On Saturday morning our newly adopted daughter Ember Noella and I were diagnosed with mumps. The source of infection is pure speculation, of course, but an incubation period of two weeks places us right back at our sleepless five-city flight from Addis Ababa to Louisville and all the airborn pathogens that accompany international travel. Prior to this past weekend I knew nothing about mumps. It was part of my cultural vocabulary only because of its role in standard childhood immunizations.
Saturday night as I lay in bed, Cindi brought me a small circular mirror so I could see the expanded right side of my own protruding face (the main symptom of mumps is painful swelling of the parotid gland on one or both sides of the face). I extended my arms and maneuvered the mirror into place, attempting to look straight-on at my own reflection and see the caricature-producing symptoms of my deformative malady.
But something was wrong with the mirror. It seemed to be on a swivel, adding insult to injury by refusing to afford me a true look at my own self. I moved it a click to the left, and then another, before sliding it back to the right in an attempt to look directly into my own eyes with normal balance and symmetry. But every time I adjusted the mirror, I encountered the same slightly-sideways figure staring back at me. Like an indecisive clock, I clicked back and forth attempting to straighten the mirror and thereby straighten myself.
Soon I realized that I was attempting to align the mirror with the protruding right side of my face instead of the straight left side. I had underestimated the effect of my substantially misshapen face on my own self-perception. I shouldn’t have been surprised at my own cockeyed reflection.
On Sunday morning, Cindi again brought me the same hand-held mirror so I could evaluate the progress or regress of my parotid swelling. This time I was aware of the temptation to align the mirror with the swollen side of my face. But the first time or two were still difficult as I fought the same mental battle between slanted perception and straightforward reality.
The great wisdom of James warns us about seeing ourselves in the perfect mirror of God’s Word and then walking away crisply, forgetting the true shapes and contours that the Word has revealed and the changes we ought to make straightaway (James 1:22-25). But there is another danger in our treatment of God’s reflective Word: adjusting the mirror instead of adjusting ourselves.
When the mature or even semi-ripened Christian catches a glimpse of his misshapen reflection in the divinely crafted Word, he stops — if only for a brief moment — and takes notice. But along with the art of forgetfulness which James warns against, the easiest reaction to our own distorted image is to straighten it out by straightening the mirror. Of course, we’re rarely straightforward about this kind of straightening. I don’t typically read a few challenging verses and say, “Well, that’s really clear and convicting, so let’s just pretend the Bible means something else.” Usually it’s far more erosive, and far more defensible — subtle redefinitions, slanted categories, cultural interpretations, surfacy readings, lazy comparisons.
Yet when I stop and reflect with even a small degree of spiritual honesty, I know that the problem with my face is not a reflectional problem. It is not even an external, facial problem. My problem is internal and viral, and the external affects are both real and revelatory. It is God’s grace that the right side of my face has swollen painfully, leading us to Urgent Care, STAT blood testing, medical instructions, and careful quarantine. Ember and I are now able to monitor both our present virus and potential complications along with the dangers of our contagiousness.
May God grant us the grace of spiritual sight and increasing humility so that we might see our remaining sickness, the distortions it causes, and God’s restorative solution. And may God ripen me into a man who holds his Bible straight and makes everything else adjust. Because nothing is ever wrong with the mirror.