once asked, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” His question at once uncovers a familiar behavior, exposing our tendency to focus on the faults of others while remaining blind to our own. Jesus isolates the motive we disguise as concern—like a sword dividing bone and marrow. It obviously made an impression on the ones who first heard him say it; all four gospel writers make note of Jesus’s words.
In an essay titled “The Trouble With ‘X’”, C.S. Lewis writes candidly of this all too common human trait: the ability to see clearly “X” and “X’s” flaws while having a harder time with our own. “X” is whomever we find in our lives with characteristics that annoy or even grieve us. Each of us can readily name people with traits that keep them in the miserable state they’re in, even as they claim they want out. Or we can easily describe a person who is just generally difficult or moody or dishonest. Lewis’s rejoinder to our ability to state clearly the trouble with the many “X’s” in our lives is similar to Christ’s: Realize that there are similar flaws in you. There is most certainly something that gives others the same feeling of despair that their flaws give you. Writes Lewis, “You see clearly enough that nothing […] can make ‘X’ really happy as long as ‘X’ remains envious, self-centred, and spiteful.” Be sure, he warns, that there is something also inside of you that, unless given to God to be altered, will remain similarly unscathed and unmoved.
The unique promise of a God who speaks into the world is that chaos is moved to order. Of course, this may mean first that chaos is simply revealed. God speaks and shows us our reflections, exposing the areas we are blind to and piercing our hearts with truth only a mirror can reveal. But like a mirror, God’s words can also be looked at in more than one way. As I read the Bible that morning, my intentions were good—or at least nearly good—I thought. The verses made me think of someone important to me; a common occurrence, I suspect, amongst us all. Nonetheless, it was a moment like my experience at the bathroom mirror. I had shifted my eyes to someone else’s spots. I was looking to see something other than me. And examining God’s words for someone else is like looking at a mirror and seeing in all the spots a reflection other than your own.
To approach a speaking God with eyes searching and ears listening for everyone but ourselves is to cease to hear and see as God intended. “Anyone who listens to the word,” writes James, “but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (1:23-24). The choice is crucial. Of all the spotted reflections around us, there is only one you can really examine and see changed. Putting ourselves, and our spots, in God’s able hands is the most urgent use of the mirror.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.