For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
Having admonished his hearers, James now reinforces his teaching with an illustration which shows how those who only hear the word without doing it are self-deceived. The first phrase repeats the language of verse 22 in the form of a conditional statement: “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers” (hoti ei tis akroatēs logou estin kai ou poiētēs). Hoti often translates as “because” but may also be used in a weaker sense as “for” as most English versions have it. Vlachos (59) prefers to tie logou to poiētēs so that the phrase reads, “if anyone is a hearer and not a doer of the word.” This translation is an even stronger echo of verse 22, though the essential meaning of the phrase is unchanged.
James then provides a simile to show what this person who only hears the word is like (cf. 1:6 where James also uses a simile to portray the one who doubts). “They are like those who look at themselves in a mirror” (houtos eoiken andri katanoounti to prosōpon tēs geneseōs autou en esoptrō). Houtos eoiken (“this one is like”) refers back to the “any” of the first phrase. Although andri usually refers to a man or a husband, James tends to use the word the way other New Testament books use anthrōpos, that is, to refer to human persons in a generic rather than a gendered sense (Vlachos, 29; cf. Brown, NIDNNT 3:686-687). The unusual phrase in this clause is to prosōpon tēs geneseōs autou (literally, “the face of his birth”). The NRSV and NIV ignore the phrase altogether and translate as “they look at themselves.” The ESV and NASB translate “his natural face.” Some commentators, however, see a deeper meaning in the phrase, linking it not simply to their “natural face,” but to their “genesis” in God, the “origin” of their existence in his image. Scot McKnight, for example, suggests that the phrase could take an ontological sense in which it means that the person looks into the mirror and sees the image of God they were created to be, or in a moral sense in which the person sees in the mirror a fallen and sinful person who does not attain to what they were created to be (150-152; cf. Davids, 98; Moo, 84-85). Vlachos notes that verse 24 replaces the phrase with the simple reflexive “themselves,” and so suggests that the phrase is best understood in the sense of their “natural face,” although he also thinks that Genesis 1:26-27 lies in the background (59-60).
In any case, these hearers “look at themselves” in the mirror (katenoēsen gar heauton). The “look” is not a simple or superficial glance, for the words used in verses 23 and 24 (both derived from katanoeō) mean to consider, contemplate, gaze or stare. Nevertheless, even though they carefully examine their appearance in the mirror as they comb their hair or apply their make-up, “on going away” (kai apelēluthen), they “immediately forget what they were like” (kai eutheōs epelatheto hopoios ēn). Hopoios is literally, “what kind or sort of,” and so suggests that the person who only hears the word and does not do it forgets what sort of person they are. That is, the study of their own appearance in the mirror is only temporary, having no lasting effect in the actual activity of the person as they go about their business for the day. As Davids notes, “it is useless” (98). The point James makes is that the temporary nature of one’s study of oneself in the mirror lacks any real or lasting effect.