Scripture: James 1:17-27
Heather Sellers was profiled in a 2013 article for the magazine New Scientist. Heather suffers from a condition that most of us will probably find unusual. In the article Heather gives an example of the types of issue her problem causes her. She said: “I’ve been in a crowded elevator with mirrors all around, and a woman will move and I’ll go to get out the way and then realize: ‘oh that woman is me’. Heather suffers from prosopagnosia or face blindness. She completely lacks the ability to recognize faces, including her own. People, like Heather, who suffer from this condition do not have a vision problem. They can see just fine. They also do not suffer from a memory disorder. They lack the ability to recognize a face. Human brains are typically wired to recognize faces more readily than other objects. There are specific parts of our brain that light up when we see a face. Neuroscientists studying face blindness have found that people with face blindness have a part of the brain light up when they see a face but then the part of the brain that is responsible for processing this information fails to trigger. People with face blindness are physically incapable of processing what a face looks like. Often people with this condition are able to compensate and learn other ways to recognize people. Also, face blindness appears to be a gradient, not everyone who suffers from this condition has it to the degree Heather does where she cannot even recognize herself. It was once thought that this condition was rare because it is often not diagnosed in those who suffer from it. However, today neuroscientists believe as many as 1 out of 50 people, or 2.5 % of the population suffer from prosopagnosia. It is absolutely fascinating to me to think that this condition is recorded in the Bible, James used it as an analogy to prove his point. Someone who looks at his face in a mirror and after looking at himself goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like sounds a lot like prosopagnosia. While they would not have known the neuroscience behind it, there is every reason to think that the people of the ancient world were aware of this condition. That means that James was not making up an example, but writing of a condition that people could have known about.
Moreover I think knowing that prosopagnosia is a real condition, helps give James overall point here more depth. James, a letter attributed to the brother of Jesus, is a practical, down to earth primer on how to have a faith that works. In this morning’s scripture James is writing about the stuff that gets in the way of our faith working. The point that James is making, is that we are all in danger of suffering from spiritual prosopagnosia. The difference is when we look into the mirror it is not our face we do not recognize, it is our heart, our inner being that is lost to us. In this scripture James explains what causes this condition and how we can cure it.
Because of the language used, this morning’s scripture can be a tricky. The way we use words is often nuanced, and it is easy to get the wrong read. This of course is compounded when reading scripture, because it is written in a language not native to us and we have to rely on translations. To properly understand this scripture it is important to all be on the same page about some of the terms being used here. For instance verse 21 mentions to humbly accept the word planted in you, and then verse 22 states: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves, do what it says.” It is clear that the word being referred to here is the same thing, but it may not be what we are thinking. In our modern day church language we have been conditioned to automatically equate word with the Bible. In fact, it is not uncommon to see verse 22, taken out of context and listed as what the Bible says about the bible. However, this scripture is not about the Bible, when it speaks of the word it is not talking about a book. Rather it is talking about the word that is mentioned in the first chapter of the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The word that we are supposed to humbly accept planted in us, the word that we are to do what it says, is the gospel. It is the word that God became flesh and dwelt among us. It is the word that declares repent for the kingdom of God is near. It is the word that says “go and sin no more. It is the word that says, you are loved, you are forgiven, and that you were worth dying for. The word referenced in this scripture refers to more than words planted on a page. The word is the greatest gift that God, the giver of every good and perfect faith. The word is the seed of faith planted in us speaks to our souls that Jesus is Lord and messiah!
The idea being presented here is the gospel of truth, the good news of Jesus Christ, is supposed to grow in us. Like a seed planted it is to grow, flourish and transform us. A belief in Jesus is not merely an academic pursuit. It is not a box we check on a form, it is not some bit of demographical data. Being a Christian is supposed to continually renew us and make us new as we listen to still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, and we do what the word of God within us says. When we do this we truly become more Christ like. When we get it right we live like Jesus where we love God with all of our being, have genuine compassion for others, and we willfully do not sin. We become a living reflection of our Lord and Savior. And then. . .
And then, like a person with prosopagnosia we forget what Jesus is supposed to look like. We are like the person who forgets what our face looks like as soon as we walk away from the mirror because we stop living our faith, we stop doing what God says. It truly is easy for us to suffer from spiritual prosopagnosia. We can identify the problem, but what is the cause? James writes about this in verse 21. The NIV renders it this way, “Therefore get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is prevalent.”
I have spent fifteen years in youth ministry at this point. Early on in working with teenagers I relied a lot on curriculums and resource books. Many of the included a lesson on media choices, and without out fail those lessons would use this scripture as a clobber verse. This verse would be used why the music/tv/movies/ whatever that was popular at the time was bad. Now I do believe that the media choices that we all make (not just teenagers who get picked on in this regard) are important to give careful thought to. However, James was not writing about rap music here. This is another area where there are some language difficulties. The NIV translation of moral filth uses filth as a noun. This naturally gives the impressions of some sort of physical object. Other translations avoid this by referring to conditional states and speak of getting rid of all filthiness and wickedness. Verse 20 gives an example of what is being talked about here as it states “human anger does not produced the righteousness God declares.” I think the reason why we are so quick to want to make this scripture about moral filth focus on things like TV and music is because it is more comfortable. It feels like an easy answer to tell teenagers “you should not listen to certain music because it is moral filth” than it is to focus on changing our own actions and attitudes. This scripture is about more than just media choices it is about the sinful thoughts and attitudes we give ourselves over to. This scripture gives anger as an example but pride, jealously, lust, selfishness, and hate would also fit the bill as the kind of filthiness we are to rid ourselves of.
Now on one hand, we know this on the other hand though, we still struggle with this, and the other day I had a realization as to why this might be. I was watching my son play Minecraft the other day. There are a few things that you need to know about Minecraft. First, it is a video game. Second this video game is not old, but it is made to look that way. The game intentionally uses a block old-school graphic aesthetic. This means that relatively speaking the game is not as graphic intensive as most games. Finally, it is a sandbox video game. This means that players can build and create more or less whatever they want. This is why my son loves it and he had built a gold house floating in the air with lava pouring out of it, over top of a literal mountain of waterfalls, which has a roller coaster going around it and whole herds of dolphins. He had thrown a lot into this little part of a little digital world. So in this world he had built a portal. What I noticed is that when we came back through the portal, the system struggled to load all of the stuff he built. Even though it has simple graphics there was a pause as everything reloaded block by block. If we left and came back, it would do it again. The game created a digital world, but it could only keep one part of it loaded at a time. When we left one part, the system would essentially forget what that part of the world looked like, and it had to then reload it. I think our hearts are the same way. We are focused on, and have Jesus loaded up or we do not.
Our hearts, our inner most beings only have enough space for one thing to occupy our souls. If it is not Jesus, then it is anger or greed or jealousy. Whenever we focus our desires on those wicked motivations, then we have to push Jesus aside to make room for them. This is why we are spiritually like someone who looks in the mirror and forgets what they look like, because we stop trying to be like and look like Jesus! This is not a modern day problem. Robert Robinson wrote about all the way back in 1758 in the song we sang today: “Let thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”
So the problem is we do stop doing what the word of God in us says and the cause is that our hearts our prone to wander back to the dirt we swept under the rug but never actually got rid of. Finally, what might the treatment be? We actually have been looking at this scripture backwards, because James started by giving the solution to the problem. In verse 16 James wrote, “Don’t be deceived my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows.” God’s goodness and provision is a constant that we anchor to. Perhaps the best way we can do that is through regularly thanking God for every good and perfect gift. The fact that you were able to get up and travel here today? A gift. The freedom to worship? A gift. The people sitting next to you? A gift. The breath you just took? A gift. More importantly, the faith we profess? A gift. The forgiveness that takes away our sin? A gift. The bond of love that reunites us with our Creator? A gift. The savior that makes it all possible? A gift. Every good and perfect gift comes from God the Father, and we have so much to be thankful for!
When we give thanks to God that is where our focus is. When we give thanks to God, then we move closer to loving God with our whole being. When we give thanks to God we are moved to compassion for others because we realize how much compassion God has had on us. When we give thanks to God we do not willfully sin, because we know how much the forgiveness of sin costs.
God chose to give us birth through the word of truth, so may we be forever thankful for that. In doing so, may we truly hear the word planted in us seeking to shape us to be more Christ like, and may we not forget what we have heard. May we stop being like someone who looks into a mirror and then forgets what they look like. Instead may we be able to honestly and truly ask, “mirror, mirror on the wall who is grateful for all?” and may the reflection we see be an honest answer to that question.