Mirrors are funny things, aren’t they? I mean, they are simply a piece of glass with an aluminum coating, but they allow us to see ourselves (and the world) in a different light.
My daughters love looking at themselves in the mirror. When they are little, they stare at that cute baby looking back at them, mimicking all the silly things they are doing: raising their hand, waving, sticking out their tongue. Sometimes they wonder how their daddy can be right next to that other baby, too, but they believe what they see is real.
But mirrors are a construct of reality, in a way. Raise your right hand, and your mirror image raises what appears to be the left. They show us a reflection of what really exists. And don’t even get me started on fun house mirrors!
What we see when we look in the mirror isn’t just a reflection of reality. Instead, what we often see is a construct of our own making, created from the thoughts, opinions, and self-evaluations in our heads. And I’ll be honest … at 35, there are times when it is difficult for me to look in the mirror, because I don’t often like what I see.
You see, I was a chubby kid growing up. We’d use nicer words in my family like husky or big-boned, but kids at school weren’t as kind. And it didn’t help I was also quiet, shy, and a little bit nerdy. (Okay, a LOT nerdy! Like, take-a-Star-Wars-book-to-school nerdy.) And so, I was labeled and picked on and even bullied. I liked school because I loved to learn, and I had a few friends … but I also really hated to go for a while.
I learned a lot of things later, as I got older.
- Very few people look back at middle school and high school as the best days of their lives. As teens, most of us were awkward, unsure, and trying to discover who we were. And a lot of kids were picked on in middle school. Few people look back on 13 as their fondest age.
- “Hurt people hurt people.” The reason most people harassed others was because they didn’t feel good about themselves, either.
As kids, we are taught the old rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Oh, if only that rhyme were true! Because words, labels, names, epithets often leave deeper wounds than sticks ever would.
So even though I am pretty healthy now—I work out and run and try to eat well and I am in decent shape—what I often see in the mirror is shaped by years of negative talk by others and by myself.
What I see is simply a construct of what time, experience, friendships, relationships, and self-talk have developed over time, positively and negatively. They become our labels and our identities. Instead of seeing ourselves as we truly are, we see the things we’ve come to believe about ourselves.
And what we tend to focus on and believe is the negative. Research has shown that approximately 70% of our thoughts are negative: “Don’t do ___.” “I’m not ___.” “Why can’t I ever ___?”  And most of that 70% is actually subconscious; it is our normal reaction to the things we encounter in the world, and the things we notice about ourselves and others.
And so we tend to focus on our faults and shortcomings. We simply take the things we do in our normal lives where we don’t feel we measure up and just stick bad on the front end: bad parent, bad employee, bad spouse, bad kid, bad student. Or we use un- words to define ourselves: unworthy, unremarkable, unhealthy, unimportant, unloved.
Sometimes these ideas flow out of our perceived shortcomings. Other times they flow from a sense of sinfulness. Some of us feel trapped and held down by our sins, whether recently committed or far in the past. So we try to hide it, paper over it, and pretend it isn’t there … at least to the point that no one else could see it. We have to be put together, have it all together, look like we are in control. If we look perfect on the outside, then maybe we fool others into believing we are perfect and maybe it will all go away in time.
But what happens is that it never really goes away. The more we hide it, the longer we struggle with it. The guilt that comes from that sin simmers and festers and turns inward and creates a sense of shame as we try to hide what we’ve done.
And so we turn inward as we seek to hide our true self from others—and from ourselves. But we don’t like what we see in the mirror, because all we see is the shame that infects us. So we try to blot it out, hide it, or keep it secret and silent.
So … we believe the lies and the labels. We believe we are only as good as we feel about ourselves. We believe that our sins and shortcomings define us. We hide our faces because of our habits, hurts, or hang-ups. We act like we have it all together when we don’t. We put on a brave face or a game face or a happy face in order to mask the pain we often feel.
But there’s this amazing passage that I have come to dwell on in the past few months. It is helping me learn to see through a different lens:
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:16-18)
This is one I’ve known for a long time because of the verses it is attached to. But I would like for us to focus on just the first phrase: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” The worldly point of view:
- Looks for the negative.
- Says, “You’ll never measure up; you’ll never be good enough.”
- Tells us we can never be more than our failures, faults, sins, and shortcomings.
- Deceives us into believing that we could never be loved.
But from now on we need to see with God’s eyes, not with the eyes of the world. We need to see ourselves, others, and God through the lenses of reality. You see, God sees our sin and shame and suffering … and looks through it to see what we might be in the light of salvation! We are “a new creation” because of Christ.
Over the course of my next few articles I want to explore this new identity in Christ. Specifically, we are going to look at what it means to see with God’s eyes as we look at ourselves, others, our world, and our God.
As we look at ourselves this week in the mirror, may we see ourselves through the eyes of grace, and not the eyes of the world.
Daniel McGraw is the senior minister of the West University Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. He is married to Megan and has two daughters, Hannah and Lydia, who teach him more about the love of God than any of his theology degrees ever has. He is a passionate, but wholly average, runner.