upon reflection: Romans 2

IMG_0768 read Romans 2.   Mirrors are funny things.  They reflect back only a two dimensional version of ourselves, and yet there’s a sense in which they have magical powers to show us more and yet less of ourselves than we feel exists.  Fairy tales, fables, myths and children’s stories are full of mirrors with these kind of magical powers.  Snow White’s stepmother had a mirror that showed her the fairest one of all; her mirror seems believable, perhaps reflecting the idea that when we look in the mirror we see idealized versions of other people.   Alice in Wonderland also had a believable mirror.  She had a mirror that was so transparent she could fall into the world of it.  There’s something misty and opaque about mirrors, as if they hint at other worlds, shadow worlds, alternate universes.  Narcissus was so proud he disdained anyone who loved him – until he fell in love with his own reflection in a lake, not realizing he was seeing himself mirrored in the lake’s surface.  Like Alice, Narcissus  fell inside his “mirror”; unlike Alice, however, he died there because his mirror wasn’t magical.  It was unforgiving water.  Narcissus drowning in himself is a metaphor that almost isn’t.  After all, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, a metaphor has to stand for something, and Narcissus actually did drown in his reflection.

Harry Potter fell in love with an image of what he hoped for but could never have in the Mirror of Erised; he saw himself surrounded by adoring parents celebrating his teenage victories even though his parents had passed away when he was a baby.  Dumbledore gently pulls him away from the mirror, explaining that many had lost their lives by staring into the impossible.  The scene is too good and its wisdom too powerful not to revisit:

“Except — “So — back again, Harry.” Harry felt as though his insides had turned to ice. He looked behind him. Sitting on one of the desks by the wall was none other than Albus Dumbledore. Harry must have walked straight past him, so desperate to get to the mirror he hadn’t noticed him.

” — I didn’t see you, sir.”
“Strange how nearsighted being invisible can make you,” said Dumbledore, and Harry was relieved to see that he was smiling.

“So,” said Dumbledore, slipping off the desk to sit on the floor with Harry, “you, like hundreds before you, have discovered the delights of the Mirror of Erised.”
“I didn’t know it was called that, Sir.”
“But I expect you’ve realized by now what it does.”
“It — well — it shows me my family –”
“And it showed your friend Ron himself as head boy.”
“How did you know –.”
“I don’t need a cloak to become invisible,” said Dumbledore gently.

“Now, can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all.” Harry shook his head.

“Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help.”
Harry thought. Then he said slowly, “It shows us what we want… whatever we want…”
“Yes and no,” said Dumbledore quietly.
“It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.

“The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that. Now, why don’t you put that admirable cloak back on and get off to bed.” Harry stood up.

“Sir — Professor Dumbledore. Can I ask you something.”
“Obviously, you’ve just done so,” Dumbledore smiled. “You may ask me one more thing, however.”
“What do you see when you look in the mirror.”
“I. I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks.” Harry stared.

“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”
It was only when he was back in bed that it struck Harry that Dumbledore might not have been quite truthful. But then, he thought, as he shoved Scabbers off his pillow, it had been quite a personal question.”  HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE.

In all these stories, there is an element in which a mirror shows more than just ourselves.  Mirrors seem in literature to be able to capture visions of what we want to see; what we wish we could be; what others look like; and a world in which we want to live or a world in which we can’t live.  What are the archetypes straining at?   And how do we find a true mirror that shows us as we really are and the world as it really is?  How do we find a magical mirror that captures our dreams in a way we don’t drown in them but can instead walk on water?

The Bible has a lot to say about mirrors.  Perhaps the most famous passage of all is after Paul’s triumphant ode to what love “is” in 1 Corinthians 13, he adds that now we see “through a glass, darkly.”  1 Cor. 13:12 (KJV).  A more modern translation is that now we see “through a mirror, dimly.” (NIV). It’s as if he’s implying we see what love really looks like when we look in a mirror, but we see it dimly, and we don’t see it in ourselves but somehow on the other side of a mirror.  Because what’s magical about this description of love and a mirror is that there’s an element of Alice falling through the looking glass.  Paul doesn’t say we look into a mirror and see ourselves.  He says we see “through” a mirror.  There’s a hint of seeing a reflection and yet also seeing through.  How can that be?  Is the Bible like one of those two way “mirrors” we pass in the airport, where we see ourselves but also the dim outline of a grey man in a grey overcoat surveying us critically to guess if we’re carrying drugs or bombs?  Does the Bible show us ourselves but also a harsh judge on the other side, surveying us?

The Bible claims that when we read God’s Word, several mirror-like things happen.  First, the Bible claims to act like a perfect mirror that reflects ourselves back to ourselves and shows us as we really are:  “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”  Hebrews 4:12 (KJV).  A more modern translation explains that the Bible reflects back to us our “innermost thoughts and desires.”  Heb. 4:12 (NLT).  The Bible claims that we are self-deceived; we can justify anything.  It says that only the light of the Holy Spirit working on our hearts through kindness, Scripture and revelation can reveal our true self to ourself.

But at the same time as showing us ourselves, the Bible also shows us God.  And seeing both those things at the same time somehow transforms us into something beautiful.  It transforms us into the person God created us to be.  When we look at the words of the Bible, the Bible seems to show us as a person made in God’s image.  Here’s how Jesus’ brother James explains this mirror-like quality of the Word of God:  “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror  and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”  James 1:23-24.  James seems to imply that listening to the Bible is like looking at the face of someone who has the ability to do what the Word says.  Apparently when we read God’s word we do see our better self.  Let’s say we read how we are to let our gentleness be evident to all – and we think: “oh, yes, yes, yes!  Of course.  I will be gentle, gentler and gentlest today!”  But then the moment we shut the Bible, we feel harshness course through our veins, and even worse, spew out of our mouths.  James says that when we act in an ungodly manner (as defined in the Bible) it’s as if we have forgotten what we look like.  In other words, this is an encouraging verse – even though it always feels to me like a condemning one.  It’s encouraging because James is suggesting that we see ourselves in all our God like possibilities when we read the Bible.  We see what we could be.  We see what we want to be.  We see what we were made to be.

James’ mirror verse is discouraging, however, because we’re all constantly disobeying God.  We can dip into the “mirror” of the Bible countless times daily, see ourselves and see God, and yet not act in a godly way.  We are all therefore “forgetting what we look like” all the time.  Here is where we turn more into Snow White’s stepmother than we would like.  We know God wants us to love others but all too often we feel jealous of them instead.  So here is where we start to need real magic, transforming magic, a way to transform us into the godly image we long for.

So the mirror reference in James suggests that the second way the Bible acts like a mirror is this magical sense of being able to look at the Word and see not not just ourselves but God in it.

There’s another verse about what we “see” in the Bible that starts to point the way to the true magic we long for.  Paul writes: “And all of us, as with unveiled face, [because we] continued to behold [in the Word of God] as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are constantly being transfigured into his very own image in ever increasing splendor and from one degree of glory to another; [for this comes] from the Lord [Who is] the Spirit.”  1 Cor. 3:18.  According to Paul when we read the Bible we see “as in a mirror” the glory of the Lord.   But here’s where the miracle happens.  By looking at God, we somehow become like God.  We are being transformed into God’s image.  We go from glory to glory.  It’s an astounding claim.  Somehow by looking at God’s glory we become glorious.

I like the sound of that a lot better than feeling guilty for not being perfect.  Because, let’s face it, it’s much easier for me to look in a mirror than it is to be kind.  I can’t speak for you, but personally, I’d rather gaze at something lovely – especially if it’s simultaneously God’s beauty and magically mine being transformed into something God-like.  That sounds a whole lot nicer than just trying hard to be “kind” and failing miserably and being mad at myself.

The good news is that that is what God calls us to do.  Jesus doesn’t say try harder.  He says, “look at me.”  “Come with me.”  “Go away by yourself to a lonely place and pour out  your heart to me.”  “Gaze at me.”  “See yourself as I see you.”  “I am my lover’s and he is mine.”   Jesus calls us into a love affair not a guilt fest.  In effect, when we look in the mirror of the Bible we are to see, as so many have cried out, God’s face “smiling” at us.  Jesus is smiling at us.  That is what He wants us to see when we look in the mirror.

Jesus took the guilt for us on the cross so we can see only beauty when we look in the mirror.  He took the punishment for our imperfections, so when God looks at us He sees Christ’s perfection.  We and Christ have become one in a mysterious way.  It’s as if Christ offers us marriage, and all we have to say is: I do.

Why would we want to?  Because the key to remember is that it’s not a colorless humorless judge on the other side of the mirror, but instead a living breathing God of kindness and love.  How do we believe that?  How do we get that inside our resistant fearful heads?

Luckily, there is another helpful way in which Scripture acts as a mirror, here in Romans 2.  The Word of God shows us what other people look like, and then turns the mirror back on ourselves and reminds us we look the same.  For instance, in Romans 1, Paul lists every bad quality we can see in other people: “Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents.  They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.” Romans 1: 18-32. That’s how Romans 1 ends.

We can easily think of other people who are like that, and there’s this strange thing our hearts do.  When we see wickedness in others, we tend to judge and condemn them.  We turn into hyper critical security guards on the other side of two way mirrors.  That’s when Paul delivers the kicker in the opening sentence of Romans 2: “You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things.”  Romans 2:1.  Paul has done something that warms the cockles of a writer’s heart.  He uses story like a mirror to show our hearts the truth about ourselves.  Have a look at his list in the paragraph above.  Haven’t we all been heartless?  Haven’t we all broken promises?  Haven’t we all been guilty of greed, envy, quarreling or gossip?  Haven’t we all fallen short of the glory of God? Yes.

So here is where the switch happens.  We expect Paul to hone in on us with a lead-tipped whip and strike hard, and instead he gives us kindness.  He delivers one of my all time favorite lines: “Don’t you know that the kindness of God leads to repentance?”  Romans 2:4.

No, we think.  We didn’t know.  We don’t expect kindness for our flaws.  We expect condemnation. But God is kind in the face of our unkindness.  He is patient, long-suffering and forbearing.  And why does His kindness make us so very sorry?  I don’t know, but it does.  When we are unkind, and someone is kind back, it melts us.  We recognize that we don’t deserve kindness back, so when we get it, it’s as if we’re suddenly a small child again having a full blown tantrum and instead of being punished for kicking down every can in the grocery store, we’re being swept up in kind arms and embraced until our rage turns to tears.  When we look in a mirror and see perfection and know we fall short, we tend to condemn and judge ourselves.

But God’s mirror isn’t like ours.  When we look in God’s mirror, it’s kindness all the way through.  God’s word is a magical mirror that shows us as we really are; shows us other people as being neither better nor worse than us, but instead equally flawed; and shows us a God who loves everyone of us.  The more we can see clearly to the love of our God, the less dim our mirror becomes and the more brightly we can shine forth with the love of God making us radiant and transforming us into the beautiful person He calls us each to be.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on February 27, 2013

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